A few years ago I was introduced to the Airport series of films and learned an important fact: If you’re involved in some sort of airplane disaster, you want George Kennedy on the case. Kennedy played the role of the legendary Joe Patroni in all four of those films. By the time I’d made it through all of them I was convinced that he not only could out Sully Sully Sullenberger, but that he likely invented the airplane and the Wright Brothers just stole the credit. So we know the guy can handle a plane, but how does he do with a boat? One possessed by Nazi’s, no less. Put on your life preservers for 1980’s Death Ship.
Our story begins with a luxury cruise liner being rammed in the middle of the night by a derelict ship. Actually, I’m not sure if this happened at night, since all the footage of the rusting ship is at daytime, while the cruise liner footage is shot at night. Anyhow, the incident leads to a number of crew members and passengers floating off on a piece of the ship. This includes the second mate, soon to be captain, Trevor Marshall (Richard Crenna), his wife (Sally Ann Howes) and two kids. We also have another officer, the girl he’s been gettin’ busy with, the ship’s nightclub entertainer, an old woman, and the badly injured Captain Ashland (George Kennedy). Eventually, they all end up on the ship that rammed them, though they don’t know that.
It doesn’t take long to realize that the ship has a mind of its own. It starts by stringing up the nightclub MC and dunking him in the ocean to be ground up by the ship’s propellers. The old woman also has an incident after eating some candies that cause her face to puff up. Right about this time, Captain Ashland regains consciousness and starts to act a bit weird. You know, stuff like dressing up in the Nazi uniform he found. As it becomes clear to Marshall that this ship was once essentially a concentration camp on the high seas, Ashland starts working along with this ghost ship to eliminate the others one by one
It’s starting to become a tradition that each Halloween season one of the films we cover deals with Nazi ghosts causing trouble. Plus, these films also tend to have something to do with water, as we saw in films like Zombie Lake and Shock Waves. At least this time they have a boat. Now, unlike those others films, we don’t really have zombie Nazis roaming around, but I did find the possessed ship to be a more interesting gimmick. No crew is needed on this ship, ropes, gears, and levers all move on their own. The first sequence where we see the ship come to life, so to speak, is actually quite effective. Ropes start squirming around like snakes and then wrap themselves around the legs of Saul Rubineck as the hapless nightclub MC. He’s then lifted a couple hundred feet into the air, hanging by his ankles like a Cirque Du Soleil act gone bad. It’s a decent sequence that looks and feels quite dangerous.
The rest of the film doesn’t maintain the same level of intensity. In fact, things eventually get downright goofy. We have a sequence where actress Victoria Burgoyne is trapped in a shower closet that starts raining blood on her. The sequence is both gratuitous and a bit tacky considering the other context that showers have when discussed in relation to the Nazis in World War II. Later, Nick Mancuso’s character ends up in a net filled with drowned corpses that plays out in slow motion and is punctuated by some of the most manic overacting I’ve ever witnessed. It’s just one of several symptoms of this film’s slow decent into silliness.
George Kennedy does still manage to be somewhat of a bright spot. Kennedy does good crazy, and that’s pretty much what he’s called upon to dish out in this performance. You can’t help but be a bit taken in by that sinister twinkle in his eye. At the very least, Kennedy seems to understand the nature of this material. It’s a great contrast to Crenna who is taking this all way too seriously and just kind of huffs and puffs his way around the decks.
In the end, Death Ship ends up being a pretty forgettable film. Its premise has potential which is never really properly explored, but not really to the level of calling it a big fat missed opportunity. It’s still mildly entertaining, but ultimately it seems that George Kennedy was better suited to the air than he was the sea.