My ’80s adolescence was filled with movies about zombies, aliens, exploding heads and axe murderers. And that’s just in Night of the Creeps, an amusing exercise in excess that flopped during its summer of ’86 release. Director Fred Dekker’s kitchen sink approach to comic horror is one of my favorite movies of the ’80s and no, it’s not because I love movies that begin with “Night of The” (Hunter, Living Dead, Comet, Lepus—OK maybe not Lepus). Night of the Creeps is the “I Love the ’80s” of moviemaking. It has every element and cliché ever put into a film made in the greatest decade of my lifetime. Its enthusiastic, go-for-broke gusto is like a guy having a one night stand with the hottest woman he’s ever met. Fred Dekker is that guy, and his screenplay is that smokin’ hot babe. Because Creeps throws in every move the director knows, as if he may never get the chance to do this again. Let’s tick off the veritable cornucopia of ’80s movie characteristics.
The Mad Killer and his Flashback Origin Story:
Night of the Creeps has a crazed slasher. He escaped from the psycho ward, and in a nicely shot black-and-white flashback to 1959, he’s preying on teenagers who commit the mortal sin of oochie coochie la-la-la. He hits them with an axe. A lot. A young cop goes to warn teens at makeout point, only to discover his former flame parking with another guy. Despite being stunned and somewhat hurt, the cop tells the lovers to go home. They don’t. Instead, the guy goes into the woods, leaving the terrified girl in the car all alone. The cop later finds her “in the car, on the road, and in the woods.”
The Vengeful Cop
Hard-drinking Officer Ray Cameron (Tom Atkins) is completely no-nonsense, a tough-as-nails cop whose dialogue sounds like the love child of Steven E. de Souza and Raymond Chandler. In his first line of dialogue, Atkins answers the phone the way I always wanted to back when I did helpdesk. Picking it up, he doesn’t say hello. He barks two words into the receiver:
It’s 1986, and boozy Officer Cameron has a lot on his conscience. See, after finding his girl, he also found the axe murderer. This is pre-Miranda Rights, so the killer is blown away with a shotgun, and buried in a vacant lot. That lot is now occupied by the sorority house mother’s cottage, a surefire way to keep this secret hidden. But the officer suspects the recipient of his deserving wrath won’t stay that hidden much longer, despite the fact that he’s been underground for 27 years and probably dust by now. Cameron’s suspicions are about to be confirmed.
Zombies and Heads that Blowed Up Real Good
Night of the Creeps has lotsa zombies, and they all need to be shot in the head. But unlike the zombies in Dawn of the Dead, who went to the mall presumably because of some remnant of memory embedded in their rotting brains, the zombies here show up for appointments and try to continue living a normal life. That axe murderer? He chops his way through the floor (and the head) of the house mother before resuming his spree. The jocks on the college campus, who were gruesomely killed in a bus accident en route to picking up their dates for the big dance, show up at the sorority house still hoping to give the girls some deadwood after the formal. One of them even pretends to listen as his former girlfriend (the lovely Jill Whitlow) explains why she can’t go to the dance with him, at least until his head mysteriously cracks open. A lot of heads get mistreated in this picture, and not just from bullets, axes and lawnmowers. Sometimes they explode on their own.
Shitty Spaceship Special Effects and Killer Alien Slugs
Helping the zombies get their Scanners mojo on are a bunch of sluglike aliens that jump into your mouth, make babies in your head and then find a way out so they can repeat the process in other people’s noggins. As Night of the Creeps opens, we see some really shitty looking aliens on a spaceship firing at an escaping alien. The music is pure cheeseball synthesizer goodness, perfectly executed by the guy who scored Xanadu, Barry DeVorzon. The fugitive is holding a canister that he expels from the ship. As the canister flies through the starry night sky, Dekker’s camera pans down into the black-and-white flashback, where Officer Cameron’s ex wishes on the shooting star that’s actually this canister entering the Earth’s atmosphere. As the unlucky lady gets axed out on a date by the madman, her unlucky paramour is in the woods discovering the now cracked canister. He opens his mouth, and gets something he didn’t want in it.
Officer Cameron’s partner finds the infected guy, whose body is cryogenically frozen by some weirdo lab in town. 27 years later, our hero enters this lab with his best buddy, and not only meets a young David Paymer, but also learns a painful lesson about frozen dudes.
John Hughes’ Influence
Officer Cameron is certainly one of the heroes of Night of the Creeps, but our main character and chief hero is teenager Chris (Jason Lively), a somewhat geeky dude whose best buddy J.C. (Steve Marshall) is on crutches yet more outgoing than his able-bodied best bud. It’s J.C’s idea to join a fraternity in order for Chris to impress women, which leads them to the cryogenics lab to steal a cadaver as an initiation ritual. Out of all the cadavers in all the cryogenics labs in the world, the duo have to try to steal the one with the frozen killer aliens inside it, unwittingly helping them spread to the college campus.
J.C. serves as Chris’ wise wingman as he tries to woo Jill Whitlow’s Cynthia. Cynthia is treated better than most women in horror movies; she’s witty, funny, pretty, and privy to more information than our heroes. The interplay between her, her dickish ex-boyfriend, Chris and J.C. plays like a John Hughes comedy, that is, if Hughes had the balls to give Molly Ringwald a flamethrower while Duckie falls for Andrew McCarthy. In my original review of Night of the Creeps, I got in a lot of trouble for saying there is a strong, though one-sided, homoerotic subtext between J.C. and Chris, and it has nothing to do with J.C. telling Chris “I love you” early in the film. J.C. has more than just a man crush on Chris—he’s more concerned with Chris getting laid than himself—and by virtue of this PLUS being the sidekick, you know J.C. has to die. Listen to the tape recorded message the alien-infected J.C. leaves for Chris, where he tells Chris he walked on his own for the first time, and how liberating it was to be free of those crutches. I don’t think I’m reading too much symbolism into this, and if I’m not, it’s actually wonderful. J.C.’s recording, specifically the last three words he says before it ends, made me the saddest I’ve ever felt during a cheesy horror movie. There’s real weight to his demise.
A Lot More People Gotta Die
Like most ’80s action movies, Night of the Creeps climaxes with a massacre where tons of extras get slaughtered. Many of these extras are played by the film’s F/X people, guys like Greg Nicotero and Robert Kurtzman of KNB, here getting their start in the business and doing their own gore makeup. On the abundant DVD extras, Kurtzman and Nicotero discuss how they did the effects (the Creeps are sometimes just leech-like sculptures with Hot Wheels cars underneath them—take that, CGI) and the director and his stars discuss the film in depth before appearing at a packed 2009 showing at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin. The DVD, like the Drafthouse showing, is the director’s cut, with a different ending from the one on my old VHS copy. Truthfully, both the original ending and the one the studio had Dekker tack on after the original tested badly, kind of suck. I don’t really like either ending, but I’m partial to the terrible shock ending the studio requested.
Despite that, Creeps’ cult following is well earned. Its characters are all named after horror directors, and the F/X are cheap as hell but occasionally goose you (a scene with a cat is beyond disgusting and still makes me cringe). The dialogue is memorably hilarious and convincingly spoken by Tom Atkins in his favorite role. He takes the film’s most famous lines, which look unplayable on the page, and makes the scene a classic.
Atkins: “I got good news and bad news for you, girls. The good news is your dates are here.”
Sorority Girl: “What’s the bad news?”
Atkins: “They’re dead.”