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In the dark days of World War II, the Nazi High Command ordered its scientists to create a top secret race of indestructible zombie storm troopers – un-living, unfeeling, unstoppable monstrosities that killed with their bare hands. They were known as The Death Corps. No member of this horrific SS unit was ever captured by the Allied Forces – and, somewhere off the coast of Florida, they have survived… (From Blue Underground’s official synopsis)

 Shock Waves
Before there were undead flesh-eaters, there were Nazi zombies. In 1943, a full 25 years before George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) re-defined ‘zombies’ as re-animated dead people that eat live people, Steve Sekely made a sequel to Jean Yarbrough’s voodoo-themed King of the Zombies (1941) titled Revenge of the Zombies, which featured a bug-eyed John Carradine developing living dead Übermensches for the Third Reich. The idea of Hitler’s occult-obsessed goons messing with zombies endured throughout the decades, due in large part to the popularity of Kevin Wiederhorn’s Shock Waves (1976). Shock Waves’ success immediately led to three of the clumsiest, Grade-Z cash-ins from three of the genre’s most notorious filmmakers. First up was Night of the Zombies (1981) from Bloodsucking Freaks (1976) mega-hack, Joel M. Reed, followed quickly by Jean Rollin’s Zombie Lake (1981) and Jesus Franco’s Oasis of the Zombies (aka: Treasure of the Living Dead, 1982). The latter two were French/Spanish co-productions, produced by Eurociné Studios, and are practically indiscernible rip-offs of Wiederhorn’s film (side note – Franco was scheduled to direct both, but left the production of Zombie Lake). The subgenre has seen a minor resurgence in Rob Green’s The Bunker (2001), Michael J. Bassett’s Deathwatch (2002), Tommy Wirkola’s two Dead Snow movies (2009 and 2014), and even a downloadable ‘mod’ for the popular Call of Duty video game series.

Shock Waves preceded Romero’s second living dead opus, Dawn of the Dead (1978), which was the film that really cemented the popularity of his brand of zombie. Even following Night of the Living Dead’s smash success, only a small percentage of the genre’s films – Jorge Grau’s The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974), for example – featured mindless zombies eating people. Instead, most of them were more likely driven to simple, non-cannibalistic murder. Wiederhorn’s Nazi zombies were still somewhat unusual for the time in that they were in control of their mental faculties. This ‘jerks, even in death’ theme more or less permeates throughout Nazi zombie lore, probably often enough to be considered a defining trait. Another one of Shock Waves’ notable characteristic was the fact that the zombies resided in water. Both of the Eurocine films are set around water (hence words like ‘lake’ and ‘oasis’ in the titles), but neither succeeded in recreating cinematographer Reuben Trane’s haunting underwater photography. The water imagery was influential enough to spread beyond the subgenre to ‘proper’ flesh-eater movies, namely Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (aka: Zombi 2 and Zombie Flesh Eaters, 1979), which gained enduring notoriety for its zombie vs. shark showdown.

 Shock Waves
Despite establishing an ongoing subgenre with his first film, Wiederhorn’s career didn’t exactly take off after Shock Waves. He followed up his debut with an Animal House cash-in about a college farting contest ( King Frat, 1979) and a particularly uneventful slasher ( Eyes of a Stranger, 1981) before making a forgotten sequel to Meatballs ( Meatballs Part II, 1984) and Return of the Living Dead II (1988) -– one of the most reviled horror sequels of the ‘80s (it’s effectively a remake of the first movie, minus the wit and punk rock attitude that made it great). Before retreating into television work (including Freddy’s Nightmares and 21 Jump Street), he made an underseen haunted skyscraper movie called Dark Tower (1989). Shock Waves is rough around the edges – the camera work is a bit wonky, the pacing is off-rhythm, and the storyline lacks focus – but it also has a raw artistry, not unlike what Tobe Hooper achieved with the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre. And, like Hooper, Wiederhorn achieves some significant shocks without the benefit of outrageous gore (if rated, Shock Waves would barely constitute a PG-13). He gets the most mileage out of the illusory images of the begoggled, undead Nazis slowly stalking their prey, but even expository sequences have a spooky twinge, thanks to unusual framing and compositions – some of which may be accidental.

Shock Waves’ advertising campaigns have always leaned heavily on Peter Cushing’s participation, though he appears in little more than a cameo. Cushing, who had played a zombie himself in the Poetic Justice segment of Freddie Francis’ Tales From the Crypt (1972), brought the weight of two decades worth of Hammer Films’ Frankenstein movies to his small part. Though his version of Baron Frankenstein never overlapped with the WWII era, Cushing always played him as an unpleasant and relentless villain that would be at home in the SS laboratory. Due in part to the Hammer portrayals, Frankenstein would often find himself at the head of zombie creation in Nazi horror fiction, most recently in Richard Raaphorst’s Frankenstein’s Army (2013). Cushing’s part is brief, but his gaunt, sickly appearance (complete with facial scar) makes the appropriate impact. John Carradine’s participation draws amusing parallels to Revenge of the Zombies, but he was probably hired for his patented grumpy old man performance, which he delivers in spades – including the terrifying sequences where the other protagonists find his body. The main cast is better than expected from such a minimalist, ultra-cheap movie, most notably Brooke Adams, the future star of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and The Dead Zone (1983), appearing in her first credited role in a theatrical release.

 Shock Waves

Video


If memory serves, I believe Shock Waves was Blue Underground’s first DVD release; it was definitely their first DVD that hadn’t already been released by Anchor Bay. That disc was anamorphically enhanced and presented in the appropriate 1.85:1 aspect ratio, but there was definitely room for improvement and, true to their other Blu-ray versions of films that they’ve already put out on DVD, Blue Underground is not re-using their old transfer. According to their press release, this new Blu-ray has reportedly been ‘freshly transferred and fully restored in High Definition from the only known surviving materials.’ Those surviving materials were clearly not in the best shape and viewers expecting magic from this 1080p, 1.85:1 image will probably be disappointed, but those accepting that this is the largest available uncompressed scan of an old movie that has seen better days should be satisfied. It is, at the very least, an upgrade over the smudgier DVD.

The first thing most people will notice is that the transfer is really, really grainy. This makes sense, because Wiederhorn and Trane shot the film on 16mm. The grain is relatively consistent, but does tend to pulse a bit stronger during the darkest scenes. And Shock Waves is a really dark movie. Personally, I’m not offended by the grain or the print damage artefacts that go along with it (aside from a handful of extremely pulsy sequences), but I do think that the issue is inflated with over-cranked gamma levels. The already dark shadows and blown-out highlights/white levels are almost outrageously contrasty now, which over-exposes and crushes some of the already limited 16mm details (focus issues also often damage the clarity). On the other hand, the contrast push does tend to boost the complexity of some of the lighter, outdoor images and helps delineate the more subtle highlighted edges. The colour timing appears slightly different than the DVD version, mostly in terms of the coolness of most scenes. Shock Waves is a blue-coated movie in general, from production/costume design to the sea-side setting, but the tone occasionally bleeds into more subtle hues, like browns and greens. On average, though, flesh tones are plenty pink. A few key colours – specifically the supernatural orange haze that overtakes the crew early in the film – are more vivid than their SD counterparts. Also note that I noticed that a frame or two might be missing from about the 1:20:27 mark.

 Shock Waves

Audio


Shock Waves is presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 and its original mono sound. It’s not an especially lively mix and it definitely shows its age in terms of occasionally bubbly and scratchy ambient effects. But the filmmakers work well within their budget and track limitations, creating a number of memorable audio moments that don’t require stereo enhancement. Richard Einhorn’s super creepy electronic score is often difficult to separate from the sound effect design, which is actually good for the track when it comes to the louder moments. Any crackling or high-end distortion ends up sounding like an intended part of the droning, purposefully fuzzy, analogue keyboard design. The dialogue tracks do suffer minor inconsistencies throughout, but are mostly balanced and clean, even during the chattiest shouting matches.

Extras


  • Commentary with co-writer/director Ken Wiederhorn, make-up designer Alan Ormsby, and trash B-movie movie maestro Fred Olen Ray ( Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, Scalps) – A fun and informative commentary that previously appeared on Blue Underground’s original DVD.
  • Nazi Zombies On A Budget (21:10, HD) – A new interview with producer/cinematographer Reuben Trane.
  • Notes For The Undead (13:50, HD) – A new interview with composer Richard Einhorn.
  • Sole Survivor (7:20, HD) – A new interview, this time with star Brooke Adams.
  • From Flipper to Shock Waves (7:50, HD) – An interview with star Luke Halpin that previously appeared on the DVD release.
  • Theatrical trailer
  • TV spot
  • Radio spots
  • Poster & still gallery

 
 Shock Waves

Overall


I hadn’t seen Shock Waves in many, many years and mistakenly remembered it as a ‘lesser’ film that was most notable for its place at the front of the Nazi zombie subgenre. My memories were wrong – it’s more like a minor classic that overcomes a minuscule budget and unfocused narrative with evocative imagery and good performances. Due to the island setting and presence of underwater zombies, I imagine that theater programmers instinctively try to make a double-feature out of it and Fulci's Zombie, but the more interesting pairing would be Amando de Ossorio’s similarly spooky and listless Tombs of the Blind Dead (1972) – a film I certainly hope Blue Underground is able to release on Blu-ray in the near future. This Blu-ray is problematic in terms of the condition of the 16mm material that Blue Underground was working from, but I believe that this is the best the film can look at this point and am satisfied with both the sound quality and the mix of old and new extras.

 Shock Waves

 Shock Waves

 Shock Waves

 Shock Waves

Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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