Nazi zombies rise from the ocean floor looking like a steampunk Kraftwerk in “Shock Waves”

By on November 1, 2018

The ever-growing plague of American-born & bred Nazi zombies doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon, but, believe it or not, we used to only be able to see Nazi zombies in horror movies, like the ones in Ken Wiederhorn’s low-budget creepfest Shock Waves (1977), who rise from the ocean floor looking like a steampunk version of Kraftwerk (thanks to KJ for that!).

Shock Waves is just one of eighteen cult horror titles you’ll find in our new Blue Underground section on Night Flight Plus.

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Filmmaker Ken Wiederhorn (b. January 1, 1945, in Queens, NYC) studied film at Columbia University, where one of his professors was auteur theory proponent Andrew Sarris.

Before making his directorial feature debut, he won a Student Academy Award for his short film Manhattan Melody, and worked his way up from mailroom go-fer on the Peabody Award-winning “CBS Reports” all the way to the film editing department.

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Shock Waves — co-written by Wiederhorn and TV movie screenwriter John Kent Harrison (not this John Harrison) — arrived in theaters just a few years after Steven Spielberg‘s summer blockbuster Jaws and nearly a decade after George A. Romero‘s Night of the Living Dead.

Wiederhorn’s first feature combined ideas found in both: scary unseen underwater monsters and undead zombies.

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Shock Waves begins pre-credits with a narrated prologue telling us that during WWII, Nazi scientists, obsessed with the supernatural, had created the Death Corps.

This elite group of underwater-breathing super soldiers, with an inhuman capacity to kill, were biologically engineered to pilot U-boats without the need for oxygen or to periodically surface.

We’re also told the Death Corps. — who are “neither dead nor alive, but somewhere in between” — were never captured by Allied Forces.

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We’re returned back to the present day, where a group of tourists are aboard a small commercial pleasure cruiser in the Caribbean, helmed by a grousing “Captain Ben Morris” (the legendary John Carradine).

They’re jolted out of their calm complacency when a rusted-out ghost freighter scrapes their side while they’re moving quietly through a strange, shrouded mist.

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The crash awakens invincible Nazi zombies beneath the waves, who rise slowly and expressionless from the ocean floor wearing black goggles and full Schutzstaffel (SS) regalia.

These creepy Teutonic corpse-men don’t feast on brains, we find out, but instead they drown their victims, and they can only be killed by removing those dark sunglasses covering their eyes, as they’re unable to withstand the sight of sunlight.

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The tourists — including our heroine “Rose,” the lovely yellow bikini-clad Brooke Adams, future star of Terrence Malick‘s Days of Heaven and Philip Kaufman’s 1978-remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers – flee their ship’s safety for a nearby and remote, tropical island.

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They discover a decrepit hotel, and a reclusive scar-faced old hermit — famous British stage actor Peter Cushing, who after filming his scenes for Shock Waves appeared as “Grand Moff Tarkin” in Star Wars — who seems pretty annoyed at the intrusion of strangers.

We learn he was the former Nazi Commander responsible for creating Der Toten Korps, who were sent to this secluded island to await further orders.

Now they have a new assignment: to slowly stalk down and kill vacationing cruise ship castaways.

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Read more about Shock Waves below.

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Director Ken Wiederhorn

Wiederhorn didn’t have much budget to work with on Shock Waves, but still managed to find intriguing, inexpensive ways to complete his first feature film, shooting everything in 35 days in 1975 (the year of Jaws) although it wasn’t theatrically released until 1977.

He was limited in how he could use Cushing and Carradine, whose contracts only accounted for four shooting days (both actors earned just $5000 each).

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Wiederhorn employed two cinematographers — Reuben Trane above the water, and Irving Pare below — who shot on 16mm (which was then blown up to 35mm for theatrical prints, accounting for the film’s grainy look).

He was able to secure a permit to film on the SS Sapona — a concrete-hulled cargo steamer which ran aground during a hurricane near Bimini in 1926 — and the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Florida, was rented for $250 per day (it was abandoned at the time).

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The entire cast and crew dealt with numerous difficulties, including sharks, miserable swamplands and mosquito bites, which accounts for a lot of the bad memories about the production you read in a lot of the interviews with the actors.

Richard Einhorn’s haunting experimental, analog-synth score — one of the earliest electronic compositions created for film — is often singled out for its creative use. The soundtrack is currently available from our friends at Light In the Attic.

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Makeup artist Alan Ormsby — who played one of the film’s leads — did a great job making up the zombies, giving them an appropriately waterlogged and sinister look (we loved how, when the Nazi zombies’s goggles were removed, they quickly deteriorated after being exposed to sunlight).

Ormsby would go on to expand his cinematic résumé as an actor, director, producer and writer, co-writing zombie fare like Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972), and writing Deathdream (1974, also streaming on Night Flight Plus).

Today, Wiederhorn works mostly in television, directing lots of episodic dramas, made-for-TV movies, and cable TV docu-dramas.

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The J.J. Abrams-produced Nazi zombie-fest Overlord isn’t due in theaters on November 9th, so until then, if you’d like to make your Night Flight Plus viewing of Shock Waves a creepy double-feature, we suggest that you also check out Jess Franco’s Bloodsucking Nazi Zombies (originally released in 1982 as Oasis of the Zombies).

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.