Shock Waves, released in 1977, was the first and probably the best of several Nazi zombie movies that would appear sporadically during the late 70s and early 80s.
Like Jess Franco’s 1981 Oasis of the Zombies it was an attempt to do something a little bit different with the basic format of the zombie movie. The problem with zombies is that they’re inherently rather uninteresting. They just shuffle about and kill people, but because they just shuffle about it’s always difficult to take them entirely seriously. You really have to be pretty careless to get caught by a zombie. Shock Waves solves this problem fairly effectively.
The intro to the movie gives us the background. The Nazis were trying to develop the ultimate soldier, an unstoppable killing machine they felt no pain, no emotions, no fear. What they developed were in fact zombie soldiers, who were neither truly alive nor truly dead. The experiment proved (inevitably) to be a failure since mindless unstoppable killing machines tend to be as much of a threat to one’s own side as they are to the enemy!
The film proper opens with a woman found adrift in an open boat. She tells her story in a flashback. On a pleasure cruise in a rather unsafe boat manned by a fairly incompetent crew and a bad-tempered captain (cult movie legend John Carradine) they encounter strange atmospheric disturbances, odd and inexplicable currents and finally a mysterious ghost ship. In attempting to avoid this ship they run aground. Luckily (well actually unluckily as it turns out) there’s a nearby island.
The island has one living inhabitant, but quite a few non-living ones. The living one is an elderly Nazi officer (Peter Cushing). He had been in command of a special detachment of zombie soldiers modified for submarine duties. They would be ideal submarine crews (apart from their unfortunate habits mentioned earlier) since they could actually live underwater, so the submarine could remain submerged permanently. As the war was ending they set off in old freighter and ended up on a deserted island, where Cushing has lived ever since in a huge abandoned hotel. He’s not really particularly evil, and he warns our shipwrecked mariners to take a small boat he has concealed in a cove and to leave the island as quickly as they possibly can. Due to various dramas within the group they fail to heed the urgency of his warning, and find themselves hunted by the zombie sailors.
It has a very low budget feel, and the acting is mostly pretty dire, with the notable exceptions of the always reliable Carradine and Cushing. Cushing in fact is extremely good, playing the kind of ambiguous role in which he always excelled.
The initial appearance of the zombies from beneath the waters is wonderfully creepy and it’s pretty scary as well. The makeup effects are reasonably effective. It’s a movie that doesn’t require very much in the way of special effects, which is just as well since I’m certain the budget wouldn’t have allowed for such things anyway. It’s also a little unusual among zombie movies in not relying at all on gore. The general creepiness of the concept and the situation of the shipwrecked group - trapped on an island infested with zombies who were as much at home under the water as on land - were sufficient in themselves to provide the necessary terror.
It’s not by any means a perfect movie. It’s a bit clunky in places, and the cinematography is fairly basic. Despite some weaknesses it succeeds as an original and interesting variation on the zombie movie, and it’s most definitely worth seeking out.
The Region 4 DVD is absolutely awful. The picture quality is terrible. It’s grainy and muddy and in the night sequences it’s difficult to see anything at all. This is a movie that deserves better treatment.