It’s hard to think of another film you could show someone today that conveys the direction popular mainstream horror cinema was going during the 80s as well as Fred Dekker’s Night of the Creeps. Released to very little fanfare back in 1986, Dekker’s big studio debut feature has since become a minor cult classic, and is still probably the most memorable piece of work in what has turned out to be a rather scattered career for Dekker, although his long-time association with director Shane Black continues to this day -- most recently with a co-writing credit on Black’s 2018 Predator franchise reviver.
The 1980s saw the beginning of the ‘post-modern’ fad for overt self-aware genre referencing in movies, and Night of the Creeps encapsulates that major trend, defining this era of movie-making in one perfectly garish ninety-minutes of self-referential mayhem. It’s curious how the film had to wait until so much later to find its audience, though. Watching it now, in its pristine, newly minted high-definition Blu-ray incarnation courtesy of Eureka Entertainment, it becomes clear that, as well as standing equal alongside contemporaries of the period such as Tom Holland’s Fright Night (1985) -- which also mined the horror genre’s rich history for irony-laced humour -- it has, by an accident of its own design, come to be seen as a concentrated nostalgia blast for 1980s cinema enthusiasts in general.
Dekker captures the ambivalence and ambiguity behind the colourful ribaldry underlying so much mainstream cinema of this decade. All dressed up with an outer layer of glamour and gloss, yet driven by an undercurrent of social and political strife. The film is faithful to the style and tone of the John Hughes high school youth movies and American Graffiti-inspired 50s Frat boy humour of the same period, and charts similar territory with its focus on adolescent male friendship, the trials of dating and courtship, peer pressure and the politics of finding acceptance within the strictures laid down by a society in which it is considered requisite to be a rebel, but only with a view to eventually finding and accepting your place within an order defined by the values of Regan’s America.
Popular North American horror cinema of this era is both anarchic and deeply conformist: so much of it hankers back to the presumed innocence of the 1950s while at the same time it rebels by recognising and rejoicing in the cynicism of the EC Comics sensibility of that same decade; paying it a particular form of homage through its rubbery, FX-laden, animatronic cartoon splatter. In Dekker’s vision, a coach-load of frat-boys can have its brains invaded by alien slugs looking for a place to incubate space eggs, but it doesn't stop them turning up at the swanky Sorority House to pick up their dates for the Formal; they may technically be dead (shuffling zombies, prone to showering all-and-sundry in gruesome wriggling slug creatures that make heads suddenly to split apart to release their incubating swarm), but they follow the expectations of their peer groups nonetheless and continue to enact the social requirements of 1980s culture; rehearsing the accepted codes of societal behaviour as rigorously as all those blue-faced ghouls in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead who traipsed aimlessly up and down the aisles of their favourite shopping mall as society collapsed around them.
The bulk of the film is quite specifically set in the 1980s but deals with a legacy of events from thirty-years previously that has returned to haunt the present. As well as allowing Dekker the chance to pastiche 1950s monster movies and saucer mania-inspired SF in an exquisitely shot black-and-white ‘prologue’ section, this specificity of era means that, when viewed today the haircuts and fashions and even the tonal mix of humour and splatter don’t feel jarring or dated so much as perfectly attuned to the tenor of the times in which they are presumed to be taking place -- just as the preponderance of buzz cuts, T-Birds and ‘gee-whizz’ space age cutesiness soundtracked with the music of The Platters helps to place the 1950s part of the film for us.
It helps, too, that Tom Atkins shows up in a prominent role as a hardboiled gumshoe cop, slowly losing his mind as the ‘creep’ invasion brings back the trauma of losing his high-school sweetheart to an axe murderer when he was but a lowly beat cop. Atkins has since become one of the standard bearers of 80s horror thanks to the roster of important movies he appeared in at the time -- such as The Fog, Escape from New York and Halloween 3: Season of the Witch -- so it makes perfect sense that he should show up in a movie made slap-bang in the middle of the decade, specifically written and shot as a mosaic of references to both past and then-contemporary genre trends.
This was becoming a common-enough trait of 80s horror at the time, but few movies took this self-aware, postmodern-jigsaw-puzzle-reference-point approach to filmmaking quite as far as Dekker did: the opening scene, set on board an interplanetary craft full ludicrously rubbery aliens that look like overgrown babies without the nappies (and minus any visible genitalia), manages to combine an irreverent tribute to the opening action from George Lucas’s Star Wars with the set design and atmosphere of Ridley Scott’s Alien and the mad humour of Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste -- as we witness vertically challenged space creatures toting oversized laser weapons chasing a rogue member of their crew down shadowy corridors in the battle to stop him escaping in a space pod with a canister containing a deadly stolen genetic lab experiment.
This is before the opening credits have even rolled.
We then segue without pause into the lengthy black-and-white prologue, where the alien experiment falls to earth in 50s America as an apparent meteorite, witnessed and followed by a smooching couple at a drive-in haunt. It comes to rest in a pine forest along Route 66 and releases a slug-like creature that crawls into its unwitting human host’s mouth, turning the frat boy victim into a zombie that breeds more of itself inside the brain.
This whole section is a pitch-perfect parody of 1950s b-movies and concludes with a slasher movie sting involving an axe-wielding maniac who escapes from a local lunatic asylum on the very same night aliens release brain-invading slugs into the vicinity. This provides the backstory to explain the PTSD detective Ray Cameron (Atkins) will still be suffering from thirty years on from the night he discovered the hacked up body he was called out to investigate was that of his own sweetheart. But it also introduces the central conceit of the movie, which depends upon shamelessly pilfering to combine elements of David Cronenberg’s Shivers and George Romero’s Dead trilogy. Oddly enough, the style, the aesthetic and the content anticipate the 1950s black-and-white segment from episode eight of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s recent Twin Peaks: The Return -- including its use of music by The Platters and the references to zombies and horrible bug creatures that take control of their host by crawling in through their victims’ mouths!
The setting for the main 1980s-set portion of the movie is the nearby Corman University, where best buddy outsiders Chris Romero (Jason Lively) and John Carpenter (JC) Hooper (Steve Marshall) are desperate to join the Beta Fraternity in order to impress Sorority princess Cynthia Cronenberg (Jill Whitlow), whilst being unaware that she is already the girlfriend of the fraternity’s loathsome president (Allan Kayser) -- known to all as the ‘Bradster’. If the character-naming policy illustrated above has made you groan out loud, then be prepared to make rather a lot of similar noises throughout this picture as in due course we will be introduced to a Detective Landis, a Sergeant Rami and a high school janitor called Mr Miner! Otherwise, Lively and Marshall anchor much of the writer-director’s tendency towards genre box-ticking enthusiasms like this in likeable performances that flesh out Dekker’s ability to turn story cliché into some emotionally engaging material.
We have here a basic Animal House/National Lampoon-style coming-of-age comedy of errors set-up: a bromance of teen-boy bickering and wisecracking, during which the lovelorn but awkward Chris depends upon his physically handicapped but loquacious and much wittier best pal sidekick JC to help him get the girl. In order for them to be accepted as new Beta House members, their plan requires the boys to pledge to break into the town morgue to steal a corpse as a prank. This being a sci-fi horror comedy rather than a conventional high school sex farce, the plan runs afoul of the fact that, unbeknownst to them, the morgue harbours a secret underground cryogenics laboratory where the high school victim of that earth-fallen alien brain slug has been on ice since the 1950s. JC and Chris manage accidentally to revive the zombified High School Jock, who promptly makes his way back to the Sorority House he first visited thirty years previously to pick up his date. Soon enough, a batch of newly incubated brain slugs emerges from his exploded head, thus setting the stage for much of the gory comic-strip excess that follows.
Like many young first-time directors, Dekker handles the action like this film might be his one and only chance to prove himself behind the camera while he learns on the job. As a result, he throws every technique he can come up with onto the screen. This turns out to be good for the material, though, as Dekker’s preference for perpetually roving cameras, making use of dolly shots and various focusing tricks learned from his favourite directors, is undoubtedly a perfect fit for this kind of comic-strip action. Cinematographer Robert C. New and Editor Michael N. Knue handle the picture’s main and most important FX business -- David B. Miller and his team’s special make-up effects and Ted Ray’s animatronic splitting head creations -- with cool efficiency; and if some of the dialogue scenes and transition sequences can seem a little lacking in pace by today’s standards, that’s only an indication of the different requirements of 80s mainstream cinema. If anything, it comes as a pleasant change to be reminded of an era when more attention was paid to character beats and backstories. The relationship between the three young leads reaches a terminal crossroads when JC falls prey to a space slug infestation in the high school restroom, and Cynthia’s choice between boyfriend Brad and suitor Chris is decided by a flamethrower to Brad’s slug-infected head after he too gets turned into a shambling zombie (although Cynthia doesn’t immediately notice the difference)!
Perhaps the most memorable piece of the puzzle that falls into place and sets the tone here is Tom Atkins’ character arc as Detective Ray Cameron: with his trench coat and vintage Mercedes, we at first peg Cameron for a conventional hardboiled detective in the Raymond Chandler mode. But we soon discover there is a much darker edge to his story, lifting the character to a whole other realm that brings a level of poignancy to the film’s unhinged episodes of splattery horror. The make-up effects strike a nice balance between gory realism and rubbery cartoonishness and there is even a finale that employs Ray Harryhausen-style stop-motion animation techniques, mocked up by animation supervisor Todd Masters for a scene in which a nest of writhing brain slugs is discovered dwelling in the Sorority House basement having recently hatched from a box full of human brains being stored there as a favour to the campus medical lab!
This new UK edition, hatched on Blu-ray just in time for Halloween 2018, features a pristine transfer and restores the director’s preferred ending. 5.1 DTS audio options and SDH subtitles are included, and the Limited Edition first pressing comes with a special O-card slipcase. The extras are plentiful and supply an exhaustive overview of the origins, making of, and post-production history of the film thanks to two commentaries (the first with Fred Dekker and the second with the cast) and a documentary which interviews just about everyone involved with the movie who is still around to be interviewed about it, including composer Barry De Vorzon and members of the make-up team who have since gone on to even greater things -- like Howard Berger and Robert Kurtzman who appear on-screen as members of the Fraternity and get turned into zombies for the big campus invasion scene at the climax of the movie! There are also video interview featurettes with Fred Dekker and Tom Atkins which discuss their careers outside of their involvement with this particular film. Throughout all these extra features the director is thankful for the film’s new after-life on video, DVD and now Blu-ray, but honest about what he considers to be the mistakes of inexperience it highlights for him when re-watching it now. Also interviewed are contemporary fans that have discovered the movie only recently and enjoy it precisely because of the peak 1980s vibes it exudes.