|"Enough with the mustache comments.|
Don't make me shoot you in the face."
A decade before Scream and The Faculty popularized the postmodern horror-comedy, there was Fred Dekker's Night of the Creeps. A perfect blend of clever genre satire and well-crafted bloody thrills, Creeps is one of the most fun and unique horror films of the '80s, right alongside well-loved classics like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Fright Night. It deserves, like those, to be a household name among genre fans, but only in the last decade did it really surface on the mainstream radar beyond its passionate cult following. Perhaps it was just too far ahead of its time: it satirized the 1980s wave of horror films while that wave was still in full force, and maybe viewers weren't ready to laugh at its tropes yet. It certainly didn't help that the film spent about two decades out of print after its initial VHS release, inaccessible to all but hardcore collectors. Thirty years after that release, this is definitely its time to regain the spotlight. If you liked the genre-skewering humor of Cabin in the Woods or Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, you'll definitely dig Night of the Creeps: it planted the seeds from which all those subsequent films grew, and perhaps none of them would have been the same without it.
Strange things are going on at Corman University. Amid the usual house parties, class struggles, and campus drama, alien parasites are slithering around unnoticed, and the dead are starting to rise. Thus begins Dekker's delicious cocktail of awkward college comedy, snarky dissection of movie cliches, and honestly really awesome zombie flick. Naturally it's the campus's misfit geeks (Jason Lively and Steve Marshall) to the rescue; they're already used to fighting for survival against their pretentious and buffoonish frat-boy tormentors, and zombies are only so different. Also investigating the strange occurrences is a world-weary detective (John Carpenter regular Tom Atkins) who is so self-consciously hard-boiled that he reads Raymond Chandler novels to keep his banter sharp and witty.
With a plot and cast of characters that could easily be too silly or too over-the-top, Dekker controls the reigns perfectly, and makes it all work much better than it seems like it should. The horror-comedy is a very tricky thing to pull off: many of the movies that attempt it lean too far one way or the other, and end up feeling like a horror film with incongruously silly bits of comedy (Elm Street 2) or a comedy with jarringly dark bits of horror (Gremlins). Here we have a film that takes itself just seriously enough to deliver some strong, well-developed characters and genuine shock and horror, but also has enough self-aware humor to pull off an astounding amount of genre in-jokes without it feeling like overkill. Horror and sci-fi fans will find a lot to laugh at (the name of the college should tip the film's hand to the type of “spot the reference” game that it plays), but will still be impressed when the movie bares its teeth.
As sure a hand as Dekker brings to the material, the cast plays a huge part in making this balance work. Lively and Marshall are awkward but likable, funny but realistic, as out geek-heroes. Jill Whitlow gives an equally strong performance as a Veronica Sawyer-type popular girl who is well aware that her friends are terrible people and doesn't mind doing something about it. But while they anchor the film in the real world, it's Atkins who utterly steals the show as the wannabe-Philip-Marlowe detective. It's an effortlessly cool and funny performance that lands just on the right side of parody, but nonetheless has some depth to it. His character also gives the movie its most quotable lines (“thrill me”).
Then there are the film's other major stars, the zombies. They're awesome: ghoulishly fun villains that are quite gory, with plenty of exploding heads and ripped-off faces, but in a charmingly comic-book-y rather than realistic or gross-out way. Less Walking Dead or Dead-Alive and more of an R-rated take on Thriller, if you will. Night of the Creeps was famously a huge inspiration for the mid-2000s zombie splatter-comedy Slither (see The Movie Sleuth's Spiritual Remakes article for more on that comparison), but the style of the zombies is one of the biggest indicators of these films' fundamental differences. Slither loves pushing the gore envelope to comically disgusting heights, like Peter Jackson's stomach-churning early movies, but Night of the Creeps feels more like a film counterpart to the Super Nintendo/Sega Genesis classic Zombies Ate My Neighbors. The team behind these excellent make-up effects includes Robert Kurtzman and Howard Berger, who would soon form two-thirds of the K.N.B. EFX group, of Evil Dead II, Tales from the Darkside, and Army of Darkness fame. Even on their first project, their talents are first-rate.
|"Be careful. You'll burn their mullets."|
After spending all of the 1990s and most of the 2000s out of print, available only as overpriced used tapes or dubious-quality bootlegs, Night of the Creeps finally made its DVD and blu-ray debut in 2009, as a special edition director's cut. As with Army of Darkness, the main difference between the two versions is an alternate ending. But to be honest, just like Army of Darkness, I think the studio was right to say that the director's original ending just didn't work. I appreciate what Fred Dekker was going for with his finale, but I think the ending for the theatrical cut finishes the film on a far more appropriate note. Fortunately, the disc includes the theatrical ending as well, although just as a special feature. Both endings have their fervent fans, so perhaps it isn't fair to say that one is better than the other, but I strongly encourage viewers to watch both, and see which they prefer. Really, a bit of a choose-your-own-ending style fits with the postmodern attitude of the film anyway.
If Night of the Creeps has eluded you like it has so many horror fans, this is the Halloween to correct that glaring gap in your genre education. Aside from Return of the Living Dead, I can't think of another 1980s zombie flick this fun. As far as postmodern horror-comedies go, it's every bit as enjoyable and smartly written as Scream and The Faculty, and it balances its macabre and comedic elements just as well. This is one of a few films that I watch most years to get pumped up for Halloween. From the ghoulish zombies to the snarky humor to the distinctly-80s horror aesthetic, it perfectly sets the mood for the season. Definitely check this one out.
- Christopher S. Jordan
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