Monday, June 1, 2015

Movies I Love: Night of the Creeps

by Patrick Bromley
Thrill me.

Fred Dekker's 1986 directorial debut Night of the Creeps plays like an explosion inside an exploitation lover's brain. It's one of my favorite horror movies of the '80s, one of my favorite zombie movies ever and the perfect movie to kick off Junesploitation. For any kid who grew up loving monster movies, sci-fi movies, cop movies and teen comedies, Night of the Creeps plays like the greatest hits of all of them.

Here's how you first know you're in good hands: this zombie movie set at a frat house begins in outer space. A ship of aliens loses their cargo on Earth. Cut to a black and white date scene from 1957. A girl is attacked and murdered by an escaped mental patient while her date finds the alien canister, containing a slug that jumps into his mouth. That's going to be a problem.

Cut to 1985: two fraternity pledges, Chris (Jason Lively) and J.C. (Steve Marshall), are rushing a frat and are tasked with stealing a body from the local morgue. They find a body that's been cryogenically frozen, which ends up being the boyfriend from the opening scene; soon thereafter, his corpse comes back to life and spits one of the alien slugs into the mouth of a scientist played by David Paymer. This begs the attention of Detective Cameron (Tom Atkins in his career-best role), a burnt-out cop who, as luck would have it, was also on the scene as a rookie that night in 1957. Before long, the slugs are spreading all over town, turning the bodies they inhabit into the mindless walking dead. They invade the fraternity and turn all the bros into zombies, inspiring Tom Atkins' best line (and one of the best line in all '80s genre cinema): "The good news is your dates are here." "What's the bad news?" "They're dead."
Where do I even begin talking about my love for Night of the Creeps? Writer/director Dekker, a monster kid from way back, was a successful screenwriter when he got to finally direct. He was only about 26 at the time, but the movie plays like the work of a guy who has waited his entire life to make a movie -- he packs it top to bottom with all the things he loves, he includes every shot he's dreamed of composing (from the Jaws zoom in/dolly out to the first appearance of hard-boiled Atkins, shot from a high angle looking down through a ceiling fan). He doesn't direct Night of the Creeps like he's trying to prove something; he directs it like he's only going to get one chance to make a movie and wants to be sure it's exactly the kind of thing he's always dreamed about seeing.

The movie that Night of the Creeps most reminds me of (for reasons that go beyond the title similarities) is Thom Eberhardt's Night of the Comet, another movie I love dearly. It has a similar pastiche approach, blending '50s sci-fi with '80s teenagers and monster movies. Both movies give us familiar characters and situations but then subvert what we expect. Both movies are so bursting with love for all of my favorite kinds of movies that my heart explodes just thinking about them.

But where Creeps and Comet really meet is with their characters. Comet gives us two wonderful, strong, funny and fully realized female characters in Regina and Sam. Creeps does the same for two insecure but sweet college guys. Chris and J.C. are terrific characters, walking the line between nerdy/pathetic and sarcastic/superior. They might be Ferris Bueller or they might be Lewis Skolnik. Truth is they're neither, and Dekker's refusal to turn them into stereotypes is just one of the movie's many charms. That the movie gives us Tom Atkins going balls out as he riffs on both wisecracking action stars and film noir detectives is just gravy -- gravy that tastes of testosterone and brains.
And then (SPOILERS FOR Night of the Comet AND Night of the Creeps) we get to the scene that changes everything when J.C. -- one of our two protagonists and a sweet guy who is disabled and has to walk with crutches for crying out loud -- gets infected by a slug on the floor of a bathroom in a moment of real suspense. Dekker has been playing things mostly for laughs to this point, but Night of the Creeps completely changes gears and suddenly has real stakes. We like J.C. We don't want to see anything bad happen to him. But then this goofy horror comedy that opened with aliens and features exploding heads and zombie cats tells us that no one is safe. Suddenly the movie means business.

That's not even the worst part, either. No, the worst part is when Chris has to listen back to a tape recording J.C. made after being infected, knowing that he's about to die and using his last minutes to say goodbye to his best friend. It is incredibly moving in a film from which we do not expect such emotional weight. A very astute reader (I have looked and looked to see who it was, so I'm sorry for not including your name) compared the scene to the most moving and emotional moment in Night of the Comet, when we truly believe that Sam is being quietly put to death by some evil scientists. Think about how many horror movies we see in which characters die and we feel nothing -- in fact, we're often actively rooting for that very thing to happen. Now think about how emotionally devastating it is when J.C. and Sam say goodbye. The last words J.C. says to Chris, "I walked. I walked all by myself. I love you. Good luck with Cynthia," wreck me every time I watch the movie. It's such a powerful scene, and it's just a voice on a recording.

Did I mention that the scene comes right between a naked shower montage and a splattery gorefest climax? Night of the Creeps has an amazing ability to shift genres and tones and make it look easy. Again, this is because it is the extension of a filmmaker who genuinely loves and has absorbed hundreds of genre movies. This is not an approximation or a bunch of references mashed together. Dekker has vomited out all of the things he loved into 90 glorious minutes. There's even a Dick Miller cameo (playing a character named -- what else? -- Walter). That doesn't happen by accident.
The movie is very funny, too. Though Dekker sometimes leans heavy on the one-liners (particularly when it comes to Tom Atkins, though you can't blame him), there are great moments of deadpan humor spread throughout. While the whole thing is pitched in a way that's funnier than it is scary, it's the little moments that score the biggest laughs -- moments of human behavior like Jason Lively's delivery on "Other than confessing to a murder, does this story have a point?" Or the way the adorable Jill Whitlow takes her boyfriend out to the porch to break up with him and never looks at him to realize he's become a zombie. Or the way Lively tries to console her afterwards by gently handing her a shotgun and telling her it will make her feel better. When Dekker pushes the laughs, he reminds us that we are watching characters in a movie. But when he just allows the characters to exist in this world and react naturally to things happening around them, he strikes just the right balance between the absurdism and humanity. These are the moments that endear us to these characters and make us want to keep returning to the movie. Well, that and the repeated sight of heads splitting open and alien slugs pouring out.

Because the movie went so long without a real DVD release -- it was unavailable until the special edition Blu-ray was finally released in 2009 -- I just continued to build it up in my mind as the years went on. It became something special to come across it on cable, the way The Wizard of Oz used to only air on TV once a year. My memory of it became confused over time; I remembered it ending one way, but each time I would revisit it the movie would end differently than my memory. I finally got to the bottom of it when I realized that two different endings exist; the original end did used to show up on TV prints of the film. I honestly can't say which one I prefer, though if pressed I would say the theatrical ending if only because I like leaving Cameron where we last see him in the boiler room. But then I also like the cemetery gag (it's not a mistake that a character is watching Plan 9 from Outer Space at one point, and I don't think it's just because it's in the public domain) and the reappearance of the alien ship. Ok, maybe I do prefer the director's cut ending. I've convinced me.
My biggest complaint about Night of the Creeps is that Dekker gives in to the temptation to do what so many young horror lovers do when writing their own movie: he names all the characters and locations after famous horror directors. There's Chris Romero and Jason Carpenter Hooper (barf) and Cynthia Cronenberg and Ray Cameron and the co-eds all attend Corman University (barf barf). There's also a Landis, a Raimi, a Miner. In Dekker's defense, this particular trope wasn't nearly as overdone in 1986 as it has become in the years since, when every up and coming horror director has to prove his or her genre bones by using names we all recognize. Its cleverness had a shelf life, and it lasted roughly 90 minutes in 1986.

Of course the real tragedy here is that Fred Dekker has only directed three movies. After Night of the Creeps, he and his friend Shane Black got The Monster Squad made quickly; it was released just a year after this (and there are a few fun easter eggs in Creeps, like a bathroom stall that reads "Monster Squad forever!" or the fact that Dekker completely reuses the "dead bodies don't get up and walk away by themselves!" smash cut to a corpse walking both here and with the mummy in Monster Squad). It features a lot of stuff that makes Creeps so great minus the nudity and gore. Six years after that he directed RoboCop 3 and the experience was such a nightmare that he hasn't made a feature since. He has worked on TV and had stuff in development, I'm sure, but no movies. It was rumored a few months back that he and Black were reuniting to reboot or sequelize Predator, and while that wouldn't be my first choice of comeback vehicle I'm just happy to be getting another Fred Dekker movie. It's unfair that one of most clever and reverential horror voices of the late '80s only made three movies -- and only two that people will acknowledge. Night of the Creeps makes me weep for the Fred Dekker we should have gotten.

Night of the Creeps is the best: funny, gory, sweet, moving. It offers a slightly different spin on both the alien invasion movie and the zombie movie. Its influence can still be felt today in horror movies that smash together a bunch of influences, but only those that come by it honestly. Its clearest antecedent is James Gunn's Slither, which feels almost like a remake in a lot of ways but ditches most of the emotional stuff for the blackest of black comedy (though an argument can be made that the Rooker monster crying is actually moving). It's one of those horror movies I would watch with my siblings late at night at an age where we probably shouldn't have been watching it, but its spirit is so infectious that it allowed even us kids to be in on the joke. It's a movie among those I credit for making me love horror movies.

Thrill me? You better believe it does.

5 comments:

  1. This is my favorite discovery since I started following this site. Without the benefit of nostalgia, I enjoy every second of this flick. So happy to have found it. Thanks Patrick.

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  2. Great review
    I recently rewatched it after watching Monster Squad on your recommendation, just like you said in the review it's a real shame we did not get more films from Fred, his films have heart just like this column does
    Cheers

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  3. Me an my friends grew up with both of these classic movies an I still love them today, awesome review.
    Patrick you need to do a commentary on these movies, that would be a fun night.

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  4. I finally watched it. Its like it was made specifically for me. Its an 80's teen romantic comedy (love it), with rotting corpse zombies (love it) and Tom Atkins (super love it). I think I love this movie. And Cynthia is unbelievably adorable.

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