Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #112
Also known as Almost Human, Death Corps
Number of Views: Three
Release Date: July 15, 1977
Sub-Genre: Nazi Zombie/Suspense
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 90 minutes
Director: Ken Wiederhorn
Producer: Reuben Trane
Screenplay: Ken Wiederhorn, John Kent Harrison, Ken Pare
Special Effects: Alan Ormsby
Cinematography: Reuben Trane
Score: Richard Einhorn
Editing: Norman Gay
Studio: Zopix Company
Distributor: Blue Underground Inc, Prism Entertainment Corporation
Stars: Peter Cushing, John Carradine, Brooke Adams, Fred Buch, Jack Davidson, Luke Halpin, D.J. Sidney, Don Stout, Clarence Thomas
Suggested Audio Candy
Richard Einhorn “Soundtrack Suite”
Whoever dreamed up the idea of marrying Nazis with zombies deserves a gargantuan back pat as far as I’m concerned. The undead are single-minded in their approach and driven solely by their appetites whereas their fascist counterparts are just as unbending, conditioned to perform the tasks of their tyrannical dictatorship and not question the inhumanity. Indeed, the two go together like peas and carrots and make for a formidable partnership. While zombies have a tendency to appear little more than an inconvenience, slap a swastika on their arm and you have yourself a reason to provide them with the widest berth imaginable. Suddenly they have purpose and, considering the atrocities that played out in POW camps during the second world war, said purpose is more than a little unsettling. Recently the twain have met on numerous occasions but their maiden voyage was actually way back in 1977.
I find it deeply unsettling that this rather splendid little film rarely ever gets a mention and, to this day, still hasn’t been given the affectionate restorative treatment it richly merits. Has everybody conveniently forgotten its existence? If so, then that is where I come into play. You see, the greatest legacy I can ever leave the Grueheads is to signpost them towards overlooked numbers such as this. Time marches on relentlessly but, with every year, comes another Paranormal Activity sequel and works like Ken Wiederhorn’s Shock Waves get pushed even farther to the back of the queue. I cannot sit by inanimate while it endures such a fate; more so as it features none other than the late great Peter Cushing.
Folk tend to overlook that he wasn’t bound to either Hammer or Amicus and Cushing dipped his toes into many other pools such as this during the tail-end of his distinguished career. Wiederhorn’s film emerged towards the end of the seventies when a certain fellow in a mask was stalking the living shit out of every co-ed searching for their teenage kicks and wasn’t deemed hip and happening enough to be paid more than a cursory glance. However, the feeling of palpable consternation that was evident in John Carpenter’s masterpiece Halloween wasn’t exclusive just to our bodacious boogeyman and Wiederhorn’s chiller had it in abundance also.
Shock Waves remains one of those rare movies that burrows under your skin and remains there like crabs. Nazis and zombies prove a potent mix, cold-hearted long before their vital signs faded, they may be dead behind the eyes but we’re more than aware what they’re capable of and the lack of a pulse makes them no less formidable a threat. Wiederhorn milks every last droplet of doom and gloom out of his personnel, creating far greater levels of disparagement than most modern-day movies can muster and without the requisite for grue no less. Almost entirely bloodless, it bases its impact on the trepidation it evokes and the truly haunting menace of the silent synchronized aggressors on this particularly unwelcoming isle.
After an intriguing opening, we begin aboard a small commercial cruiser filled of tourists as a hulking great seafaring vessel scuffs the side of their luxurious liner. Realizing that a dab of T-Cut isn’t going to suffice on this occasion, the ship’s captain (John Carradine) sends up a flare to ascertain the source of the shunt. It is at this point that the chills began to manifest themselves as the sky lights up momentarily to reveal the emaciated, decaying freighter alongside them. It is a most unnerving moment and sets the tone for the remainder of the film exquisitely.
With the craft taking in water rapidly, they vacate to a nearby isle where they soon happen across a cloistered old chap (Cushing) who appears mildly put out by their attendance. Before long their reluctant host opens up and reveals that he was a once prestigious and decorated Nazi Commander and responsible in part for the conception of the Death Corps. This seemingly imperishable race of undead Storm Troopers were recalled by the SS after proving more difficult to control than a coach-load of Club 18-30 cretins en-route to Magaluf and he was subsequently shipped off to this secluded isle with the seditious super-soldiers while awaiting further instructions but, with World War II coming to an unforeseen close, the flip-flops came out and he embarked on an indefinite vacation.
What plays out is the epitome of slow burn. Its languid pace could be off-putting to some as things don’t truly hot up until the final act, while the appearance of Cushing and Carradine, though enjoying top billing, amount to little more than extended cameos. Having said that, Cushing in particular is no less unruffled and charismatic as ever and any film benefits from his presence. Brooke Adams, who went on to feature in Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers and David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, takes on leading lady duties, but the real stars of the show here are the dubious Death Corps.
Wiederhorn’s tale has one very distinctive weapon in its cache, that being a disquieting feeling of apprehension that runs through its vertebrae. The fact that it is practically bereft of gore couldn’t matter less as the over-abundance of excruciating tension more than makes up for it. The vision of these albino nasties, masked with dark goggles, strolling along the ocean floor before emerging from the surf, is one that effortlessly makes the blood run cold and, once Wiederhorn’s film takes hold, it has no intention of relinquishing its grip until the end credits have washed over us.
The fact that Shock Waves is one of those sleepers from the late-seventies that never really made a splash saddens me as so few are even aware of its existence. The same can be said for Wiederhorn himself who went on to direct the little-known 1981 slasher Eyes of a Stranger and woefully pedestrian Return of the Living Dead II in 1988, vanished without trace, presumably out of shame. I’m not about to suggest that this is a classic as it never comes close to achieving such a formidable status. However, should you be growing weary of the torrential downpour of second-rate zombie flicks currently pouring onto the marketplace and fancy something just a little different, then you really could do a lot worse than this eerie little curate’s piece.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10
Grue Factor: 1/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: Wiederhorn’s film originally acquired a PG rating on its VHS release and this likely put paid to its chances of standing out to the crowd. While that does seem a tad charitable given the oppressive tone throughout, it spotlights how devoid of blood Shock Waves is. This may deter the more ravenous guzzlers amongst us from tracking it down but I can guarantee that what it lacks in gushing grue it more than makes up for with stifling atmosphere. It may be as desolate of splatter as the locale, but we are provided flesh in the form of the scrumptious Adams. Indeed, the sight of her in a tidy little mustard two-piece bikini may well send the blood packing to a different place entirely.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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