Death Ship (1980)
"Those who survive the ghost ship are better off dead!"
Unbeknown to the passengers on board a cruise ship in the Caribbean, a mysterious vessel is approaching on a collision course. Despite the efforts of the crew to avert a disaster, the ship is lost with all hands, except for a handful of survivors. Drifting on a raft, they come across an apparently-deserted freighter and decide to go aboard and await rescue. However the fate that awaits them on board is worse than anything they could have imagined as the freighter used to be a Nazi torture ship and needs blood to keep running.
It's great when obscure films get DVD releases. I said it in my review for Mountaintop Motel Massacre that I appreciate it when studios like Anchor Bay snap up the rights to this sort of film and release them on DVD, even if they are not very good. It allows people like me the chance to find films that I'd never heard of. So I almost wet myself when I saw this being released on DVD. Here is a film that sounds a lot like the rather naff Ghost Ship (even closely ripping off the poster artwork) but was made in a time when cheese and low budgets were the order of the day as opposed to special effects and sound bursts. So how does it handle?
Death Ship’s low budget does show and it shows very early on. The footage of both the cruise ship and the freighter is clearly culled from other films - the cruiser is all lit up in night time footage whilst the freighter goes full steam ahead in the day. I guess you're supposed to believe they're on a collision course as the footage quickly cuts from one ship to the next with ominous music playing in the background. You don't even see the collision, just a few extras throwing themselves around the set as the camera shakes. Again the footage of the sinking ship is ‘borrowed’ from other ocean disaster films. The funny thing is that when you see just who survived the collision, you'll be amazed at how they did given that they're all from different parts of the ship. It's also very convenient that the only people who had speaking roles before the collision are the only ones who survive.
The Nazi freighter looks great it has to be said. I know that it's only a normal freighter but the way in which its shot, with long dimly-lit corridors and constantly creaking doors and windows really gives it that extra dimension. There are shaky hand-held POV angles galore, with each tilt of the lens adding another layer of madness and mayhem to the proceedings and there is a genuine sense of foreboding to Death Ship, particularly early on as the characters explore the strange ship. Unfortunately there's not a great deal that's done with the setting and once the characters are aboard, the film just shifts into an ‘explore/death/explore/death’ cycle. The film has a few decent ideas but they're all just thrown out there in the hope they'll stick. Everything and anything happens on board the ship including a gramophone which keeps playing, the on-ship cinema which keeps playing Nazi rally footage and germ-warfare sweets which lay in the cupboards. You never see any ghosts or zombies or anything so those expecting the ship to be full of rotting Nazis best look elsewhere.
The set pieces in Death Ship are decent and not overly violent or gory. One guy is hoisted into the air by a crane and then dropped into the sea. Another is crushed to death in a pile of rotting corpses. The most famous scene from this flick, and probably the reason it was derived by the censors when it was released, is that of the blood shower. A naked chick gets a shower which runs blood. This mixture of nudity and blood has always been frowned upon in the UK (Hammer fell victim to many of the censors with some of their ‘blood on nipple’ scenes) but nowadays it just looks pretty timid. But alas, that's all this film boils down to - the series of set pieces with a flimsy plot stringing them along together.
There's a decent cast here for such a B picture. George Kennedy stars as the captain of the cruise ship who starts to go crazy once he's on the freighter. He hams it up to immense proportions as the voices in his head talk German to him and tell him to do nasty things to the others. Kennedy was approaching the end of his career here and a hilarious turn as Leslie Nielsen's partner in The Naked Gun films aside, he took on a lot of dodgy roles in low budget horror films during the 80s. Richard Crenna (from the Rambo films) is also around and adds some believability to the proceedings. I was a bit annoyed to see no less than two children survive the collision meaning that although there were seven survivors, the two children were pretty much ‘untouchable’ by horror standards which greatly lowered the potential body count.
Death Ship is a classic example of B-movie making at its best and an even better example of the "they don't make them like this anymore" school of filmmaking. It shouldn't work but it does well - better than I guess anyone making it would have imagined - even if there's a ton of stuff that doesn't make a lot of sense. This is one voyage you won't forget in a hurry.
Director(s): Alvin Rakoff
Writer(s): John Robins (screenplay), Jack Hill (story), David P. Lewis (story)
Actor(s): George Kennedy, Richard Crenna, Nick Mancuso, Sally Ann Howes, Kate Reid, Victoria Burgoyne
Duration: 91 mins