With the advent of the B-movie and the coming of innovative, low-budget filmmakers like Roger Corman and Ed Wood, horror movies began to develop more creative and interesting monsters. Soon, viewers were treated to hybrid monsters, beasts that combined typical tropes into different (if not completely new) archetypes. Examples of this include the serial killing vampires in Near Dark and the alien werewolf in The Dark. In 1986, audiences were treated to the granddaddy of all hybrid monster movies, Night of the Creeps.
Night of the Creeps begins in 1959 with a scene that sets up what the viewer can expect from the next ninety minutes; a rubber alien creature escaping from other rubber alien creatures with a canister of experimental alien technology. The canister is dropped from the spaceship and lands near a popular make-out spot for teenagers that, coincidentally, is being stalked by an axe-wielding escaped mental patient. A couple notices the canister fall from the sky, and the young man goes to investigate. When he finds the fallen debris, a space slug leaps out of the wreckage and slips down his throat. The story fast forwards to the eighties where a young man named Chris Romero (Jason Lively, Rusty Griswold from European Vacation) spots the girl of his dreams, Cynthia Cronenberg (Twice Dead’s Jill Whitlow), at a fraternity party. He mentions his attraction to his best friend, J.C. (Steve Marshall from In Search of Mister Ey), who embarrassingly introduces them. After the awkward meeting, Chris decides that the only way that he can win Cynthia’s heart is by joining a fraternity. As a pledge prank, Chris and J.C. are told to steal a cadaver from a medical lab. The cadaver that they decide to steal is the body of the boy who was attacked by the slug that has been kept in suspended animation for 30 years. The boys break the cadaver out of its container, but chicken out and run home before stealing it. When the lab attendant returns, the cadaver has come back to life and murders him. Detective Cameron (horror fixture Tom Atkins from The Fog, Creepshow, Maniac Cop and many more) is called to the scene, but when he arrives he finds only the dead attendant. Meanwhile, the cadaver makes its way around town, the space slugs leaping into other people’s heads to create more zombies. Cameron, Chris, and the others have to find a way to stop the space-slug-zombies before they wipe out the entire college…and the world.
The brainchild of writer/director Fred Dekker (The Monster Squad, House), Night of the Creeps serves as both a throwback to the classic era of campy science fiction movies and a time capsule of eighties horror films. Successfully combining aspects of sci-fi, horror and comedy, it’s a mixed bag of horror iconography; it’s got zombies, aliens, axe murderers, oversexed coeds, and Tom Atkins. The characters are all even named after legendary directors – Chris Romero, Cynthia Cronenberg, Detective Cameron, J.C.’s full name is James Carpenter Hooper…there’s even a Detective Landis and a Sergeant Raimi…and, to top it all off, the students attend Corman University. With all of its clever references and subtle innuendoes, Night of the Creeps comes off as Fred Dekker’s love letter to the horror genre. And it’s a horrifyingly hilarious one.
Easily the most memorable aspect of Night of the Creeps is the venerable Tom Atkins. As written, Dekker’s dialogue is so corny, it’s almost cringe-worthy. It takes the work of Atkins to make it serviceable. Atkins is able to take the purposely silly dialogue and turn it into horror comedy gold. For example, when a group of zombie fraternity guys are approaching the sorority house, Detective Cameron tells the girls “I’ve got good news and bad news; the good news is your dates are here…the bad news, they’re dead.” It’s the type of line that could only be delivered effectively by an actor like Tom Atkins, and he sells it. Also of note is his character’s catch phrase – instead of greeting people with a “hello” or a “how are you,” Cameron hits them with a “Thrill Me.” It’s a terrific trademark, but only in the right hands…mainly, those of Tom Atkins. He plays it straight enough for horror, yet keeps his tongue in his cheek just enough to keep it campy.
Because of budgetary constraints and the technological limitations of the time, the visual effects in Night of the Creeps are mostly practical and, therefore, completely awesome. The space slugs are slimy critters that appear to be pulled along by fishing wire for movement. The zombies, with their exploding heads and melting faces, are all typical drenched-in-karo-syrup bloody goodness. The alien scenes at the beginning of the film use small actors in rubber costumes, winking back to the days of the classic sci-fi creature feature. A couple of other scenes with zombie cats and dogs utilize a mixture of puppetry and live animals in order to bring the creations to life. Like many splatter flicks of the era, Night of the Creeps is a testament to the inventiveness of its special effects technicians. Sharp-eyed viewers may even catch a glimpse of future make-up legends Robert Kurtzman (Army of Darkness) and Greg Nicotero (“The Walking Dead”) as zombies, another clue to Night of the Creeps’ low-budget – they used the crew as extras (Dekker pal and Lethal Weapon franchise creator Shane Black is in the zombie scenes somewhere as well).
Night of the Creeps also boasts a typically eighties-sounding score from Barry DeVorzon (The Warriors, The Exorcist III). The music is synthesized and electronic without sounding overly so; it’s obviously not a complete orchestra, but is more than just a solo moog score. It’s the type of versatile soundtrack that could fit into any horror film of the time, it just happened to be written for Night of the Creeps.
When the typical monsters begin to get stale, innovative filmmakers find ways to combine and mutate the characteristics to make them interesting again. Nobody did it better than Fred Dekker in Night of the Creeps, and his film looks back at both classic sci-fi B-movies and their eighties contemporaries with a nod and a wink.