Shock Waves (1977)

As I descended a horror-inspired digital rabbit hole, I was shocked to hear (a little late, obviously) that former child actor Luke Halpin, best known as Sandy Ricks on TV’s Flipper from 1964 to 1968, was suffering from Stage IV head and neck cancer (reported in 2015). Then, in June 2016, Halpin beat the cancer, but then discovered, as the cancer went into remission, he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.* (I’ve dealt with both of these damned illnesses in my family of late, and trust me, it’s a rough ride for everyone concerned.)

So, it’s time for us to take a moment to lift up Luke Halpin and praise his work in one of our cherished, classic ’70s horror films (yes, I said “classic,” you scoffing gore-dog): the definitive (underwater) “Nazi Zombie” flick: Shock Waves.

Now, considering that we are all ’80s Euro-horror video fringers here (and you are, admit it): when you say “Nazi Zombies,” the synapses of our blood-goo sloshed minds loads a copy of Jean Rollin’s Zombie Lake (1981) and Jess Franco’s counter-programming Oasis of the Zombies (1981) into our analog-cerebal VCR-cortex. But, oh, how we soon forget the three-time Academy Award-nominated The Boys from Brazil (1978) (okay, so it’s more sci-fi than horror) and the Canadian potboiler, Death Ship (1980). (Okay, so neither of these films had actual Ken Weiderhorn-inspired zoms, but still, they’re cool flicks.)

Water! We need water!

For the serious, deep video fringer: there’s the porn connected-produced (shot in the home and on the property of noted ’70s porn purveyor, Shaun Costello; come on, now: don’t lie and say you didn’t sneak home a copy of 1976’s infamous Girl Scout Cookies?) Gamma 693 (1979). Then, when the Euro-zom craze hit, it floated around the VHS shelves in 1983 under its better known title: Night of the Zombies. (I saw the retitled version at the Southgate Twin in 1981 as Hell of the Living Dead, which has nothing to do with the Bruno Mattei-directed film of the same name.)

Then there are the rotted roots behind director Ken Weiderhorn’s Nazi-Zom vision: the first of the bunch: 1941’s King of the Zombies and its 1943 sequel, Revenge of the Zombies. Then there’s the British-made The Frozen Dead (1966) and the American TV hoke that is They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1968).

In the end the “Big Three” of the Nazi Zombie sub-genre of the ’80s zombie craze initiated by George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead are Shock Waves, and the lesser-quality Zombie Lake and Oasis of the Zombies. (Guess who did the incredible makeups on Shock Waves? Alan Ormsby of Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, Deranged, and Popcorn. What’s that? Fred Olen Ray from 1992’s Evil Toons was on set as the film’s still photographer? It’s a video-finge wet dream!)

For a guy who’s been cracking the celluloid since his 1973 award-winning short, Manhattan Melody, Ken Wiederhorn’s directing resume is a short one. But, oh, the film’s he has made: After the critical and box office achievement of his feature film debut with Shock Waves, he worked with Tom Savini (The Ripper) in giving Jennifer Jason Lee (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) her film debut in another one of our video fringe favorites: Eyes of a Stranger (1981). In between, it was the Animal House-inspired curio, King Frat (1979). (Yes, we reviewed that one! How could we not! And damn you, Sam, for robbing me of that review!)

Yep. I know. I’ve gone off the chain and I’m careening down the rails, again.

“Enough with the Charmin-squeezin’ over Ken Wiederhorn and your unhealthy obsession with Nazi Euro-Zombies, already,” you say. “Let’s back to Luke Halpin.”

Luke brilliantly, yet sadly, summed up his career with this slice of wisdom: “That’s part of the problem with being a kid actor. When your show’s over, nobody informs you that your career’s over, too.”

While Halpin picked up a few post-Flipper starring roles, his career was pretty much over by the mid-’70s. Then Ken Weiderhorn smartly cast the tan and ripped, water-experienced actor (Halpin’s worked as an stunt man and marine coordinator on a slew of ’80s films: if it was shot on or in the water, Halpin was there: Island Claw, Porky’s Revenge . . . even the Sandra Bullock-starring Speed 2: Cruise Control) as his lead in Shock Waves. And he holds his own — admirably — against his marquee co-stars Peter Cushing and John Carradine.

To say that Shock Waves‘ tale of a Gilligan’s Island episode gone Twilight Zone — with a tourist yacht stranded on an uncharted Caribbean island — was a rough shoot is an understatement. South Florida’s Key Biscayne Island in Miami, and the then abandoned Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, doubled for the Nazi island hideaway. Wiederhorn also smartly repurposed the real life shipwreck of the American-commissioned S.S Sapona as his “nazi ship wreck,” which is a still popular Florida tourist attraction, for the film. (The Sapona, and the island of Dry Tortugas, are a sight to behold, indeed.)

Granted, the headlining stars of the acting royalty that is John Carradine and Peter Cushing only worked five days each (they don’t share any scenes) — but what a five days they worked! Halpin and Brooke Adams (be still my heart!) are champs, slopping around, diving and swimming in the salt water and the swampy quagmires, but the perpetually-cadaverous Carradine . . . and “Grand Moff Tarkin” Cushing chasing zombies through the water are a sight to see. (God bless ’em both. What champs!)

The film starts with Brooke Adams (she made her acting debut in the 1975 TV Movie Song of the Succubus, best known for Stephen King’s The Dead Zone) as Rose, adrift in small, ratty row boat being rescued by two fishermen. Then, following the plotting of — and keeping things in a horror/sci-fi perspective — 1959’s Angry Red Planet, Rose flashback-recounts her terrifying experiences at the hands of a self-exiled SS Commander who created the “Death Corps” (the film’s original title), a breed of aquatic undead soldiers for extended submarine missions. While Cushing’s old ship is a wreck . . . it also seems to cruise the waters around the island as a ghost ship that purposely strikes and strands boaters (e.g. the later Richard Crenna and George Kennedy-starring Death Ship).

Before you know it, the Ceasar-cut uniformed hoards of welding-goggled, albino zoms are popping up out of the water at every turn — even from the island-rundown hotel’s mucked-slimed swimming pool. Then, taking a page out of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead playbook, first-mate Keith (Luke Haplin) leads the survivors to barricading themselves in an so-apropos refrigerator unit in the hotel.

The flashback then comes full circle, with Rose’s repetitive, babbling voiceover as she scribbles non-sense in a journal from a hospital bed: she’s gone insane. And no one has any clue as to the horrors that await in the waters . . . somewhere in the Caribbean.

While we all ran to the local duplex to see this in 1977 (I begged my dad to take me, and he liked it, which was shocking: Dad liking a goofy horror or sci-fi movie I liked. The only other time that happened was with 1979’s Alien.), many’s first experience with Ken Wiederhorn’s genuinely creepy (hey, for a kid in the ’70s, it was) debut was via Prism Entertainment‘s popular ’80s VHS rental. According to Blue Underground’s 2003 DVD reissue, they had to source the release from Wiederhorn’s own personal collection, as the studio lost the film’s original negative. To promote their 2014 Blu-ray, Blue Underground gave the film a limited theatrical release that November.

Sadly, it seems the majesty of Weiderhorn’s deliberately slow pace to create mystery and suspense, and his exquisite, subtle use of atmosphere — without darkness or you-can’t-see-shit shadows — over cheap (now clichéd) shock-scares punctuated by gore is lost of today’s gore hounds weaned in the post-Eli Roth and James Wan “modern horror” universe. To see blog and message board commenters referring to Weiderhorn’s masterpiece of horror as “boing” and “stupid” and deriding those “old farts” (I guess they mean moi) who regard this as “horror classic, ” is a dark, cinematic day indeed.

Must everything be guts and gore and “shock scares” to satisfy our horror needs? Can’t we all just enjoy atmosphere and suspense, for once? Then again, the friends I’ve exposed to Ugestu and Kwaidan scoffed. . . .

So, raise your glass to Ken Wiederhorn — and say a prayer for Luke Halpin and his wife, Deborah. For when it comes to Nazi zombies, this underrated effort is the best of the genre — and they’d both be da man in this horror dog’s dish.

Luckily, there’s an upload of the full movie on You Tube to enjoy.

*If you’re interested: Luke Halpin’s friends and family have created a GoFundMe page to help with Luke’s mounting medical bills.

About the Author: You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and B&S Movies, and learn more about his work on Facebook.

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