by Steve Habrat
If you happen to be a horror nostalgia nut and are looking to relive the glory days of the genre, you most certainly have heard of or seen Fred Dekker’s 1986 nod to 50s science fiction, zombie flicks, and B-movies Night of the Creeps. Basically a Heinz 57 mash-up of everything including zombies, the slasher genre, the hardboiled detective, 50s alien flicks, and Ed Wood’s schlocky classic Plan 9 from Outer Space, Night of the Creeps is a fairly satisfying, if a bit flawed, tribute to the horror genre. Wearing its influences on its bloody sleeves (the characters are all named after legendary horror directors), if you’re a diehard fan of horror (or 80s movies), you’re going to find plenty to chuckle over for 90 minutes. Night of the Creeps puts quite a bit of emphasis on its zombie angle and Dekker knows how to deliver the zombie action, but in places, the film appears to be juggling too many references and some fall flat. Still, Night of the Creeps stands as one of the stronger efforts in the zombie genre, and it also gets by on its nifty black and white opening sequences and some truly memorable performances from Steve Marshall as the handicapped J.C. and Tom Atkins as the heartbroken detective Ray Cameron who shouts “Thrill me” when he arrives at a crime scene.
Night of the Creeps begins in 1959, with a deadly alien experiment accidentally being unleashed from a UFO and crashing to earth. Meanwhile, a young college man picks up his date and the two head to a local make out spot to gaze at the stars despite warnings of an escaped homicidal maniac roaming the woods. As the two stare off into space, they spot an unusually bright shooting star that crashes into the woods. The young man dashes into the woods to investigate and leaves his date alone in the car. Naturally, the homicidal maniac stumbles upon the girl and hacks her up with an axe and the boy is exposed to strange alien-like slugs that attack him. 28 years later, nerdy college students Chris Romero (Played by Jason Lively) and James Carpenter “J.C.” Hooper (Played by Steve Marshall) are prowling Corman University’s campus searching for girls. Chris sets his sights on cool girl Cynthia Cronenberg (Played by Jill Whitlow), a sorority sister who seems to only be interested in fraternity guys. To impress Cynthia, Chris and J.C. decide to join a fraternity. As part of their pledge, Chris and J.C. are forced to steal a cadaver from the university medical center and leave it on the steps of Cynthia’s sorority house. While snooping around the medical center, Chris and J.C. stumble upon a mysterious cadaver that has been frozen and sealed off in a top-secret room. Chris and J.C. attempt to steal the body but they are scared off when the cadaver wakes up and tries to grab them. As Chris and J.C. rethink how to impress Cynthia, the mysterious cadaver begins prowling the campus and unleashing the alien worms, which infect the students and turn them into zombies. Meanwhile, Detective Ray Cameron (Played by Tom Atkins) investigates gruesome deaths around the campus, slowly realizing that he may be battling the walking dead.
As a tip of the hat to horror subgenres, Night of the Creeps is pretty solid but some of the tributes don’t gel like they should. The film attempts to work in a slasher angle that seems glaringly out of place and it is sort of left dangling at the end. However, when Dekker remains in the science fiction/zombie realm, the film is really a lot of fun. Being mostly a zombie movie, you naturally expect the violence to be cranked up to eleven but Night of the Creeps never gets too out of hand with its carnage. The zombies have some nasty wounds and there are a few glimpses of dead bodies with their heads split open, but Dekker never embraces Romero or Fulci levels of zombie violence. Still, that doesn’t mean that Dekker is soft on the viewer and doesn’t deliver the zombie mayhem. There is a fun little siege on a sorority house that finds Atkins storming in and announcing, “I got good news and bad news, girls. The good news is your dates are here. The bad news is they’re dead.” It is morbid little gems of dialogue like this that really make up for the lack of gut munching and blood slurping. The lack of overly elaborate special effects has helped Night of the Creeps age a bit more gracefully than some 80s horror movies but the film does shoot itself in the foot when it tosses in a few zombie pets. Sure, the viewer is supposed to take them with a wink and a big slice of cheese, but they certainly are not convincing. At least Dekker uses a zombified kitty to pay respect to Lucio Fulci’s blood-soaked classic Zombie.
As far as the acting goes, Night of the Creeps turns out to be a mixed body bag. Atkins does most of the heavy lifting as the massively entertaining Ray Cameron but his character does suffer a bit because he is linked to the slasher side story. It adds depth to his character and it allows him to connect with Lively’s Chris, but it still seemed unnecessary. Marshall is also a stand out of the sarcastic J.C., the handicapped best bud who does everything in his power to get his best buddy laid. He gets in a number of good jabs at the obnoxious fraternity brothers that torment them. Lively tries his best to hang with Marshall but his Chris is lacking the feisty personality that J.C. possesses. Still, he gets by and we do sort of root for him to pull the girl. Perhaps the worst of the main players is Whitlow’s Cynthia, a pretty girl who just can’t seem to stop flirting with beer chugging goofballs and flashing her boobs. Her character seemed a bit too whiny at times and there simply for eye candy, but she does step up in the final stretch of the film. I suppose a flamethrower can make anyone look cool. Alan Kayser also shows up as the ultimate bully douche bag, Brad, who enjoys tormenting poor Chris and J.C. He shines as the dimwitted oaf and he is even better as a cloudy-eyed zombie who shows up at Cynthia’s door.
While Night of the Creeps is never very scary, the movie does have more than enough raunchy teen comedy to go around. The exchanges between Chris and J.C. are pretty great and Atkins is hilariously over the top as the hardboiled detective. There are a few tense moments here and there, especially when Chris and Cynthia get trapped in a garden shed as zombies attempt to get in from every side. Fans of 50s science fiction will also be giddy during the marvelous black and white opening sequence. Every horror fan will also have a blast with the names of the characters and spotting references to their favorite classic horror film. Make sure you stay alert for references to George Romero (Night of the Living Dead), Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead), John Carpenter (Halloween), Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), James Cameron (Aliens), John Landis (An American Werewolf in London), David Cronenberg (The Fly), and Steve Miner (Friday the 13th Part 2). Overall, Night of the Creeps is more of a big college party than an all out horror fest and there are plenty of surprises to keep you hooked, but some shaky acting and clunky tributes prevent the film from reaching a classic status. It doesn’t matter though, because you’ll keep coming back and screaming “thrill me” right along with Atkins.
Night of the Creeps is available on Blu-ray and DVD.