The film opens as Rose is found drifting alone in a small rowboat. Two fishermen find it and pull her onto their own boat, barely alive and in a horrible state. Her voiceover indicates she had been rescued from some terrifying experience and the film’s events are flashbacks of it.
Rose is part of a group of tourists on a small commercial boat. The Captain and his mate, Keith, share a fondness for Rose. Also on board are Dobbs, who is the boat’s cook; Chuck, another tourist; and a bickering married couple named Norman and Beverly. After trouble with the engine, the navigation system goes haywire when they encounter a strange orange haze. The others sense that something is wrong. Norman in particular becomes abrasive. In the darkness of night, a hulking ship suddenly appears and sideswipes their boat. The Captain sends up a flare, which momentarily lights up the eerie sight of a huge, rotting vessel wrecked nearby.
The next morning, everyone wakes to find the Captain missing. Realizing the boat is slowly taking on water, everyone evacuates in the lifeboat and makes for a nearby island. They see the huge wreck in the light of day; it appears to have been there for decades, nothing more than a skeletal framework, and now seemingly immobile, stranded on the island’s reef. The group is startled to find the body of the Captain, apparently drowned while he was trying to check the underside of the boat for damage. They explore the island and discover a large, rundown hotel. At first they think it is deserted, but they discover a reclusive old man living there.
The man seems alarmed by their story, and he goes down to the beach to personally investigate. Under the water, strange zombie-like men gather, walking from the wreck along the ocean floor to the island. As Dobbs gathers items to help prepare food, the zombies corner him in the water and one of them attacks; before it kills him, Dobbs falls in a cluster of sea urchins and is horribly mangled. Rose discovers his body while swimming. Back inside the hotel, their reluctant host tells them that he was a Nazi commander in charge of the “Death Corps”, a group of aquatic zombies. The creatures were intended to be a powerful weapon for the Nazis, but they proved too difficult to control. When Germany lost the war, he sunk their ship. Knowing the zombies have returned, he says they are doomed. The Commander goes down to the beach again and sees a few of the zombies off in the distance; they refuse to obey and drown him.
The others locate a boat that the Commander told them about and pilot it out through the streams to the open water. They lose control of the boat, and it sails away from them, empty. A zombie drowns Norman in a stream, and another chases Rose back to the hotel, where she kills it by pulling off its goggles. Chuck, Beverly, and Keith return to the hotel, and they barricade themselves in the refrigerator unit. The close quarters and stress cause the survivors to begin infighting, and Chuck accidentally fires a flare gun, blinding Beverly. Keith and Rose escape to an old furnace room, where they hide inside two metal grates, while Beverly hides in a closet. The zombies drown Chuck in a swimming pool outside.
The next morning, Keith and Rose discover Beverly dead, drowned in a large fish tank. Now on their own, they try to escape in a small sightseeing rowboat with a glass bottom. The zombies attack, and although Keith manages to defeat one by pulling off its goggles, a second one grabs him and drowns him just as the dinghy breaches the reef and drifts free. Rose sees Keith’s lifeless body pressed up against the glass bottom of the boat and screams.
The film comes full circle, and Rose’s voice over returns. She is now in a hospital bed, seemingly writing in a journal. Her dialogue begins to repeat itself over and over, and she is revealed to be writing nonsense in her journal, showing that she has gone insane.
BEHIND THE SCENES
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 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). 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, which was abandoned at the time.
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).
KEN WIEDERHORN INTERVIEW
I want to ask you first, does the idea of talking about SHOCK WAVES and revisiting this title excite you still? How do you feel today about the film’s legacy and your role in horror history?
KEN WIEDERHORN: I love the film because it’s the movie that keeps on giving
Do you mean that in a financial sense or otherwise?
WIEDERHORN: In the financial sense. When you make your first film, little do you know that it’s going to follow you around for the rest of your life and keep putting money in your pocket so that’s always a very nice feeling. I’m delighted when anything happens with SHOCK WAVES
Were you born and raised in Florida?
WIEDERHORN: No I’m from New York.
Ok, so how does a New Yorker end up in Florida with Peter Cushing and John Carradine?
WIEDERHORN: I was working as an assistant film editor for a documentarian who had also made some feature films and somehow he wound up being appointed the head of the film program at Columbia and he said well if you’re interested in taking some more courses let’s talk about it. I’m pretty sure I can get you into the film program’. He in fact did that. So I have an MFA with no undergraduate degree. Anyway, there I met Reuben Trane who is from Florida who was also in the films program and we partnered on our thesis film which was called MANHATTAN MELODY and that won the first Motion Picture Academy Student Film Award. Then Reuben decided that he wanted try his hand at producing a low budget film and raised some money. The investors said basically we’re fine with this as long as you guys make a horror movie because we heard that horror movies always make their money back so that’s how that happened. He raised a couple hundred thousand dollars and I drove down to Florida and we figured out how to do it there
Why a zombie movie? Or did you even think of the Nazi ghouls as zombies when you were coming up with this idea?
WIEDERHORN: I was not necessarily a horror aficionado. I really worked in the cutting room and was coming up that way. I was still very much thinking that I was going to become a producer at CBS news so I can’t say that I came to it with a great deal of interest or expertise in the horror genre. I simply went looking for material. I found a book called The Morning of the Magicians which purports to tell about the Nazi belief in the supernatural and in reading that book somehow I thought, ok this makes sense. We knew we were going to shoot the film in Florida. Reuben knew his way around boats, we were going to be in Miami so the water element came in and I suddenly had a vision of Nazis attacking Miami Beach which could be quite humorous. See, the thing for me about horror is that it always walks the line with comedy so you have to be very careful to make sure you’re on one side of that or the other so I thought, no, we can’t go in that direction. That led me to thinking about soldiers underwater and one thing led to another and with the help of a few joints we came up with the idea of underwater Nazi zombies!
Even if you haven’t seen SHOCK WAVES, you know the art and you know those creatures which have been riffed on several times in several films but there’s a look to them. Alan Ormsby did the makeup FX and the Nazis remind me of his work on Bob Clark’s DEATHDREAM, Did you give Ormsby much guidance when it came to creating these creatures?
WIEDERHORN: I hadn’t seen DEATHDREAM and I still haven’t seen it so I had nothing to relate to in Ormsby’s background. I know he had worked on a movie called CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS. Listen, when you’re in Miami, you don’t have a lot of choices in terms of crew and people to help you imagine the film so I was delighted to meet Alan because I felt we were very like-minded. He thought the film would be very problematic because one requirement was that the makeup had to withstand exposure to water. We didn’t want to get bogged down with it washing off and having to re-apply it eight times a day so he very brilliantly came up with a solution for that and it was amazing how that makeup withstood the constant submersions those guys had to make. Now as far as the details of the makeup, I know that we already decided that we wanted to make their vulnerability be exposure to light so hence the goggles and we wanted to make sure they were blonde and that came about primarily because we got a deal with a Cuban beauty school in Miami to take the guys and strip the colour out of the hair with bleach and that was affordable and doable and that’s what defined that. But Alan certainly, I would say was ninety percent responsible for the look of the zombies.
Obviously people that love SHOCK WAVES always cite the heavy dense atmosphere that the movie trades in. Talk about that eerie ruined boat. Did you find the boat first and make the movie around it?
WIEDERHORN: The wreck is off one of the Bahamian islands so we could get there easily enough from Miami. Somebody had a chart of wrecks in the south Florida area that was more oriented towards treasure hunting and somehow this wreck was marked on the map and we investigated it and discovered it was an old World War II cement ship. The hull of the ship was actually made from cement. We saw pictures of it and we thought ok that will do and that was that.
Did the script reflect that they would run into some sort of ruin or did the ruin end up being written into the script because of the existing wreck?
WIEDERHORN: No, the script was always scripted that way.
Is the boat still there do you know?
WIEDERHORN: As far as I know.
Amazing. The other key element of the film is Richard Einhorn’s minimalist music. Was Richard your choice or was be brought to you?
WIEDERHORN: Richard was also at Columbia and he was studying with a professor whose specialty was electronic music. So I went to the department head and said I’m looking for somebody who can do electronics for a horror movie score and Richard was one of the people who they recommended and we sat down and talked. I thought he would do a terrific job and I think he did. I think that the movie owes much to its music.
It sure does and you used Richard again for “EYES OF A STRANGER as well didn’t you?
WIEDERHORN: Yep and then used him again for the last film I made called A HOUSE IN THE HILLS
He went on to quite an illustrious career as a composer…
WIEDERHORN: He’s more of a serious classical modern composer and he’s done all orchestral score for JOAN OF ARC and he’s very active in New York. Richard was always my first choice for anything I was doing.
Now we’ve got to talk about Peter Cushing. This is, I think, one of his last notable horror roles…
WIEDERHORN: Ah yes, Peter. The horror movies that I actually knew were Hammer films. Why that is, I don’t know but I knew quite a number of the Hammer films and what appealed to me about them was that they really relied on story to some degree. But even more importantly, atmosphere and quality of acting. They were well produced and they were able to work on that level. So I very much had that in mind. We knew going on that we did not want to get into a lot of bloody special FX because we were making a low budget movie and it seemed to me that the way to succeed was not to become overly ambitious. To really make sure that what we were doing was something that we could in fact do. So the element that cost the least is all the elements of building suspense. I look at the film today and parts of it seem terribly slow to me but I understand and I see how at the time it worked in its way. It certainly worked because what I hear from people telling me about their experience of seeing the movie when they were 13 years old on late night TV is that when you’re channel surfing, this film stands out because it looks different. I personally really hated the locations because they were really difficult to work in terms of physical comfort. It was hot, it was humid and we would have to cover ourselves with mosquito repellent several times a day. There were sharks swimming in the water that we were working in Biscayne Bay so I think that worked for the film. I wasn’t the only one having a difficult time with the physical element that we were working it.
But back to Cushing, his nickname while making the Hammer films was “Props” Cushing because he would always find a way to work the surrounding props into his performance. Did you see any evidence of that in his work? Was he resourceful that way?
WIEDERHORN: The only prop I think he had was a cigarette holder that he used. He gave me a preview of the accent and I thought well it’s not really a German accent but it’s an accent so it’s fine. The great thing about Cushing was that he was very giving and very professional and even though he probably saw a lot of us walking into walls during the day, he was helpful and extended himself in ways that I certainly didn’t expect. In fact one day I was trying to figure out how to set up a shot on a beach somewhere and he was always available and he was always nearby, it’s not like between takes he went off and sat in his trailer, he was very available. So he’s watching me having a problem figuring things out and he gets my attention and motions me over and he says “Dear boy may I make a suggestion?” and I said “Sure Peter, what?” he says “I think if you move the camera a little bit off to the right and you lower the frame a bit you’ll get what you’re looking for and damn, he was right! I realized this is a guy who’s had more set experience than most of the directors he’s probably worked with and I knew that he was observant to what was going on. He was watching and so whenever we were ready, he was always ready. Whereas Carradine who came from a different discipline entirely and probably had been in four times as many movies as Cushing was in, he didn’t want to know about anything except what’s my line, where do I stand and when can I get the hell out of here.
Peter’s wife passed in 1970 and apparently those who worked with him around this period said he almost had a death wish. He always talked about her in a very morbid way. Was he a melancholy guy did you notice? Was that evident at all?
WIEDERHORN: I would say no. I do know about the wife but all I can tell you is that he was very open and frank about the fact that he would communicate with her through various mediums.
Have you seen any evidence of SHOCK WAVE’s influence in any other films or pop art?
WIEDERHORN: Well, people have pointed out to me that there is a whole collection of Nazi zombie movies now and I really have no idea if SHOCK WAVES had anything to do with that or not, that’s for other people to figure out. Other than that. I know it happens that there are references made to it. Somebody sent me a mystery show where SHOCK WAVES was a central part of the plot…
What about a remake? Since everything even borderline cult has been remade or is in the process of being remade, there must be somebody knocking on your door to try and do a remake of SHOCK WAVES…
WIEDERHORN: Yeah, I get that knock on the door a couple of times a year but frankly it’s usually ‘let us take an option and give us two years and we’ll see if we can get something done and I’ve been around that track many times and I figure if somebody is really serious about remaking it or doing a sequel in some way it will either happen or not. I don’t really have any interest in doing it myself.
Promotional and Advertising Material/Lobby Cards
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.
SHOCK WAVES LP (Waxwork Records) Original Richard Einhorn Score
Peter Cushing as SS Commander
Brooke Adams as Rose
John Carradine as Captain Ben Morris
Fred Buch as Chuck
Jack Davidson as Norman
Luke Halpin as Keith
J. Sidney as Beverly
Don Stout as Dobbs
Directed by Ken Wiederhorn
Produced by Reuben Trane
Ken Wiederhorn John Kent Harrison
REFERENCES and SOURCES
Delirium Issue 005