December 19, 2010

Night of the Creeps (Review)


Night of the Creeps (1986)

Director: Fred Dekker

4 / 5 zedheads

Some filmmakers use nostalgia and cinematic homage as a crutch when they can't create original material. While Fred Dekker's Night of the Creeps is certainly an homage to black and white sci-fi and B-movie horror, it's also a fun, touching, and splatterific film in its own right. A cult film from the '80s, and a difficult film to find on video until recently, Night of the Creeps proves with ever year that passes it has the chops to compete with the best of 80's zombie films and other genre classics.
Joan Rivers witout moisturizer
 In 1959, some lumpy pink aliens in outer-space lose possession of a strange capsule that falls to earth. A teen couple who are parked for some post-date romancing find the cracked capsule, but the boyfriend is incapacitated when a parasitic slug leaps from the capsule and into his mouth. His unresponsive body is cryogenically frozen at the local college until 1986 when two best friends and college freshmen -- Chris (Jason Lively) and J.C. (Steve Marshall) -- accidentally thaw out the body during a Frat pledge gone bad. Under control of the alien brain parasite, the body reanimates and spreads other slugs throughout the campus that turn both the living and the dead into their zombie hosts. Chris and J.C. enlist the aid of detective Ray Cameron (Tom Atkins), a burnt out and alcoholic cop, to help them fight the creeps although it will mean that Ray will have to face some resurrected demons from his own past.
Johnny took the lyrics to Foreigner's "Cold as Ice" far too literally.
Aside from the zombie element, I love Night of the Creeps because I love Chris and J.C. They're functional but dorky misfits who don't fit the standard mold for cinematic heroes. In particular, J.C. is physically disabled and must walk with crutches, but he's treated as more than a comedic sidekick without losing sight of the realistic limitations he faces. Through Dekker's script and the actors' performances, they feel like real people and, most importantly, real friends. Their bond goes a long way to helping the audience buy the crazy sci-fi and horror contrivances that will follow. Why is there a futuristic cryogenic laboratory in the basement of a university campus? Because it's cool and weird like old drive-in sci-fi pictures. Some of the logic in Night of the Creeps is too convenient, but the chemistry between Chris, J.C., and even Chris's love interest (Jill Whitlow) keeps the film together.
The writing is on the wall.
On the opposite side of the believability spectrum, but still a complete treat, is Tom Atkins as Ray Cameron. Ray feels borrowed from a Raymond Chandler novel. He's a gruff, take-no-nonsense, jaded detective with a tortured past. He chomps cigars, blasts his pistol, and enters rooms while shouting one of the greatest lines ever: "Thrill me." While being such a stereotype, Atkins still manages to sell his performance in a way that compliments the arcs of his younger co-stars. 
Why does everyone keep asking if I have a splitting headache?
Some of the character humor is hit or miss, and several characters are incredibly dated -- take Brad, the blond jock Frat boy for instance -- but overall the film has withstood the test of time. I think we can thank the marvelous effects work by David Stipes Productions, which employed future FX heavyweights such as Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger. While the parasitic creeps look like dog turds, the zombies look amazing, and the film is rife with corpses in various states of decay, destruction, and distress. Heads split open, faces are torn off, and zombies take punishments from bullets, garden tools, and even a flamethrower. It's gory violence handled with a sense of fun.

In the absence of universal health care, many American resort to self-surgery.
If you love the trappings of drive-in horror and b-grade science fiction, but you want to see a well-written film with plenty of action, laughs, and a surprisingly touching emotional core, Night of the Creeps is for you. Especially if you're already a fan of Slither (2006), Night of the Creeps is a mandatory watch. Slither, either wittingly or unwittingly, borrowed a lot of ideas and themes from Night of the Creeps. Both are great movies, but Night of the Creeps came first and deserves to be recognized as the classic it is.

Brad was a pioneer of the male 'heroin chic' look.
For more discussion of Night of the Creeps, you can listen to me and the rest of the Screamwave crew discuss the film in episode #7 of the Screamwave horror podcast.

THE 12 DAYS OF ZOMBIE continues all this week with more reviews of zombie classics as I countdown to Christmas.