Sunday, April 11, 2010

Movie Review: Shock Waves (1977, U.S.)

Considered the “Citizen Kane” of Nazi Zombie movies, Shock Waves takes influence from the 1960 book, “Le Matin des Magiciens” (Morning of the Magicians) by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier. The book, as well as the premise of the movie, center around the Nazi fascination with the occult. The film was directed and released in 1977 by Ken Wiederhorn, director of other such horror movies as “Return of the Living Dead Part II” and “Eyes of a Stranger”. Some significant stars lent their talents to this cult classic, including Peter Cushing and John Carradine. Although considered a low budget independent horror film, Shock Waves has its moments of mirth and zombie goodness that make it an endearing film to watch.

The plot of the story is pretty simple. A group of people, yachting off the shores of a mysterious island, are shipwrecked after slamming into an ominous freighter. As the survivors come ashore for refuge, they discover a SS Commander (played by Cushing) who has been secretly raising and training a group of Nazi Zombie Soldiers. From there, the movie follows the exploits of the doomed yacthers as they try to escape the evil clutches of the SS Commander and his evil undead minions.
I remember being fascinated watching this movie with Sir Graves Ghastly in Detroit eons ago. The iconic images of the zombies popping up out of the ocean have stayed with me all these years. Watching it again as an adult brings back a different view of the movie. It is, for all intents and purposes, a fun movie to watch on a Saturday afternoon. It definetly isn’t as scary as I remember it. It really shouldn’t be taken too seriously as a strong zombie movie but should just be enjoyed for what it is. 15 minutes into Wiederhorn’s Zombie Opus can easily convey to the viewer why this movie has become a cult classic. Wiederhorn’s zombies aren’t of the Romero type. They move fast, are intelligent and very cunning.

Zombie movies usually concentrate on the sheer numbers of the undead as the main reason that the premise of a zombie outbreak is frightening as hell. In Shock Waves, the zombies don’t fit into the stereotypical role of what is usually portrayed on screen. Although undead, they take on more of the unrelenting terror of a slasher such as Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th. The way to destroy Wiederhorn’s zombies is also different compared to the more accepted view of killing the undead: you take off their goggles. Yeah, apparently, Vitamin D is deadly to the Third Reich.
Other stars in this movie included Brooke Adams (her first movie role, although she doesn’t credit it in her official biography) and Luke Halpin (Sany Ricks from Flipper fame). One of the most awesome things about Blue Underground’s release of this film is the commentary that accompanies it in the special features. Once listening to it, one can understand why certain decisions were made and why parts of the film seemed to be all over the place. There apparently was an on-set romance between Adams and Halpin. Carradine was very a curmudgeon of an actor and was a “pain” to work with. The scenes with the hotel were actually shot at an abandoned Biltmore hotel in Florida and was rented for just $250 for the thirty-some days of shooting.

The movie was filmed on a budget of $250,000 (which was not a lot of money in 1977). Cushing and Carradine were only paid $5,000 a piece for their roles in the movie. Cushing went on to star as Grand Moff Tarkin in “Star Wars” just a few months after Shock Waves. The original negative of this movie disappeared from the movie studios several years ago. Blue Underground was able to obtain a negative from Wiederhorn’s own collection. The transfer is pretty decent, although you can see some minor film damage in the darker scenes of the movie.

Another one of the best parts of Shock Waves is Richard Einhorn’s groovy yet creepy synth-score. At times it is very reminiscent of more popular soundtracks of horror movies from that era, including The Shining and George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. In the director’s commentary, Wiederhorn said Einhorn’s soundtrack “bumped up the creepiness of the zombies by about eight notches”. I personally think that the music is one of the stronger aspects of the movie from a critical point of view.
All in all, this is a fun movie. The acting is sub par, although I particularly loved Carradine’s portrayl of a “Salty-Arse on the high seas”. The makeup on the zombies is pretty good for Savini-era zombies. The underwater cinematography helps add to the overall atmosphere of the film. I would highly recommend a “zombiephile” adding this title to their undead movie collection (but don’t go in expecting a masterpiece).

Zombie Lake (1981, France)

There are bad movies, horrible movies, and a special category of movies that are so horrible that drinking games are invented to tolerate them. Sadly, the 1981 French film Zombie Lake fits in the last category. This movie was originally slated to be directed by infamous European exploitation mogul Jesus Franco (creator of such timeless classics as “She Killed in Ecstasy”, “A Virgin Among The Living Dead” & “Pleasure For Three: Beyond The Grave”) but backed out of the production due to the limited financial resources available for this gem. Enter French Exploitation Director Jean Rollin, who directed Zombie Lake under the pseudonym of J.A. Lazer. Fellow readers: let me stop the review right here for a reality check. Zombie Lake is so bad, Rollin used a pseudonym because he didn’t want to be associated with this movie (you will see why this is hilarious in a moment). Very reminiscent to “Shock Waves”, Rollin’s movie focuses on a group of Nazi Zombies that rise from the depths of a lake in 1950’s France to exact revenge on the worst group of actors to ever assemble in one physical location. Rollin is considered a horror pioneer in France, but after reviewing his filmography (with such titles as “Suck Me Vampire”, “Requiem For A Vampire” & “Lewd Young Girls”), Rollin apparently is the French version of Uwe Boll. With that being said, even Rollin was embarrassed by this movie.

The opening scenes of Zombie Lake will back up this astute observation: bad 70’s porn music envelops the senses as a nubile French woman decides to go “skinny dipping” in a local lake. Cut to underwater scenes that are filmed in someone’s pool (trust me, you can see the smooth blue pavement as the viewer is treated to some full frontal nudity shots that this actresses’ husband and gynecologist should only be privy to). Enter the Nazi Zombie, complete with bad makeup and some of the worst zombie interpretation movements you will ever see on celluloid. You can pretty much guess what is going to happen next. From here, the movie continues it fast descent into the bowels of cinematic hell as the viewer is treated to a discombobulated script, horrible pacing, bad continuity and what many die hard film geeks have termed as “one of the most horrible zombie movies ever made”.

Combine these horrible components with the fact that Rollin has included enough nudity in this movie that would make a late night programmer at Cinemax blush. His attempt to distract the audience from the atrocities of this movie with naked women from the 70’s is sad and shallow (although appreciated). Also keep in mind that the movie is dubbed over, so you are given yet another realm of awesomeness to bask in (the translation for some of the lines in this movie will haunt me until my death rattle). The plot continue to spiral out of control as a News Reporter comes looking to interview villagers about the “Lake of Ghosts”, a daughter who is reunited with her Nazi Zombie father, and instantaneous busloads of female volley ball players who have the incessant need to go “skinny dipping”.
The film company that released Zombie Lake was Eurocine (Paris). This film company is largely responsible for the genre of exploitation films that influenced the Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino films “Planet Terror” & “Deathproof”. The DVD from Image Entertainment is very bare bones and only contains the movie and trailer (I can’t possibly imagine what Special Features would enhance this steaming pile though).

I really wish I had some positive things to say about this movie. I consider myself a connoisseur of bad cinema, but even Zombie Lake is rough to watch. It is apparent at the end of this 83-minute journey through hell that no one cared about their part in this movie. I would only recommend this to the bravest of film geeks and not include this in anyone’s serious zombie film collection.