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Alan Ormsby is one of the more unheralded players in '70s exploitation history. An early collaborator of Bob Clark's, he aided the Canadian lo-fi shock maestro in crafting a collection of pre-Black Christmas ('74) weird outs. Ormsby was a co-writer and concocted the ghoulish make-up effects for Clark's post-Night of the Living Dead ('68) zombie riff, Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things ('72). Dead of Night (a/k/a Deathdream ['74]) came next, which saw Ormsby working side-by-side with a young Tom Savini in the gore department, his pen having produced a rather upsetting post-Vietnam terror parable regarding a rotting young man who arrives home with an addiction to injecting fresh blood straight into his veins. Near simultaneously, Ormsby wrote and directed Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile ('74) with Jeff Gillen - their own Canuxploitation spin on one of the inspirations for both Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho ('60) and Tobe Hooper's Texas Chain Saw Massacre ('74): Wisconsin mommy obsessed grave-robber and butcher, Ed Gein.
Yet one of the strangest projects Ormsby applied his talents to was the regional Florida Nazi zombie dronecore classic, Shock Waves ('77). Following a group of pleasure cruisers – all aboard a shoddy vessel captained by the one and only John Carradine (Vampire Hookers ['78]) – who become mysteriously shipwrecked on a small island off the coast, Shock Waves makes it abundantly clear from the opening narration who is going to be coming after them on this seemingly idyllic isle (which is mostly comprised of Southern swampland). At the start of World War II, Hitler ordered his scientists to deliver a squad of indestructible soldiers, which survived the conflict and made their way to America’s trashiest peninsula, thanks to a rogue SS Commander (an emaciated, sickly-looking Peter Cushing) who's transformed this ostensible paradise into his own personal, sandy laboratory.
Directed by Ken Wiederhorn – who'd go on to helm everything from sex comedy shenanigans (King Frat ['79], Meatballs II ['84]) to Return of the Living Dead II ('88) – Shock Waves more resembles the sun-bleached textures of Eurohorror than it does any US/Canadian zombie picture of the time. Fans of Joe D'Amato's Antropophagus (aka The Grim Reaper ['80]) will find much to enjoy in its unrushed narrative rhythms, as we're mostly hanging out with the passengers and crew (including Brooke Adams, Luke Halpin and Fred Buch) as they explore this deserted, tropical landscape, discovering little more than a dilapidated hotel that's suffered thanks to years of neglect. Once the Death Corps (floating and walking beneath the surface of the surrounding waters) are alerted to the intruders' presence, Shock Waves transforms into a rather tense assault, with the soldiers picking off their latest enemies, one-by-one.
For Shock Waves, Ormsby is again working in the SFX trailer, teaming up with costume designer Jacqueline Saint Anne to gift these slow-moving beasties their rather unique look: wet flesh falling off pallid faces thanks to years spent in salty seas, with dark goggles covering their main weaknesses. Wiederhorn and co-writer John Harrison (who'd embark upon quite the TV career afterward) aren't really interested in the flesh-eating motivations that drove George A. Romero's ghouls. No, the zombies in Shock Waves (which are wisely never referred to as such) are simply mindless murderers, looking to rid their territory of anyone who does not belong to their fascist tribe (usually via drowning or strangling). Also unlike Romero's shambling cannibals, the only way to off these goose-stepping monsters isn't with a bullet to the brain, but rather by removing the tinted lenses that cover their opaque orbs, allowing the sunlight to scorch these deadly raisins dry.
In all truthfulness, Shock Waves is mostly going to be for horror/exploitation completists, due to the languid pacing and lack of any distinguishable gore porn moments. Instead, it's aided by Ormsby's best latex/brush work, and a chilling, tense score from Richard Einhorn (Blood Rage ['87]). In fact, Einhorn may actually be the MVP, as he mixes moody, electronic synths with ominous traditional orchestration, resulting in an OST that's both experimental and classical at the same time. The seams of the $200,000 production often show, and the lack of incident in the movie's meandering first half is a quintessential example of exploitation filmmaking, milking the runtime for ambiance and texture in the place of having any sort of money to deliver otherwise. However, for connoisseurs of this sort of lo-fi output from the era, Shock Waves is going to be a total joy, proving that you can make one hell of a sinister little picture, even while basking in warm isle daylight.
Shock Waves is available on DVD/Blu-ray, courtesy of Blue Underground.