2/17/11

SHOCK WAVES: or How I learned to overcome zombie fatigue and love undead monster movies


(NOTE: The following post first appeared on the SF Signal website, when editor-in-chief John DeNardo asked me the question: What was the last science-fiction film that surprised you in a good way?)  

An optimist might say that we’re experiencing a zombie renaissance, with zombie-themed TV showsliteratureflash mobs and conventions.

A pessimist would point to the cliché noveltiescrossover comics, booksgimmicky poetryetc., as though the undead-merchandize is a zombie plague in itself, with mindless products walking (or running) across the multi-media landscape.

Having suffered from “zombie fatigue”, I was surprised and delighted by the movie SHOCK WAVES. (1977).

We’ve seen adaptations of “Tales from the Crypt” (anthology movies, feature films and the HBO series) but SHOCK WAVES is like a "WEIRD WAR TALES" movie!  The film’s faux-documentary opening sets the tone nicely:




The premise is simple: a small group of tourists abandon their stranded tour boat and seek shelter on a creepy island.  One-by-one the tourists are killed off by a platoon of un-dead Nazi-monsters. But what makes this film so special is the haunting synthesizer score, the winning lead performance by Brooke Adams, and the abundance of big ideas in a B-movie. 

Not to ruin it with academia, but the subtext is fantastic.  There’s a literary trope of using water to represent memory: the deep ocean is home to various subconscious creatures (“monsters of the Id” was the phrase used in Forbidden Planet.)  In 1977 this low-budget horror show was addressing the collective memory of our shameful past: the horrors of World War II. Nazi-Zombies come out at night, like so many repressed nightmares that torture a man’s guilty mind when his guard is down.  On the tour boat, a crewmember remarks, “The sea spits up what it can’t hold down.”  Likewise, repressed memories bubble up and torment Peter Cushing, playing a self-exiled Nazi scientist, wracked with guilt for creating this super-elite platoon. Like a character from a Dickens novel, the gaunt, haunted, literally scarred scientist wanders the decaying mansion, waiting for his past to catch up with him (and it does!)  I’m used to seeing Cushing in stuffy, 19th century garb, but it was a powerful choice to display his wiry frame and bony chest draped in tattered clothes.

Hey, that's not Brooke Adams!
Brooke Adams is elegant and grounded, playing the role like a high-class Karen Allen.  Despite appearing in a cheapy-creepy genre movie, she never phones it in, making “Rose” a real person instead of just another generic “final girl.”

The supporting cast gives us all the character types you want in a zombie movie: a cowardly jerk, a handsome hero, and a half-mad boat captain.  Yet, the film succeeds because it never feels like a typical zombie movie.  At various times the imagery or the scares reminded me of Carnival of Souls, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Night of the Living Dead, and a few different JAWS knock-offs.  That said, SHOCK WAVES is its own one-of-a-kind little film, combining rich intellectual concepts with a bare bones, low-budget gracefulness.

Lastly, I was also surprised that director Ken Wiederhorn didn’t make anything else of note, aside from disappointing sequels like Return of the Living Dead 2 and Meatballs 2

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Related Posts: I'd written a few additional guest posts over at SF Signal, here's my answers for the following questions:

Which off-the-air science-fiction television series deserves a reboot?

Which SciFi movie ending would you change?

Who is your favorite villain in Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror?

Lastly, here's an excellent meditation on Brooke Adams' work in the movie at Arbogast On Film.

1 comment:

Arbogast said...

Water motif? I'll say! The leading lady's name is Brooke!