(1986) Written and directed by Fred Dekker; Starring: Jason Lively, Tom Atkins, Steve Marshall and Jill Whitlow; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
Detective Cameron: I got good news and bad news, girls. The good news is your dates are here.
Sorority Sister: What's the bad news?
Detective Cameron: They're dead.
I was a bit of a latecomer to Night of the Creeps. Despite being the perfect target age when it was released, I didn’t see it until much later. Meanwhile, the film had built up a considerable reputation as a cult favorite over the years, a coveted treasure on aging VHS copies. When Night of the Creeps finally became available on DVD, it earned the distinction of being one of the very few titles I’ve purchased, sight unseen. I was happy to discover, for once, it lived up to the hype.
First-time director Fred Dekker (who also wrote the script) provides a winning combination of scares and comedy – a winking ode to the B sci-fi movies he grew up with and a post-modern scare flick. In the opening scene, the crew of an alien spacecraft try in vain to contain an experiment gone awry. Their experiment winds up on Earth circa 1959 (in black and white), and finds its way into a human host. The story picks up in the present day; at least the candy-colored present day of 1986.
Jason Lively* and Steve Marshall play geeky college student Chris and his obnoxious pal J.C. Chris is obsessed with pretty co-ed Cynthia (Jill Whitlow), so he and J.C. concoct a scheme to get closer to her by joining a fraternity.** Their misguided attempt to make good on their fraternity pledge results in inadvertently awakening a frozen body, and unleashing malevolent creatures that turn people into zombies.
* In order to elicit the proper reaction from Lively in a scene requiring strong emotions, Dekker placed several pictures of war atrocities around the dorm room set.
** The effects team, including K.N.B. Effects Group mavens Robert Kurtzman and Howard Berger, served double duty in roles as frat boys. Their future K.N.B. partner, Greg Nicotero, also appeared in an uncredited role.
Detective Ray Cameron (played with gusto by underrated character actor Tom Atkins) spends his booze-soaked nights wallowing in regret. As a rookie cop he witnessed his ex-girlfriend getting chopped to pieces by an ax-wielding escaped mental patient, and he’s never been able to move beyond that pivotal event. He skirts the line between funny and sad, as a man steeped in misery, masking his pain with a blasé outlook and acerbic tone. Atkins owns every scene he’s in, with memorable catch phrases (“Thrill me”) and a world-weary demeanor. Detective Cameron comes straight out of a film noir. His hard-drinking, hardboiled demeanor belongs to a different era (As if to reinforce the point, Cameron drives around in a vintage Mercury sedan).
Night of the Creeps is packed to the gills with quotable lines. In the DVD commentary, Dekker stated that he consciously parodied the 80s action flick tradition of a hero with an arsenal of “stupid” one-liners. Atkins gamely rises to the challenge (“It’s Miller Time”). Dekker inserted numerous references to genre filmmakers with the fictional Corman University,*** and character names such as Cynthia Cronenberg, Sgt. Raimi and Detective Landis. Roger Corman regular Dick Miller also makes a brief appearance as Walt (an obvious nod to Walter Paisley).
*** Three Los Angeles area colleges stood in for the Corman University campus: UCLA, USC, and my alma mater, Cal State University Northridge.
Night of the Creeps is that rare beast: a horror comedy that manages to handle both elements effectively. The film’s anemic performance at the box office belied its staying power as a perennial cult favorite. It’s too bad that Fred Dekker hasn’t had more opportunities to prove his worth as a filmmaker. Following the one-two punch of his first two films, he stumbled with Robocop 3, but if anyone deserves a second chance it’s Dekker. His unique contribution to the horror genre is sorely missed. With equal doses of fun and terror, Night of the Creeps proves horror doesn’t always have to take itself too seriously to be effective.
**** Watch for “Go Monster Squad!” scrawled on a bathroom window, a nod to his equally entertaining follow-up to Night of the Creeps.