Horror Film Review: Shock Waves (dir. by Ken Wiederhorn)


Tonight, as I watched the premiere of The Walking Dead’s 2nd season, I found myself thinking about some of my favorite zombie films.  One which came to mind immediately was Ken Wiederhorn’s low-budget but effectively disturbing 1977 film, Shock Waves.

In Shock Waves, a group of tourists find themselves shipwrecked off the Florida coast.  As they wander through the isolated, swampy terrain, they happen to come across a decaying mansion that is inhabited by one very mad scientist (Peter Cushing).  It turns out that Cushing is a Nazi war criminal who, during World War II, created the Death Corps., an elite unit of zombie super soldiers.  As World War II came to an end, Cushing somehow ended up in Florida and, unfortunately for the living, he brought the Death Corps. with him.  And now, with the arrival of the castaways, the Death Corps. has reawakened…

Shock Waves is considered by many (like me, for instance) to be the best example of the small genre of film known as the Nazi Zombie film.  (Though I have to admit that it’s not my favorite Nazi zombie film.  That honor would have to go to Jean Rollin’s delightfully weird Zombie Lake.  For another example of the genre, check out Arleigh’s review of Dead Snow.)  Admittedly, once you get past the idea of underwater zombies, the film is pretty predictable plot-wise.  But a certain predictability goes along with any zombie film.  One reason why zombies are so scary is the very fact that they are very simple and predictable.  Zombies exist solely to destroy and, beyond running and hiding, there’s not a whole lot of options available for dealing with them.  Vampires and werewolves are almost ludicrously vulnerable to all sorts of defensive moves (seriously, people, how difficult is it to wear a crucifix around your neck?) but zombies are pretty much an unstoppable force and for a zombie film to succeed, the zombies must truly seem unstoppable.  This is where Shock Waves truly succeeds because seriously, these zombies are brutal.  There’s a lengthy montage where the zombies literally tear apart a building, searching for the castaways and it’s probably one of the most chilling sequences of destruction ever caught on film.  It helps that these Nazi zombies are truly frightening to look at, with their hair plastered to the sides of emotionless faces and their eyes hidden behind dark goggles.  Add to that, they’re Nazis.  Seriously, nothing’s scarier than Nazis.  Perhaps the most enduring image from this film is of the members of the Death Corp. emerging from the water, one after another.  It’s a remarkable sequence and probably one of the most striking “zombie mob” scenes ever.

The Shock Waves DVD also features an audio commentary with director Ken Wiederhorn and a few other crew members.  It’s actually probably one of the more interesting DVD commentaries I’ve ever heard, as Wiederhorn is very honest about not being happy with how the final film turned out.  And certainly, this is one of those low budget B-films that you can pick to death.  As Wiederhorn himself points out, lead actress Brooke Adams often seems to just be going through the motions and, as effective as the Nazi zombies are, the film never explains how 1) they ended up off the coast of Florida or 2) how they haven’t been discovered before this.  But so what?  Shock Waves is one of those films that manages to be quite a bit more than the sum of its parts.  Wiederhorn might not be happy with the film but that doesn’t change the fact that he manages to create a true sense of menace and danger during the film’s first half and the second half features some of the scariest zombies ever.  Ultimately, Shock Waves is a genuinely scary and effective zombie film and one that the director has every right to be proud of.

One final note — Shock Waves opens up with one of those “This film might be based on a true story” narrations and it’s all the better for it.  I’m including a clip of it below because 1) it’s just so grindhouse that I can’t help but love it and 2) it also features a bit of the film’s brutally effective score.

Quickie Horror Review: Tamara (dir. by Jeremy Haft)


Tamara was a good entertaining horror/teenage angst movie in the same vein as De Palma’s Carrie and pretty much most of the teenage revenge/slasher flicks of the late 70’s and early 80’s. Such horror films involved the high school jocks and popular cliques getting their comeuppance by way of the nerdy student who has had enough. This time around the nerd in question is one Tamara whose shy, bookish and frumpy nature makes her an easy mark for every other kid in school.

Newcomer and extremely hot Jenna Dewan plays the title role and she does a very good job pulling off the dual personality role the film requires from her. The first half of the film has Dewan as very believable as the mousy and nerdy student whose low self-esteem adds to keeping her ostracized from the rest of the student population. It doesn’t help that she begins to misread one of her teacher’s (played by Matthew Marsden) attempts to help her as some sort of loving attention she so craves. There’s a small bit of a bright side to her daily existence in the form Chloe (played by Katie Stuart), she of the popular girl with a heart-of-gold role. Tamara’s life soon turns for the worst as her attempts to show her love for her helpful teacher gets rebuffed and her published article about drug-use in athletics puts her in the crosshairs of a couple of jocks with much to lose.

Typical of such teenage revenge horror films, the cruel jocks and popular kids concoct a plan to humiliate and embarrass Tamara, but just like those past films their plans backfire and the target of their plans gets killed during the the prank. The filmmaker really don’t add something new to this tried and tested formula. Instead of calling for the authorities to report the accidental death of their schoolmate, the kids decide, through the bullying by the alpha-male in the group, to bury Tamra instead and forget anything ever happened. This plan probably would’ve worked if Tamara wasn’t dabbling in witchcraft as ostracized teenagers are wont to do. Tamara’s spell prior to the prank to spellbind her teacher backfires as its activated by the spilling of her blood and to the surprise of the students who did her harm she returns alive, healthy and completely different the start of the new school week.

To say that Tamara returns utterly different in more ways than one would be an understatement. Ms. Dewan does a vampy, sometimes campy, job portraying the new and improved Tamara. Dewan goes from nerdy, plain-jane Tamara to ultra-sexy, barely there skirt wearing teen seductress whose touch does more than seduce those she has targeted for revenge. Jenna Dewan as the reborn Tamara steams up the screen with her overt sexuality and she practically saves the film from just being an ok, by-the-numbers horror film. Tamara was Ms. Dewan’s film from beginning to end and she does a very good job of keeping the story interesting even if it meant just being on the screen.

This film doesn’t break new ground in the realm of teen horror. In fact, it’s a mish-mash of alot of past teen horror flicks of the past that one could see the many influences in its story. Tamara was part Carrie, Black Christmas, The Craft and, more recently, Diablo Cody’s Jennifer’s Body. The direction was adequate at best and that’s really all one could hope for in a genre film like Tamara. What makes this film entertaining and worth watching was the joy of discovering the new scream queen talent in Jenna Dewan. Tamara might not be a great horror film, but Ms. Dewan sure more than tries to make it more than it’s B-movie pedigree.

Review: The Walking Dead S2E1 “What Lies Ahead”


“It’s all about slim chances now.” – Rick Grimes

The first season of AMC’s The Walking Dead was a runaway hit for the network. Despite the inaugural season being a a truncated 6-episode long one the series gained a huge following that included long-time fans of the Robert Kirkman long-running zombie comic book series, but also new ones. The Walking Dead would have it’s showrunner and tv series creator Frank Darabont to thank for bringing it to a wider audience which is why this second season premiere brings with it a sense of bittersweet to the proceedings. This past summer saw Darabont fired from the very show he had helped create due to creative and financial differences with the show’s parent network in AMC.

Does this mean the show will suffer as it moves forward without it’s leader at the helm? If the premiere episode of season two is any clue then the show has hit the ground running and doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to stop to mourn the firing of it’s leader.

“What Lies Ahead” begins with the survivors soon after their narrow escape from the destruction of the CDC in Atlanta. The group’s number is now one less and any chances of a cure to what has caused the zombie apocalypse and a hopeful future seems slim at best and a hopeless exercise in futility at it’s worst. Rick (Andrew Lincoln) continues to be the group’s de facto leader which seems to wear on him now that he doesn’t just have his wife and son to think about but others as well. The episode does show that Rick’s acceptance of leadership in the group might be more out of necessity and less about him wanting to lead. No one, from his partner Shane (Jon Bernthal) to the wise, old Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) seem to want the job and everyone seems willing to blame Rick for every instance of danger the group finds itself in.

Just like the pilot episode of the first season this new season doesn’t skimp on the tension. Frank Darabont wrote this first episode and his handling of the group’s first encounter with a moving “herd” of zombies show’s that he hasn’t lost the ability to create tension and just build it past the point of unbearable. This entire sequence with the group hiding beneath abandoned cars on the interstate with countless zombies walking past just inches away has to be one of the signature scenes of this season and more than a match for Rick’s solitary walk through the empty hospital in the pilot episode.

The bulk of the episode doesn’t come down too much from the tension and dread built up during this “herd” scene. It continues to keep the tension level at a fever pitch as the group must now search for one of their own who has gone missing during the “herd” march. The tension doesn’t just come from the situation Rick and the group find themselves in, but from the cracks and fractures that has begun to appear within the collective group. It’s these fractures which becomes the impetus for some character building that the first season rarely seem to have time for.

We still see repercussions from decisions made in the last season continue to make itself known. Whether it’s Shane wallowing in self-pity for losing what he thought was a ready-made family he had created for himself once Rick reappeared right up to Andrea’s bitterness towards Dale for having saved her from her choice to commit suicide in the last episode of the first season. It’s through the interaction between some of the factions being created through these particular characters that we begin to see the stress of this new world beginning to wear on them. Not to mention how they all seem to blame Rick for the situation they find themselves in. Which made it a suprising turn of events when was left to Lori to defend her husband and put everyone in their place. Her little speech near the end of the episode went a long way in establishing her character as one who sought redemption not in self-pity but in supporting the one person she understand to be the most qualified to see them through alive.

The episode wasn’t all positive. What hampered the first season was still quite evident in this season two premiere. While most of the writing was much improved from the first season there was still some parts in the episode when the dialogue seemed forced and not something which came about organically. It’s a testament to the performances by the whole cast that most people watching the show wouldn’t notice it much. Some stand out performances has to be the husband and wife team of Andrew Lincoln and Sarah Wayne Callies. Then there’s Norman Reedus as Daryl who continues to grow as a character beyond the typical redneck many thought him to be during the first season. With Reedus’s portrayal of Daryl one could see that he might not agree with some of Rick’s moral choices and decisions but he respects the man for actually making a decision instead of being wishy-washy. Daryl knows and understand, just as Lori does, that Rick is their best chance at surviving.

“What Lies Ahead” is a great start to a new season of The Walking Dead. While the firing of Darabont as showrunner from the show (replaced by a more than qualified Glen Mazzara) does hang like a dark cloud over the premiere that still shouldn’t detract from this episode’s quality. It’s an episode that really doesn’t dwell on allowing the rest of the world to catch it’s breath from start to finish while at the same time still allowing for characters to grow. This episode even ends in a cliffhanger that should be quite familiar for fans of the comic book, but should be quite a shock to the system for those who haven’t read a page of Kirkman’s comic.

Rick said in the beginning of the episode, after seeing the destruction of the CDC and getting the news that there’s really no more way to turn back the clock on this apocalypse, that it was all about “slim chances” now and from what this episode showed even slim might be too hopeful a word. These are people living on borrowed time and one can say that they’re already the walking dead. Time to see if Rick’s word’s will be rewarded with safety and salvation or just new levels of hell they must navigate through.

Notes

  • Chandler Riggs as Carl looks to be getting more and more comfortable in the role. His line delivery don’t seem as flat as they were in the first season.
  • Steven Yeun didn’t get as much time on the screen, but his gleeful reaction at being handed one of the bladed weapons was priceless. Like a kid in a candy store.
  • I noticed that while Frank Darabont wrote this episode the name shown during the beginning of the film was the name Ardeth Bay. For genre geek fans that name should sound familiar. It was a nice touch and better than just using the usual Alan Smithee.
  • We see more clues as to zombie behavior in this episode as Daryl once again proves that the stink of the dead bodies will hide living humans from zombies as he drapes corpses over himself and T-Dog during the “herd” march.
  • Love the line reading by Norman Reedus as his Daryl looks up at the large crucifix in the abandoned chapel and says “Hey J.C….taking requests”.
  • Gore content in this episode still continues the series trademark of being quite high for a network tv series. I’m still surprised at how much the show has gotten away with. Tonight’s signature gore scene has to be the impromptu zombie autopsy and trying to find out if their missing group member is in its stomach.
  • This episode deviated very much from the comic book, but when it mattered most it used one of the early shockers in the comic book series to end the episode on a huge note.