How did they get Peter Cushing to be in Death Corps you might ask? Well, it was easy. He agreed to do it because he thought his name might help the modest little $300,000 project along. He was recommended to Queens-born director Ken Wiederhorn by British producer Richard Gordon (Island of Terror). Wiederhorn and eventual producer Reuben Trane had already won an Academy Award in 1973 (for Manhattan Melody, a first in the dramatic student film category) and next wanted to make a low-budget 16mm horror opus. It was later blown up to 35mm and we know it better now as Shock Waves.
Shock Waves is exactly the kind of horror flick they might make for today's market, only now it would be intentionally funny. Like Piranha 3D, it would attempt to be a throwback to the slapdash days of DIY guerrilla filmmaking. That's not to say that Shock Waves was intended to be bad or funny. Quite the contrary. The film seems more like a Larry Cohen (It's Alive) exercise in genre goofing rather than true drive-in exploitation fare. It's not all slapdash either. The underwater photography by Irving Pare is quite memorable, on any budget. The pulsating synth score by Richard Einhorn reminded me of a few David Cronenberg (Videodrome) scores I heard several years after Shock Waves was originally released.
Here’s assuming you don't already know the plot: there’s a bunch of people on a chartered boat trip that happen upon an island whose sole inhabitant is the elderly leader of an elite Nazi SS group of super soldiers who all survived the war. It's actually a little incorrect to call these super troopers 'zombies' even though that's how they are billed. They were soldiers who were brought back to life (one can only assume) using occult Nazi science, but they don't live off of flesh. They only seem to be able to stalk, drown and garrote their victims. Their true purpose had to do with not needing oxygen to carryout underwater U-boat missions. Or something like that.
The story is told in flashback by a battered-looking Brooke Adams (Days of Heaven, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) whose narration bookends the film. This was the era of Jaws and The Deep. Shock Waves seems to fit rather nicely into that sub-genre of suntan-thrillers. A cute bikini-clad Adams snorkeling underwater quickly gives way to the second biggest star in the movie: the late, great John Carradine. I can remember watching John Carradine as a kid in just about every conceivable genre there was. My favorite Carradine role will always be his sadistic guard in John Ford's The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936). I suppose it was only fitting that ol' John should find himself once again back on the high seas toward the end of his vast and varied career. For an actor with over 300 film credits to his name, it must have seemed like just another troll around the island.
The people on the cruise actually unearth the 'Death Corps' (or 'Der Toten Korps') before making their way to the island. The seafloor rattles like a radiation detector in THX sound and our young heroes have the nerve to say: "Did you hear something?" The scene when the ship's co-pilot, a bad Nick Nolte lookalike, dryly proclaims: "Jesus, look at the sun" and the whole screen is awash in a piss-colored haze still makes me chuckle. Carradine saying things like "old fart" with eyes bulging and words inadvertently slurring is a minor classic in its own right. It ain't The Godfather (hell, it isn't even Disco Godfather) but it never fails to entertain.
The abandoned hotel itself is a grand setting for what could have been some truly unsettling haunted house happenings. Unfortunately, they settled on some overgrown weeds scattered about the floor for some kind of unknown effect. The shipwreck setting (the real SS Sapona off the coast of Bimini) proves to be a far better atmospheric sight. The Corps emerge from underneath like balletic stalkers moving in slow motion along the ocean floor. Their jackboots and blond hair give them away long before any swastika could. The goggles over their once Aryan blue eyes hide a deeper secret, but is it worth the revelation soon to come?
The underwater zombie shots with mounting score really are quite fascinating. At last, this movie has earned my attention. The expressionless head with waterlogged skin slowly rising from the water is almost as indelible an image as the foot-long scar across Cushing's face. His entrance is perhaps one of the most memorable of his entire career. A swell of orchestral music starts playing on a phonograph off screen, the halls seem deserted, and the not-so-bright looking cast members wander around wondering from where the source of the classical outburst is coming. The nerdy guy in the plaid shorts and his annoying wife stumble upon it first. The others appear not soon after and stare at the antiquated player as it immediately begins to cease functioning. The music dies and that familiar voice booms from out of nowhere: "I am near, but also far." A little like his pseudo-German accent in the film -- near, but far.
The troupe's exchange with the off-screen Cushing is at once painful and comical. They seem like models that have wandered in off the boxes of Wheaties Cereal ads. Then he appears silhouetted on a balcony in the distance, says a few words and disappears again. When next we see him a few moments later he is running through the island brush as lithe as a cat on the prowl. This is all soon eclipsed by one of the blond frogmen from hell walking straight into the water until completely submersed. The film is not without it's memorable moments, such as Cushing staggering around the beach like a scarecrow on Romney Marsh. He looks positively exhausted in the part. One wonders if he even enjoyed anything about his 4-day shoot at Florida's Biscayne Bay. The sad truth is, this may be the last satisfying straight horror performance Cushing ever gave, not counting his last hurrah for Hammer Films with the Hammer House of Horror episode Silent Scream in 1980.
It's incredibly boring at times, and the over acting from the ensemble is more than occasionally grating. And yet, it remains satisfying on a no-expectations sort of level. That 'zombie' photography is superb. I am also convinced the movie TRON (1982) borrowed heavily from this soundtrack. Eventually, it all degenerates into a student film version of Deliverance, with the not-so-frightened, but pensive, cast rowing (and at one point walking along the ocean floor) in a small boat. My favorite laugh-out-loud moment in the entire film might be when the guy with the James Caan hair freaks out in the giant refrigerator room. He then inexplicably ends up in a (you guessed it) swimming pool filled waste-deep with murky water and Nazi-zombies. Eventually poor Brooke Adams and a dingy are all that's left.
Wiederhorn has since gone on to become a fairly notable film and television director, with 21 Jump Street and Return of the Living Dead Part II to his credit. Brooke Adams is still active in television and film. John Carradine passed away in 1988 at the ripe old age of 82, while in Milan, Italy. Peter Cushing shuffled off this mortal coil in 1994, leaving behind a legion of dedicated fans and admirers the world over. What more can be said of their work in Shock Waves except that it could be a cult film in search of a cult. Either that, or it's just a paddle in search of a dingy.