Though something of a highly regarded cult item today, Fred Dekker’s first film, Night of the Creeps, was an unqualified flop when first released in August 1986, only recouping a little more than 1/10 of its $5 million budget. A highly amusing yet genuinely jolting mixture of comedy and horror, the film combined any number of disparate genres – the zombie film, the alien invasion film, the depressed/suicidal cop-seeking-redemption film, the frat house comedy – into one highly satisfying stew, and yet, for some reason, failed to find its audience at the box office. With the advantage of hindsight, however, and in no small part thanks to the advent of the DVD revolution, Night of the Creeps, like many of its primary and secondary characters, is enjoying a very vigorous second life after having arisen from limbo, and is today appreciated for the highly entertaining, modest piece of work that it is.
The opening sequences of the film are perhaps the best. The viewer is treated to a pitched battle aboard an alien spaceship, during which one of the diminutive ETs manages to jettison a canister of … something, which promptly plummets down to planet Earth, in the year 1959. Although the entire film can be regarded as a pastiche of and homage to the sci-fi “B movies” of the 1950s, the next sequence, filmed in B&W, is especially reminiscent. In a scene straight out of The Blob, two necking teenagers see a streaking meteor fall to the ground, and go to investigate. The male youth, Johnny, is attacked by something from the fallen canister, while his poor galpal, nervously waiting back at the car, is hacked to bits by an escaped ax murderer. Flash forward 27 years, to 1986, when we meet two college students, Chris (Jason Lively, who had appeared in European Vacation the year before) and J.C. (Steve Marshall), his handicapped best friend. When Chris develops an instantaneous crush on sorority girl Cynthia (Jill Whitlow), the pair decides that the only way to impress the young hottie is for the two of them to apply to the superhip Beta fraternity. The two break into a cryogenics lab in order to purloin a cadaver, as part of their hazing ordeal, but when the corpsicle suddenly comes to life, the two youths flee in fear. Too late, however. Before long, the awakened cadaver – soon revealed to be Johnny himself – begins to lumber around campus, and even worse … his body soon disgorges a swarm of scuttling, sluglike creatures, which only serve to spread the zombie contagion even further…
Fans of so-called B movies will especially enjoy all the cinematic and directorial references with which writer/director Dekker has filled his movie. The bulk of the film transpires at Corman University, and Chris’, J.C.’s and Cynthia’s surnames are, respectively, Romero, Carpenter Hooper and Cronenberg! Four of the detective sergeants on the zombie case are named Dante, De Palma, Landis and Raimi (Raimi is played by Bruce Solomon, who many will recall as another sergeant, Sgt. Dennis Foley, on TV’s Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman), while veteran character actor Tom Atkins (who many will recognize from such films as John Carpenter’s The Fog and Escape From New York, as well as from Lethal Weapon) plays that depressed/suicidal head detective previously mentioned, a character named Cameron. And if all these wonderful wink-wink mentions aren’t enough, one of the zombie victims in the film is shown watching the Ed Wood classic Plan 9 From Outer Space on TV, and B-movie legend Dick Miller pops up in a very amusing cameo, playing a police armorer.
The film contains any number of memorable scenes, and the one in which the crippled J.C. is trapped in a bathroom with a swarm of the scurrying “creeps” should do for toilet stalls what Psycho did for showers and Jaws did for the beach. Those creeps, by the way, should really strike a chord in anyone who has ever been startled by a mouse or water bug speeding through his or her apartment or between their legs. Zippy as a rodent yet undeniably sluglike, they are memorable horror creations indeed. And in a film with consistently ingratiating performances from its largely “no-name” cast, Atkins really does shine, and gets to deliver the lion’s share of the picture’s best lines. His constantly repeated refrain, “Thrill me,” should have become some kind of cinematic catchphrase, on the order of Dirty Harry’s “Make my day” (Dekker, in one of the deluxe DVD’s copious extras, reveals that it was this line, which came to him as he slept, that served as the basis for the entire rest of the film), but is just one of a dozen great others that Det. Cameron amusingly grates during the course of his job here.
“A smart, audacious film” says author Glenn Kay while describing Night of the Creeps in his Zombie Movies: The Ultimate Guide, and darn, if that isn’t ever the truth! Dekker, over the course of the next six years, would go on to direct Monster Squad and, um, RoboCop 3, neither of which this viewer has seen. Still, I very much doubt if either of those films provides such a deft balancing act of chills and laughs as does Night of the Creeps. The film is an unexpected winner from beginning to end (this viewer prefers the director’s cut, by the way, with its returning-spaceship finale), and might leave you open mouthed with surprise. Better to tape that mouth shut, hence, in order to prevent an entry point for any of those darn creeps!