Rigor Mortis #1
Shock Waves and Outpost
Reviewed by Grim Pickens
There's something about horror into whose tapestry at least some small thread of historical fact is woven; for me, it does something to elevate the "credibility" of the premise, perhaps bolster its suspension of disbelief. As such, the Nazis - especially given their well-documented obsession with the occult - lend themselves to the genre quite nicely. Hell, Indiana Jones himself was never in finer form than when attempting to thwart the Third Reich's latest scheme for world domination by beating it to the long-forgotten repository of some mystical holy relic.
No doubt capitalizing on the Nazis-on-the-run theme popularized at the time in such big-budget, big-talent productions as MARATHON MAN (1976) and THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL (1978) is Ken Wiederhorn's 1977 directorial debut, SHOCK WAVES. This low-budget shocker opens with a prologue that quickly establishes the film's premise:
Using the bodies of men who had fallen in battle, Nazi scientists were rumored to have created a small army of "invincible" soldiers firmly entrenched in the purgatorial no-man's land between life and death. The perfect killing machine, the so-called "Death Korps" proved itself immune to the trappings of mortality. But the "success" of the experiment came too late in the war to be of any benefit to the Germans, who, not surprisingly, encountered trouble in their to control their creation. After the Reich's defeat, the fabled unit - along with any evidence of its existence - went AWOL, with its subsequent whereabouts unknown.
Having set the stage, the film proper opens on a diving excursion somewhere in the then-present day Caribbean, introducing the cast of characters in a manner that smacks vaguely of the exposition of Graham Greene's classic 1966 novel The Comedians. Commanding the rickety charter and first mate Luke Halpin (he of the early-'60s Flipper franchise) is none other than John "Yes-I-Was-In-The-Grapes-of-Motherfucking-Wrath-But-Will-Now-Take-Any-Role-That-Fills-My-Glass" Carradine. But a freak encounter with a passing mystery ship strands the boat and all souls aboard on a reef just off a lush, (seemingly) uninhabited island.
But as these things tend to go, said island is not nearly deserted enough, as each of the characters learns in due course (usually without the benefit of living long enough themselves to render that knowledge useful to any of the other characters). Adding to the mystery is the discovery of an abandoned plantation house whose (apparently) sole occupant is an enigmatic Peter Cushing, whose tattered clothes and German accent belie more than the few choice words with which he greets his uninvited guests.
Granted, SHOCK WAVES is no BOYS FROM BRAZIL. Like Carradine, Cushing sadly looks every day past his shelf-life - frail, threadbare even a bit bewildered at times. Nevertheless, the combination suits his isolated Nazi scientist, imprisoned by advancing age and the tropical sun. Indeed, Cushing is no Olivier (who countered his turn as the sadistic SS dentist of MARATHON MAN with the role of Nazi-hunter Ezra Lieberman in THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL), but in some circles that might be taken as a compliment. Carradine, however, spends a good amount of his screen time drifting into the hammy, overblown acting of which Olivier so frequently stood accused by his critics. That said, Carradine gives it his all without ever regarding the material for anything more or less than it is - what the aforementioned Greene might have dubbed simply "an entertainment" - a means to money in the bank or booze in the cabinet.
Horror fans might also recognize the bikini-clad Brooke Adams, who would later star in the following year's remake of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS as well as the 1983 adaptation of Stephen King's THE DEAD ZONE. Less evident is the shaggy Halpin - here looking like the runner-up in a Tuesday-night Jimmy Buffett look-alike competition at Sloppy Joe's - who bears little resemblance to the clean-cut Sandy Ricks of his youth.
But the most memorable performances in SHOCK WAVES, of course, are those of the "Death Korps," their goggled, platinum-blond heads incongruously surfacing in perfect silence from the placid Caribbean waters (their engineered invincibility obviously eliminating the need for air). Indeed, the acting (and dialogue) of their breathing on-screen counterparts might be a little crazy from the heat, but the distinctively bad-ass and ultimately enduring treatment of these original "surf Nazis" (buoyed by a reasonably sound premise and lurid, synthesized sound-effects reflective of the era) renders what could have been easily regrettable fare into a still-mesmerizing, low-budget gem.
By comparison, the drab, gloomy overtones of Steve Barker's 2008 directorial offering OUTPOST make SHOCK WAVES look positively campy. The film's opening, in a scene reminiscent of Warren Zevon's "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner", features a shady businessman named Hunt (Julian Wadham) recruiting soldier-of-fortune DC (Ray Stevenson, whom audiences might recognize as Frank Castle in the same year's PUNISHER: WAR ZONE) over drinks in a dreary, present-day pub. Hunt has ostensibly been sent by his employers to survey and secure mineral rights in a particularly remote (and politically unstable) locale in Eastern Europe, and he retains DC's services in gathering a team of experienced mercenaries to escort him on the mission.
Once assembled, the seasoned team - skeptical that any legitimate businessman would hire them in lieu of, say, a private security firm - makes the arduous drive through the anonymous, unpaved wilderness of some former Eastern-Bloc nation. Their suspicions appear validated upon arrival at their destination: a long-abandoned bunker, deep within a dense forest, in which the band is almost immediately forced to take up a defensive position when they're fired upon by an unseen enemy. Inside, they soon find evidence of the bunker's Nazi origins, while the mystery deepens with the discovery of a room piled full of fresh corpses - and a lone (albeit catatonic) survivor.
The back-story that OUTPOST gradually pieces together plays heavily upon the Nazis' at-times overlapping appetites for science and the occult. At its root is Einstein's unfinished Unified Field Theory, familiar to conspiracy theorists as the basis for the so-called "Philadelphia Experiment", in which a Navy destroyer escort, the USS Eldridge, and her crew were allegedly teleported in 1943. Complementing this melding of history, science and science-fiction are the dank, cold and dark subterranean confines of the bunker in which the men find themselves fighting for their very survival. And so drab is the barren landscape above that even their few subsequent encounters with daylight offer little relief.
While none of the other faces in the movie will likely prove familiar, each actor nevertheless convincingly develops (and indeed, at times, humanizes) his own distinct character with aplomb. And although not a perfect movie, OUTPOST, despite its evidently low budget, plays to its strongest attribute: atmosphere (much in the way of Brad Anderson's 2001 horror-indie SESSION 9 or John Carpenter's 1980 classic THE FOG). The locations, coupled with the tight dialogue, editing and subtle, melancholy score, help to establish early on a somber tone that steadily builds to one of cornered desperation by the film's climax.
Perhaps most impressive is the too-seldom-used "less is more" ethos (which Carpenter exploited to the hilt with THE FOG's ghostly sailors) used in the presentation of the spectral SS. Unlike the well-lit "Death Korps" of SHOCK WAVES, the forms of OUTPOST's assailants seem forever cast in the purgatorial twilight of the bunker, their once-human features forever lost to the abysmal anonymity of darkness - much like the true (and truly) monstrous aberrations of humankind that provide fodder for both films.
If, as Ray Davies once noted, celluloid heroes never really die, neither, then, do the great movie villains. In the six decades since the fall of their "thousand-year" Reich, the Nazis have perennially risen from the grave through countless onscreen reincarnations. They are, in a sense, the ultimate boogeymen, not just for their verity but also for the implicit knowledge that - as in the case Adrienne Barbeau's DJ Stevie Wayne makes to her listeners in THE FOG - lest we forget, they could very well come again. Inasmuch, while OUTPOST and SHOCK WAVES are by no means the only cinematic resurrections of the Aryan dead, they do prove themselves two of the more memorably inspired ones.