“Those who survive the ghost ship are better off dead.” Such is the tagline for the 1980 nautical horror film—and cult classic—Death Ship. I have to admit to teetering on the fence about calling it a guilty pleasure or a guilty displeasure. But ultimately its many laughs—totally unintentional—won me over. So did its stars, Oscar-winner George Kennedy and Emmy-winner Richard Crenna, each of whom obviously needed a paycheck.
NASTY NAZIS WON’T GO AWAY
No long synopsis here; I’ll give you the opening scenes and the basic premise. The people aboard a luxury cruise ship are partying hearty and are all smiles, save for the grumpy Captain Ashland (Kennedy), who doesn’t like people in general. This is his last voyage, the company putting him out to pasture. To add salt to the wound, his replacement, Trevor Marshall (Crenna), is on board, along with his wife and two young children.
As the champagne flows late into the night, radar detects a creepy black freighter headed right for the cruise ship. We learn that this is a WWII Nazi prison/torture ship (seriously), its invisible crew the ghosts of those who sailed it during the war (seriously). Apparently wanting to join the party, its rams the cruise ship and sends it down to Davy Jones’s Locker. (We don’t see much of this; the special effects were rather chintzy.)
WE’RE SAVED! OR NOT…
In the aftermath we see a lifeboat carrying Marshall and his family, along with four other survivors, including the ship’s comic (seriously). Later, Captain Ashland bobs up, barely conscious. They float around for a while, until they spot a ship. Big sigh of relief, right? Wrong; it’s the Nazi death ship, the one that sank their vessel. But what do they know? They climb aboard.
Now, instead of a warm welcome from a crew that they don’t see, the ship greets them by first depositing the boarding ladder into the sea. They somehow all manage to climb aboard, but as the comic tries to loosen everyone up, he is snatched by a crane and tossed overboard, where he drowns (seriously).
So now the stage is set as our castaways explore the creepy corridors of the freighter, where we hear the hollow voices of those who once perpetrated horrible tortures on their prisoners, making plans for the new arrivals. With fresh blood now on board, the toll will continue to climb in some exquisitely gruesome ways.
To make matters worse, Captain Ashland’s body will be possessed by the vessel’s dead captain (seriously). Soon he will don a German naval uniform (seriously) and participate in some nasty murders, along with the ship’s otherworldly crew.
And so it goes, with a questionable 1980s soundtrack to accompany the carnage. To be sure, Death Ship is not everyone’s cup of blood, but if you set the bar real low, you won’t have a problem with it.