Night of the Creeps (1986) ***
You don’t usually think about parodies inspiring rip-offs, but it’s difficult to find a more convincing explanation for Night of the Creeps than to envision it as an attempt to ride the coattails of the preceding year’s The Return of the Living Dead. Of course, to call The Return of the Living Dead a parody is to oversimplify matters a bit, but then, the most conspicuous feature of Night of the Creeps is that it too has a nasty, sharp edge to its sense of humor, and will occasionally turn around and attack the audience in earnest when its guard is down. And while Night of the Creeps is nowhere near as good as its likely model, it’s still a charming and solidly entertaining artifact of the bygone days when even the most lighthearted horror film might still have some bite to it.
At the same time, Night of the Creeps is an obvious precursor of today’s nudge-nudge, wink-wink school of self-referential horror comedy, and nowhere is this more obvious than in its extended prologue. Writer/director Fred Dekker went out of his way to cram in every age-old genre commonplace that could be made to fit within the parameters of an 80’s zombie movie, and to do it all in about ten minutes. Out in space, a strange, dwarfish alien steals a canister containing some sort of biology experiment from the lab onboard his ship, and races to the airlock with the aim of dumping the thing overboard. Two of his crewmates try to stop him, but to no avail. As it happens, the ship is cruising in the vicinity of Earth at the time, and the jettisoned canister puts in an appearance in the sky above lovers’ lane one night in the fall of 1959. A couple of college kids watch as the object from space streaks over their heads, and then rush off to see where it might have landed— they’d just been rousted by the girl’s beat-cop ex-boyfriend, anyway. The boy goes off into the woods once they reach what he thinks is the most likely crash site, leaving his girlfriend unattended, with only the radio of his ‘57 Thunderbird to keep her company. While the boy is discovering that it’s no meteor he’s been chasing, but rather a metallic cylinder full of slug-like organisms with great leaping ability and a strong affinity for mammalian mouths, the girl is hearing on the radio that a deadly lunatic has just escaped from a nearby insane asylum, and was last seen headed in the direction of Corman University— right toward her, in other words. And in fact, no sooner has that last part dawned on her than the killer looms up behind the car with an axe in his hands…
A quarter of a century later, Corman University goes on with its business, the alien slugs undiscovered and the escaped axe-murderer long forgotten. Among the new crop of freshmen are Chris Romero (Jason Lively, from Brainstorm and Rock ‘n’ Roll High School Forever) and J.C. Hooper (Steve Marshall), a couple of kids just one or two degrees less socially leprous than the boys of Lambda Lambda Lambda. Given both his position in the school pecking order and the fact that he’s a character in a movie from the mid-1980’s aimed squarely at a teenage audience, it is only to be expected that Chris has it in for a girl far out of his league, Kappa Delta Sigma sorority president Cynthia Cronenberg (Jill Whitlow, of Ghost Chase and Twice Dead). In fact, Cynthia is so far out of his league that Chris can’t even bring himself to talk to her, and consequently doesn’t even know what the girl’s name is. Luckily for him, his friend and roommate knows no shame. Figuring there’s no force on Earth that will improve the romantic prospects of a paraplegic smart-ass anyway, and that he therefore has nothing to lose by acting rashly, J.C. proposes that he and Chris should crash the upcoming party at the Beta Epsilon fraternity house, outside of which Cynthia was standing when Chris first noticed her. Chris wants very much to chicken out like a little bitch, but J.C. will brook no dissent. They’re going to the party, and that’s all there is to it.
It is while they are at said party that Chris gets it into his head that the only way he will ever attract Cynthia’s notice is if he pledges Beta Epsilon himself, and once again, it is J.C. who goads him into doing it for real— and who comes along for moral support while he’s at it. Thus it is that the two boys meet Brad (Allan Kayser)— aka “the Bradster”— president of the fraternity and (unbeknownst to our heroes) Cynthia Cronenberg’s boyfriend. If Chris and J.C. are the Louis and Gilbert of Night of the Creeps, then Brad is this movie’s Stan Gable. Brad’ll be goddamned if he lets a couple of dickless lamoids like these two pollute the purity of his frat, but since they’ve been good enough to offer themselves up for some ritual humiliation anyway, Brad decides to give it to them in spades. If Chris and J.C. want to become Betas, they’re going to have to sneak into the building housing the university’s medical department, steal a cadaver, and dump it on the front steps of a rival fraternity’s house. Like Chris says, at least they don’t have to have sex with a farm animal…
As it happens, Chris and J.C. get turned around in the labyrinth of corridors that forms the med school’s basement, and they wind up not in the morgue but in a secret laboratory wing. By means of some rather contrived distractions on the part of the grad student who is supposed to be running the show down there tonight, the two pledges find their way into the lab’s inner sanctum, where they are confronted by a human body in cryogenic stasis. On the theory that one dead guy is as good as another, J.C. hits the button that turns off the freezer, and Chris hoists the corpse to its feet and prepares to drag it off to Fraternity Row. There’s just one problem. The kids, naturally, are in no position to notice this, but we can see that the frozen body is that of the boy who was parasitized by the alien slugs back in 1959. And no sooner has it begun to thaw than its right hand grabs Chris by the wrist. He and J.C. understandably panic at that point, and run (or crutch-hobble, in J.C.’s case) at top speed from the med school, heedless of the returning grad student, the night janitor, and anybody else they might encounter along the way. Thus they still have no idea what they have unleashed, even after the cadaver from the lab returns fully to life and kills the grad student.
The scene at the lab eventually draws the police, and when it does, the investigation is put under the command of Detective Ray Cameron (Tom Atkins, from The Fog and Maniac Cop), who, by a remarkable coincidence, was both the first cop on the scene 27 years ago when that escaped maniac chopped up the zombie-to-be’s date and the dead girl’s ex-boyfriend. He tracked the murderer down himself, and killed him in cold blood a few days later, then buried the body in a vacant lot on the edge of the Corman University campus, which now supports the cottage where the Kappa Delta Sigma house mother lives. And yes, that is going to be important later. At first, Cameron can’t figure out what happened to the body that was supposed to have been inside the cryogenic canister (“It didn’t just walk out of here by itself!”), but later that night, the police station receives a call from the Kappa Delta Sigma house complaining of a headless, dead body on the property. What Cameron and his men don’t realize, of course, is that the body is now headless because the alien slug-eggs that were incubating within its brain have hatched, causing the head to explode, spreading corpse-reanimating space-slugs all over that sector of the campus.
Cameron meets up with Chris and J.C. the next day, having been tipped off by the janitor at the med school that one of the boys he saw fleeing the building was using crutches. Chris confesses to an attempt to steal the body from the lab, but swears that he and J.C. chickened out once they had the corpse in their hands. This jibes with the janitor’s testimony, which said nothing at all about the fleeing, screaming kids having a dead body with them— that’s the kind of thing you’d expect a person to mention if they’d seen it. Even so, Cameron keeps his eyes on the boys over the ensuing couple of days, and consequently he overhears everything when Cynthia (who figured out what an asshole Brad is when she saw him and his boys threatening Chris and J.C. in the aftermath of the failed hazing stunt, and who has since dumped him in all but name in favor of the more ambulatory of his two victims) tells Chris that she saw the body from the lab walking around, and was on the scene when its head blew up into a shower of slugs. Therefore, Cameron is a step or two ahead of his partners, Detective Landis (Wally Taylor, of Shaft’s Big Score and Escape from New York) and Sergeant Raimi (Bruce Solomon, from Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things), when the body of the psycho he shot dead all those years ago rises from its tomb beneath the Kappa Delta Sigma house mother’s living room and resumes its axe-murdering career. It will also fall to Cameron to handle the situation when the space-slugs start turning every dead body that finds its way onto the Corman University campus into deadly zombies with explosive noggins. This may not sound at first like all that big a job, but when a bus accident wipes out the entire Beta Epsilon fraternity in one fell swoop on the night of the fall formal, the number of zombies generated is really quite considerable. As Cameron puts it to Cynthia and her sorority sisters:
“I’ve got good news and bad news, girls. The good news is, your dates are here.”
“What’s the bad news?”
Well, that certainly was a lot of fun. Maybe not as much as I remember it being back when it was only a couple years old, but still— a solid good time. Most of the reason why is that, unlike most of its modern counterparts, it has something other than comedy to fall back on. Many of the jokes have not aged well (some— like giving everybody with a surname one borrowed from a famous director of horror movies— had already been beaten to death about five years earlier), and viewers who were not around to witness the mid-1980’s firsthand may have a hard time figuring out how a number of the gags were even supposed to have been funny. But even as late as 1986, there was still a little bit of that old 70’s meanness circulating in the bloodstreams of even quite innocuous horror films, and while Night of the Creeps is just kidding around for the most part, every so often, it will have a mood swing and throw a real punch. Two very important characters meet with fates that would never even be considered in a present-day horror comedy, and more importantly, there is a strong streak of authentic grindhouse sensibility running through the movie. There’s a hell of a lot of gore, for one thing, and it is not at all the cartoony sort of gore that one encounters in, say, an early Peter Jackson film. There’s also a surprising amount of sexual content, including a completely gratuitous pan across the shower room of the Kappa Delta Sigma house during the montage sequence that establishes all the effort the students of Corman University are pouring into preparing for the fall formal. Finally, modern viewers aren’t going to believe the mouth on this movie. Sure, today we have Quentin Tarantino writing scripts in which every fourth word is “fuck” and every seventh word is “nigger,” but when Tarantino does it, it’s a deliberate, transparent ploy to maximize his shock value; the foul language in Night of the Creeps is used in an offhanded, un-self-conscious manner that is frankly a good deal more shocking, even if it is also less dirty on a line-for-line basis. Simply put, the filmmakers were shooting unabashedly for an R-rating, whereas someone making this movie today would probably rather have a PG-13. What this means in practical terms is that Night of the Creeps is able, like The Return of the Living Dead, to work much more successfully as an exploitation horror movie, so that its dated humor doesn’t take too much away from it at this late remove. Obviously, it would have been preferable for it simply to have been funnier in the first place, but Night of the Creeps gets considerable mileage out of something which the great majority of comedies have always lacked: unlike the typical parody, Night of the Creeps has a contingency plan.
Because you can never have too many putrescent corpses shambling about chewing on people, the B-Masters Cabal has decided to join Cold Fusion Video in dedicating the month of October to zombies, zombies, and more zombies. Click the banner below to drop in on Undead Central.