"First of all, it manages to escape what most zombie movies can’t…simply being a crappy movie. If you can at least be an average zombie film, with the glut of all the really bad ones, you’re destined to stick out among the crowd." - Dead Kev, All Things Zombie
Following an unexplained solar event (a.k.a. yellow filter on the camera lens) a mysterious ship appears from nowhere and sinks a small tourist boat. The water logged survivors make their way to a supposedly uninhabited island where they discover a former SS commander (Peter Cushing, stuck in Moff Tarkin mode from Star Wars, which was filming the same year) holed up in an abandoned hotel. It seems the old fellow has been in self imposed isolation keeping watch just in case his battalion of superhuman underwater zombie Nazis should resurface. (I never get tired of writing stuff like that.) As he explains, using a combination of science and sorcery, the Third Reich created the Death Corps, undead soldiers manufactured to operate in otherwise fatal environments. The problem was that the original test subjects were taken from the only stock available, imprisoned madmen and sociopaths, the type of personalities not inclined to take orders. (Stupid Nazis.) The creatures were ordered destroyed, but as it turns out, merely sinking a boat full of zombies specifically modified to be amphibious isn't really a permanent solution. (Did I mention the stupid Nazis?) Now, decades later, the Death Corps has arisen with only one purpose in mind; destroy every living thing in its path.
Zombie Nazis. I hate these guys.
Not just because they're zombies, a group of monsters who are seriously wearing out their welcome due to overexposure. And not just because they're Nazis, a group of monsters overused by scriptwriters too lazy to come up with more original villains. No, I hate zombie Nazis because, when the two are combined, they almost always make wretched movies. Starting with 1941's King of the Zombies and continuing on through such bombs as Night of the Zombies, Oasis of the Zombies, and Zombie Lake, the zombie Nazi film has left a trail of putrid stink throughout the world's cinemas for decades. So when a DVD's cover art bears a blurb proudly proclaiming it to be the "best of the Nazi zombie movies", you can only think sarcastically to yourself, "Yeah, that's not gonna take a whole lot!"
And fortunately for Shock Waves it doesn't, because for most people, this movie isn't going to give a whole lot. Gore-hounds will discover this is probably the most bloodless, sexless post-Romero zombie movie you can find. (The zombies have a few scabs if that counts for anything.) Thrill seekers will be disappointed with the scarcity of "jump out of your seat" moments. (In fact, there are a couple of scenes where someone spots the zombies standing off in the distance and... both groups just check each other out for awhile before walking away.) And anybody even remotely interested in believability will just have to run screaming. (They just keep going in the water. Zombies in the water. Farewell and adieu to you, fair Spanish ladies.) So many of the recognizable touchstones of a good horror movie are simply missing from Shock Waves.
"But there's another kind of horror, a subtler, more seductive and lingering kind." says producer Bill Mechanic in an interview with Time magazine. "Some of the best horror movies had a certain elegance to them... They are to the gore fests as romantic dramas are to porn. They are about mood, atmosphere, the notion that death is everywhere and inevitable." Mood and atmosphere; that's like bread and water to the true horror fan. We might love movies that give us a full course banquet of horror, but we can subsist off mood and atmosphere when all else in the movie lays barren. And Shock Waves pretty much lets you know that "bread and water" is what it's going to give you right from the beginning.
As the movie opens, a loan castaway from the tourist ship is rescued from a drifting lifeboat. (Yep, like our old friend Mesa Of Lost Women, it's another story told in flashback.) Normally I would criticize a horror movie which let's you know in the very first scene who survives, but this time it seems designed to let you know the film's focus is on tone rather than suspense. You can especially see this in the movie's unique approach to the undead. These are neither your catatonic pop-eyed natives nor your modern slavering brain-munching ghouls. The Aryan zombies of Shock Waves are quietly eerie and visually striking as they march through the water in their uniforms and black goggles (which are an actual plot point by the way, not just a fashion choice). They're especially creepy in scenes where they float in repose, face up, mere inches below the water line. It's almost as if they were a natural part of the landscape. In fact, all of the settings in the movie are used to great effect. The Florida swamps, where the producers somehow managed to find a real abandoned hotel, feel tangible, yet very remote and dreamlike in the haze and fog. And it's all played out in that recognizable 1970s style pacing, which will probably seem lethargic to the post-MTV quick-cut generation, but is intended to be mildly hypnotic. Shock Waves is the kind of movie that's best viewed when you're curled up under a blanket on the edge of sleep; when you're entering that state of consciousness where dream logic is just starting to take over. Shock Waves, like a dream, doesn't make a whole lot of sense when you wake up and think about it rationally, but it maintains its own workable logic while you're there.
Zombie Nazis. Wouldn't it have been nice if the SS actually had wasted their time working on that kind of crap rather than committing the real atrocities they did? Oh sure, it's generally accepted that Himmler, head of the SS, was something of an occultist. But according to The Occult Roots of Nazism by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, Himmler's interest lay mainly in neo-paganistic new-agey type stuff like crystals, spirit guides, tarot cards, and fortune telling. Not quite on the same level as calling on the dark forces to raise the evil dead. As for Hitler, who really knows? He seems to have picked and chosen from various belief systems anything that would help solidify his hold on power. Of course, that doesn't stop nutballs (is that uncharitable?) like John Patrick Michael Murphy from writing in Free Inquiry magazine "Hitler was a Roman Catholic, baptized into that religio-political institution as an infant in Austria. He became a communicant and an altar boy in his youth and was confirmed as a "soldier of Christ" in that church. Its worst doctrines never left him. He was steeped in its liturgy, which contained the words "perfidious jew." This hateful statement was not removed until 1961. "Perfidy" means treachery. In his day, hatred of Jews was the norm. In great measure it was sponsored by two major religions of Germany, Catholicism, and Lutheranism."
Let’s face it. Nobody wants to claim Hitler. And it sure would have been nice if he had been raised in some goat-worshiping pagan cult or something like that. But the sad fact is that he was indeed baptized Catholic as an infant and probably served as an altar boy. Which in the end, at least to adults, means absolutely nothing. You might just as well claim that spinning dreidels as a boy is what turned the Jewish David Berkowitz into the Son of Sam. No matter what religion or philosophy he adopted over the years it all comes down to the fact that Hitler was a sociopath of the highest order and using him as the poster boy for anything is just grasping at straws. (Like I insinuated at the start of this review, we really need to find us some new uber-villains.) But it is interesting that Murphy's article, written years ago, brings up the "perfidious Jews" line from the Good Friday liturgy instituted in 1570 by Pope Pius V. You know, the one that's been repeatedly misreported in the news lately as being reinstated by Pope Benedict XVI. I'm not even going to talk about that. By now, anybody who wants to know the truth realizes that the prayer for the "perfidious Jews" will not be said in any mass allowed by the Pope's Summorum Pontificum document. That said, it doesn't change the fact that it WAS there for a long time.
"The history of the relationship between Israel and Christendom is drenched with blood and tears." said a then Cardinal Ratzinger. "It is a history of mistrust and hostility, but also - thank God - a history marked again and again by attempts at forgiveness, understanding and mutual acceptance. After Auschwitz, the mission of reconciliation and acceptance permits no deferral." It was in this spirit that Pope John Paul II apologized to the Jews on the first Sunday of Lent in 2000, "We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer. We wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant." Beyond condemning antisemitism and acknowledging common objectives, though, what does that mean? As brothers, do we no longer teach that the Jews are in need of Jesus?
The Catechism tells us that "the Jewish faith, unlike other non-Christian religions, is already a response to God's revelation in the Old Covenant. To the Jews "belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ", "for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable." Which kind of sounds like they aren't. But the Catechism also tells us that "Having been divinely sent to the nations that she might be 'the universal sacrament of salvation,' the Church, in obedience to the command of her founder and because it is demanded by her own essential universality, strives to preach the Gospel to all men." "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." Which definitely says they are. Is the Catechism contradicting itself?
Bwah hah hah hah! Like I'm really going to say yes? When it comes to evangelizing, the Catechism is pretty straight forward. "The duty of Christians to take part in the life of the Church impels them to act as witnesses of the Gospel and of the obligations that flow from it. This witness is a transmission of the faith in words and deeds." What's at issue here is not whether we should evangelize, of course we should. The question is how? "To every thing there is a season" says the Bible, and so there are definitely times for confrontational apologetic battles, even with the Jews. But perhaps what the Catechism and the last few Popes have been getting at is that, given the events in our shared history that are still relatively fresh, maybe this isn't that time. Maybe this really is a time to transmit the faith through different kinds of words. A time for apologies, for teshuvah, for reconciliation. (I hear that God can do wonders with those kinds of things.) So for the moment, let's stick with the prayer for the Jews we have in the current Good Friday liturgy. "Let us pray for the Jewish people, the first to hear the word of God, that they may continue to grow in the love of his name and in faithfulness to his covenant. Almighty and eternal God, long ago you gave your promise to Abraham and his posterity. Listen to your Church as we pray that the people you first made your own may arrive at the fullness of redemption. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen." Maybe it's not watered down theology after all, but rather the right prayer for the right time. If nothing else, maybe it'll at least diffuse any more of those ridiculous and tiresome Hitler comments.
A 1978 study by psychologist Samuel Janus found that roughly 80% of professional comedians were Jewish. Most of the rest were raised Catholic. The study would seem to suggest that there must be some similarities in upbringing and experience in Catholic and Jewish homes to produce that kind of statistic. For a jackass like me, however, the first question that comes to mind is why aren't there more funny Protestants?