What disappeared has every chance of reappearing – Jean Baudrillard
The spate of Nazisploitation films in the late 1960s and 70s offer some insight into how audiences remembered the Third Reich and Holocaust a generation removed from the event. Both fascinated and appalled by its extraordinary atrocities, audiences were drawn to Nazi themes in horror that played into increasing Cold War anxieties about nuclear war and science run amok. It was not too farfetched to portray Nazi scientists alive and well given many remained gainfully employed throughout the world serving new masters, the United States above all.[i] Shockwaves (1977) is an early example of the subgenre. The low-budget thriller follows the familiar formula of placing an eclectic group of tourists in peril, stalked by a mysterious force dispatching them one by one. Set in the Caribbean, a hoary ship captain (John Carradine) regales his passengers with the strange history of the area, speaking cryptically, “The sea spits up what it can’t keep down.”[ii] When engine trouble stalls the ship, passengers explore a deserted island and its dilapidated estate. The only sign of life is classical music emanating from an old phonograph. Upon further investigation the passengers discover a Nazi flag hanging over the balcony and a lone inhabitant, an elderly German (Peter Cushing) who explains the passengers’ perplexing disappearances. Cushing’s nameless character is a former SS commander responsible for creating a “Death Corps” of super soldiers capable of fighting in any environment. The unit was comprised of reanimated dead soldiers (“not dead, not alive, somewhere in-between”) who quickly developed a reputation as the “most vicious and bloodthirsty SS division.”[iii] With the Reich collapsing around him, the SS commander escaped by sea with the unit, but the zombies could not be controlled, broke free and sank the ship, leaving the commander exiled on the island. With the Death Corps reanimated by the lure of fresh tourist blood, the commander is killed trying to destroy his own creations while the sole remaining passenger, Rose (Brooke Adams) escapes the island. The film ends with Rose in a hospital, delirious and unsure of how to communicate her ordeal.
The Death Corps’ underwater resurrection is a memorable scene imitated by subsequent films in the genre, including Dead Snow (2009), Zombie Lake (1981), and the viral trailers for the unmade Richard Raaphorst film Worst Case Scenario (2008). Lying dormant for thirty years in tropical waters, half a dozen figures rise to the surface, uniforms intact (now including sunglasses), and work in concert to kill the young interlopers. The Death Corps was built to serve evil, but with the Reich consigned to the dustbin of history, their resurrection is a symbol of science’s unintended consequences. These zombies have outgrown their ideological purpose, roving the oceans and far removed from Europe’s historic killing fields. The Death Corps is analogous to a natural disaster, like a nuclear meltdown or, more appropriately for the film, the Bermuda Triangle, indiscriminately taking lives.
Aside from Cushing’s cursory explanation, there are no references to history or contemporary politics. Cushing’s character, like his more famous portrayal the same year as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars, Episode IV (1977), evokes nonchalant villainy with a crisp British accent. He is not consumed by hate, grandiose visions of a Fourth Reich, or an obsession with racial purity. Cushing is the consummate technocrat who lost control over his masterpiece. If anything, we are supposed to empathize with Cushing, the only substantive character in Shockwaves. James Ward interprets Cushing’s supermen as defective weapons, “the equivalent of V-2 rockets that fell short of their targets or of experimental jet fighters that downed more German test pilots than Allied bombers.” Ward argues Cushing could just have easily been Wernher von Braun, coddled and lionized by former enemies so long as he delivered for the Americans the same way he did for the Nazis. “Instead he drowns in a swamp,” Ward writes, “a victim of the same narrowly focused command mentality that led the . . . engineers to create SS super soldiers in the first place. Nazi habits of mind, like Nazi zombies, die hard.”[iv] Shockwaves energized the zombie subgenre by exploiting fascination with Nazis, but the plot is as old as the horror genre itself – mad scientist unleashes evil on an unsuspecting world.
[i] James J. Ward, “Utterly without Redeeming Social Value? ‘Nazi Science’ Beyond Exploitation Cinema” in Daniel H. Magilow, Kristin T. Vander Lugt, and Elizabeth Bridges, eds., Nazisploitation! The Nazi Image in Low-Brow Cinema and Culture (New York: Continuum Press, 2012), 95.
[ii] Shockwaves, directed by Ken Wiederhorn (Zopix Company, 1977), YouTube.
[iv] Ward, 101.