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Revisiting Night of the Creeps (1986)

In 1986 Fred Dekker, made his directorial debut with that trickiest of all genre blends – the horror comedy. He was twenty six years old, and wrote the movie in two weeks, incorporating all of his favourite elements of horror, science fiction and classic 50s B-movies into Night Of The Creeps. Although it failed to set the box office alight on release, Night Of The Creeps found its audience in the years to follow, developing into a popular cult favourite. As it enters its 32nd year, what better time to take a look at why Night Of The Creeps is still so much fun.

Set on the campus of the excellently named Corman University, Night Of The Creeps introduces us to college roommates, and best friends, Chris (Jason Lively) and J.C.  (Steve Marshall). With J.C.’s help, Chris attempts to win the attention of Cynthia (Jill Whitlow) away from her bullying jock boyfriend Brad (Allan J. Kayser). While all this is happening, an extra-terrestrial spacecraft has deposited a cargo of squirming gastropod terror on Earth. These slugs, or ‘creeps’, take over the bodies of their human hosts, turning them into zombies and wreaking havoc on the town population. With the help of world weary detective, Ray Cameron (Tom Atkins), it falls upon the gang to stop them.

You might be tempted to think Night Of The Creeps’ cross genre pollination is too much for one movie to handle, especially when horror /comedy is a particularly hard thing to balance. But fear not, Dekker manages to get tone just right, resulting in a cinematic chimera of horror, science fiction and a bit of John Hughes to become a different beast altogether.

The creeps arrive on Earth via meteor, a la The Blob (1958), in a black and white sequence that lovingly homages the style of 50s B-movies and science fiction classics. When the action is transported to the modern day, Night Of The Creeps hits both its comedic and horror stride nicely. The horror aspects come to the fore with some particularly dark back story for Detective Cameron and some excellent practical effects work that delivers scurrying, whippet fast space slugs, decrepit skeletal zombies and disgusting exploding heads.

In a fun twist, the main characters are all named after classic horror directors, so we’ve got a Romero, Carpenter, Hooper, Cronenberg, Raimi and Landis. For the casual moviegoer this might not even register, but for horror nerds it’s a lot of fun and fits perfectly with the light tone. In fact, these small tributes continue to be a favourite of Dekker’s, as in his script for The Predator (2018) he named the character of Baxley after Craig R. Baxley, the stunt coordinator and second unit director on the original Predator (1987) movie.

With its cast, Night Of The Creeps succeeds in providing us a gang of likable zombie battlers. Sure, Jason Lively’s Chris might be a bit of a milksop, but he’s ultimately a romantic. He’ll shotgun a zombie with the best of them, but he’s far more terrified of not getting together with Cynthia (Jill Whitlow) than of the shambling zombie horde. While Cynthia herself dumps convention, and deceased boyfriend Brad, to pick up a flamethrower and fight her own way out of the undead menace. There’s also Roger Corman and Joe Dante regular Dick Miller popping up in a small role as Walt, and additional viewing fun can be had trying to spot both Shane Black and Greg Nicotero who appear as extras.

Among the cast we have one of Night Of The Creeps greatest assets – Tom Atkins. Probably best known as John Carpenter’s secret weapon, deployed in support of The Fog (1980) and Escape From New York (1981), he was more than capable of holding a movie on his own, as he proved with Halloween 3: Season Of the Witch (1982). Atkins is an easy screen presence and as Detective Ray Cameron, he’s gruff and haunted but also strangely affable. So when things get dark, and for a horror comedy they get real dark, Atkins keeps things afloat. It’s a normal-guy performance brought to bear on an unusual character. Whether it’s his catchphrase of “Thrill Me” or his insistence on calling Chris ‘Spanky’ at every given opportunity, he ushers in just the right amount of levity. One step in the wrong direction, one mistimed gag or too much nastiness, and Night Of The Creeps is sunk. But to its great credit it keeps the horror/comedy balance in perfect alignment, and Atkins himself rates it as his favourite of all the films he’s made.

One thing of particular interest with Night Of The Creeps is that two endings exist. We won’t go into spoilers here, but much like Sam Raimi’s Army Of Darkness (1992) there exists an ending preferred by the director, and a secondary theatrical ending created on the orders of the studio. In a strange good news vs good news twist, both endings are pretty good, despite Dekker’s personal dislike of the studio imposed finale, which was the result of a disastrous test screening where the film was shown without finished effects. Although the theatrical ending is a bit of a middle finger to the audience it’s not quite as bad as Dekker seems to think it is, and like Army Of Darkness you might even be hard pushed to pick a favourite. If you force my hand, I marginally prefer the director approved endings of both, and for the same reason: they are each the crazier, slightly more imaginative option.

While Night Of The Creeps’ merits are plain to see, even from first viewing, it’s probably fair to say no one could have predicted its longevity. It undoubtedly reaped the right time / right place benefits of home video. Staring down from the racks from a behind a selection of salacious cover art, Night Of The Creeps ‘wormed’ itself into the subconscious of kids everywhere, who have now reached… cough… middle age. This added nostalgia value, and anniversary screenings allowing home video converts to see it on the big screen for the first time, ensure its place as a bone fide horror/sci-fi classic. In recent years Sony, Umbrella and Eureka have all released extras heavy blu ray love letters to Night Of The Creeps which further cement its beloved reputation.

Night Of The Creeps has also provided much inspiration within the current independent movie poster renaissance, with boutique poster companies and cinemas commissioning new and limited prints to accompany screenings. Designer / collectible toy outfit Retroband even came out with a Night Of The Creeps slug action figure. But the film always had a rich history when it came to art, with at least four stunning posters marking themselves indelibly on our brains – including Graham Humphreys eye popping cover for the U.K. VHS release, and the more famous theatrical poster by Bob Larkin, of a zombified hand doing a spot of breaking and entering. Larkin’s theatrical poster design is not a million miles away from the poster for Steve Miner’s House (1986), a fact that was not lost on producer Charles Gordon who voiced concern at the time that people might think they’d already seen the movie.

Night Of The Creeps legacy also extends beyond its own status as a cult favourite, lending inspiration to a couple of excellent parasite-on-the-rampage movies. James Gunn’s debut horror comedy Slither (2006), although more than capable of dishing out its own brand of body horror madness, owes a debt to Dekker’s movie, replete with slugs turning folk into zombies. And Jack Sholder’s monumentally underseen space slug/possession outing The Hidden (1987) starring Kyle MacLachlan, is a conceptual sibling that takes the alien parasite idea in a completely different, hedonistic, but no less berserk direction.

But don’t be fooled by zombie / parasite mash up Zombie Town (2007), which has been known to cockily strut about under the moniker Night of The Creeps 2. Although sharing in the malevolent mollusc themes, the implication that it’s a sequel is pure marketing flim flam.

Dekker, sadly, has not directed a movie since Robocop 3 (1993), which unfortunately proved the law of diminishing returns as far as the original Robo movies were concerned. But he did follow up Night Of The Creeps with another much loved creature feature, The Monster Squad (1987). Monster Squad also took time to find its audience but has only grown in fans’ appreciation since, culminating in the superbly titled documentary Wolfman’s Got Nards (2018). Post-Creeps, Dekker also took on story duties for the first House (1986) movie and worked as a consulting producer on Star Trek: Enterprise.

The mid-to-late 80s was something of a purple patch for horror comedy, with classics like Return Of The Living Dead (1985), Re-Animator (1985) and Critters (1986) coming at us left right and centre, but Night Of The Creeps sits alongside them as a classic of both era and genre. This perfect storm of horror, science fiction and comedy is no coincidence. It works because Dekker knows his influences inside out and with the help of the great cast and sterling effects work, created a movie that is above all else, just massively fun.

Links:

Graham Humphreys’ Night Of The Creeps VHS cover

https://grahamhumphreys.com/gallery/vintage-vhs/

Bob Larkin

http://boblarkin.blogspot.com

Retroband

http://www.retrobandtoys.com/#/new-gallery/

About Adam Fleet

Adam Fleet is a film nerd, record collector, comic book enthusiast, punk rocker. Originally from the UK but based in Melbourne, Australia he also writes for Screen Realm and has written for Junkee and the Rue Morgue website. He also writes short fiction and tweets/Instagrams at @adamfleetmovies.

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