Title: Death Ship
Year of Release: 1980
Director: Alvin Rakoff
Length: 85 mins
Starring: Richard Crenna, George Kennedy, Nick Mancuso, Sally Ann Howes, Kate Reid, Saul Rubinek
I’d never even heard of this Bloodstar Films production until I read about it in an issue of the venerated Fortean Times magazine (FT396, if you’re interested). I’ve always had a thing for Nazi zombies, as referenced before in previous RetViews Shock Waves and Outpost. I also recently discovered that I have a thing for horror set on ships. I have no idea why that is. It could be something about the bleak, all-encompassing emptiness of being at sea, but it’s probably more to do with the fact that if some supernatural shit befalls you in a house, or even a cabin buried in the woods, you can always just count your losses and run. You can’t do that on a ship. You have to stay and face whatever evil shit is about to befall you. Anyway, the potential for Nazi zombies and an evil sea-faring vessel combo suckered me right into Death Ship. Throw in Richard Crenna from the Rambo films, Saul Rubinek from True Romance (and Frasier) and George Kennedy from, er, Cool Hand Luke and Earthquake, I was already sold. And if all that wasn’t enough, just look at this poster!
So what’s it all about?
Well, stuffy Captain Ashland (Kennedy) is on his final cruise before handing over the reigns to Trevor Marshall (Crenna) who has brought his wife (Howes, in her final film appearance) and kids along on the trip. At a glitzy on-ship party there’s a band playing, some drunk people, and lots of terrible dad dancing. Everyone is having a great time. Except Captain Ashland, who you doubt could have a great time anywhere. But all the decadence and debauchery comes to a sudden halt when the cruise liner smashes into something and sinks, leaving just a handful of survivors unfortunately including Marshall’s annoying kids, a lecherous young officer, and a near-hysterical passenger, floating around on a makeshift raft. The next morning they find the grumpy captain in the water, which is a stroke of luck, or maybe not, then they come across a massive, ominous-looking black ship anchored in the middle of the ocean with a ladder down ready to receive them, which seems like another mad stroke of luck but turns out to be quite the opposite. Thinking they’ve found salvation, the survivors board the strange ship to find it deserted. Still, it’s better than being on the raft, or so they think. The first sign that something isn’t right comes when ship’s entertainer Jackie (Rubinek) is suddenly scooped up by a possessed winch and dumped screaming head first into the sea. Bye, Jackie. It was fun while it lasted. Things degenerate from there. The remaining survivors, whilst trying to navigate this mysterious vessel full of disembodied voices, creepy shadows and inanimate objects that take on lives of their own, get picked off one-by-one, until only the good-natured Trevor Marshall, his wife, and those annoying kids are left and ultimately find themselves back where they started on another flimsy-looking rafty-thing in the water. There’s probably a message there.
Life and soul of the party Captain Ashland and the underlying friction between him and his would-be replacement Marshall is instrumental in all this.
“You don’t know how to handle a crew or passengers!”
“Maybe so, Marshall. But I know how to handle ships.”
At one point, Ashland even dons a discarded German navy uniform and appears to channel the ship’s long-dead and rather sadistic head honcho whilst embarking on a murderous rampage. It all leads up to the highly anticipated revelation, which ties things up nicely and makes for a nice, satisfying conclusion. Especially after the evil Captain Ashland comes to a suitably sticky end and, of course, good triumphs over evil.
It’s easy to see why Death Ship got lost in the shuffle. It doesn’t have the immediacy of other popular horror flicks of the day like Cannibal Holocaust, Friday the 13th or Prom Night. It could, however, be a distant cousin of The Fog. It has a much more brooding atmosphere and, dare I say, slightly more substance reinforced by some remarkable cinematography, an impressive plot, and a killer (sorry) cast. It’s picked up a few retrospective reviews like this one on Warped Perspective, which is a real indicator as to whether a movie is truly attaining cult status, and review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes gives it an overall score of 4.2 out of 10 based on 5 reviews, which isn’t as bad as it sounds. One review states, “Death Ship is a terrific, low-budget cheesy supernatural tale that should definitely appeal to midnight movie horror fans. I thoroughly enjoyed the film, and I feel that this is one of the most underrated films in the genre.”
It’s hard to argue with that, and those sentiments are echoed by Jeremy Blitz of DVD Talk, who said, “It isn’t a perfect film, but it is an enjoyable one, especially for fans of the somewhat lower tier horror efforts of the late seventies and early eighties.” Its flaws, however, are plain to see. Many called it unimaginative or derivative, with a shower scene in particular said to mirror the famous one in Psycho a little too closely. Incidentally, the shower scene in Death Ship was shot in one take, as it was deemed too expensive and troublesome to clean up the blood and shoot it again. It wasn’t all plain sailing (boom!). Damningly, TV Guide called the movie “ludicrous” and gave it a one-star rating. It’s probably safe to say that despite its considerable merits, this won’t be something that many of it’s stellar cast will look back on with much pride. For one delightful moment whilst researching this piece, I thought I’d stumbled across a modern(ish) remake. But that turned out to be nothing more than the result of some artwork someone mocked up in Deviant Art. Good effort, though.
As the ghost ship collided with the cruise liner, brief scenes of an explosion, a grand piano falling between decks, and the engine room flooding were cut in from another movie entirely. The movie in question was The Last Voyage (1960).