It's a homage to B-movies, taking in zombies, slashers and SF. It's also from the director of The Monster Squad
, which is another affectionately retro 1980s horror that's much beloved of a generation of fans. I liked it. It's fun.
What's great about it, I think, is that it's goofing around with all these genre staples, but it never lets them overwhelm the film. Zombie films tend to have a apocalypse, for instance. Even if it's not an "end of the world" apocalypse, there comes a point where the living dead are threatening to overrun everything and the story has become a fight for survival. Here, though, the monsters are being kept firmly in their place. We're into the last twenty minutes before the film turns even remotely apocalyptic and even then it's subverting the formula. The zombie attack isn't really about a zombie attack, but instead about gags, character moments and giving our heroes cool stuff to do.
No, the most important thing in this film is always the heroes and their misadventures. Jason Lively fancies Jill Whitlow, but he's afraid to talk to her and he's a bit pathetic. His best friend Steve Marshall (on crutches) is busting his britches to drag Lively out of his shell, but he's also a motormouth and occasionally a jerk. Meanwhile Whitlow has a boyfriend who loves himself above all things, then finally there's Tom Atkins as an over-compensating macho cop who had his world turned upside-down in 1959.
These people are fun, but they're also more complicated than you might expect. The two boys are our main heroes and we're on their side, but that's not stopping them from behaving like idiots when Whitlow's trying to confide in them about zombies. She's talking about death. They're ignoring everything she's saying and only registering an opportunity to pull. Similarly Marshall is at once the best friend Lively could have and a bit of an embarrassing twat. I loved his rant about "all a joke". These are heroes who aren't one-dimensionally heroic, but instead young men of their age, capable of bravery and even nobility but also of being obnoxious little shits. I admire that.
As for Tom Atkins, he's glorious because at first you'll think he's a walking cliche. He hardly says a single word that's not a Grizzled Cop one-liner. I admired the gusto with which he was doing it, anyway. However that's before we realise how broken and even suicidal he is, underneath that hard-boiled surface.
Whitlow's normal, though. She's "The Girl" and the only one who never seems like an idiot, unless you count having chosen Allan Kayser as a boyfriend.
As for the B-movie stuff, it's nearly too much. The naked pig-aliens in their UFO at the beginning, okay. The brain-hopping slug creatures, okay. The zombies that they create, okay. The escaped axe murderer in 1959, on top of all that... hmmm. That was a coincidence too far for me. It's entertaining nonsense, but it's definitely nonsense and you've got to wave around words like "homage" to get away with it. (I accept this as an excuse, so fair enough.) The important thing though is that it's a lively mixture and Dekker finds entertaining ways to play with it, from zombie animals to an unusual mode of entrance for a deceased axe-murderer. I even jumped a couple of times.
These brain-hopping slug aliens came out the year before The Hidden
, by the way.
The first ten minutes are black-and-white and set in 1959. There's something glorious about a perfectly realised period setting and this is terrific. The hair, the clothes, the music, the cars... it's a joy, every minute of it. I was disappointed when we eventually switched to colour and the present day. Today, Dekker's B-movie homages don't feel as 1950s as I imagine he intended (unlike The Monster Squad
, which very obviously has its roots in the 1930s). It feels like an eighties movie, despite touches like the Plan 9 from Outer Space bit.
It's funny. The best moments are the ones where people treat monsters as people, because they haven't realised this guy is dead. Whitlow gets a brilliant one, but they're all good. However this isn't an out-and-out comedy, mostly going for the situation rather than gags. Similarly there's a bit of light nudity... which Dekker follows up with some similarly gratuitous beefcake, just for laughs. That amused me. Playfully exploitative, but aware of it, witty and fair. Oh, and Wilshaw's character's surname is Cronenberg. (Almost everyone is named after a famous horror/SF director, in fact, but Wilshaw's the most noticeable.)
The acting's surprisingly good, I think, considering that almost none of these young actors went on to have a solid career in the business. They're performing above their abilities, perhaps. They work well for almost all of it. Lively and Marshall have great chemistry and feel natural together, although that said, the only clearly sub-par bit of acting is when one of them's listening to a tape recorded message from the other. The message itself is brilliant, mind you. Anyway, Tom Atkins at least has a proper career, but I've no idea what happened to Fred Dekker. His CV stops dead after RoboCop 3 in 1993, possibly from embarrassment, although he did a bit of Star Trek: Enterprise in 2001-2002. You'd think Night of the Creeps was perceived as a failure or something and it's certainly true that its fans think it got and gets scandalously little attention. There was a campaign to get it released on DVD.
Hang on, wait. I haven't mentioned Dick Miller (Gremlins, The Terminator, etc.). He only gets one scene, but he's lovely in it.
The plot logic doesn't always make much sense, but the tone's light-hearted enough for this not to matter. The tool shed sequence, for instance, has our heroes taking shelter in a wooden box when their main weapon is a flamethrower. Exactly how good was cryogenics in 1959? I also didn't believe in the "discovering fire" scene. Well, that's okay. The movie gets away with it.
I want to see the original ending, which sounds funny and is on the DVD. I'd definitely recommend this one. You'll kill it if you start nitpicking or expecting it to make sense, but it's charming. It's good-natured, imaginative and in love with its subject matter. For starters, it's nothing like other zombie films, for those of you who are out of love with zombies. It's perhaps a little less suited for a general audience than The Monster Squad
, which doesn't have anything that needs forgiving, but I think they're both lovely. Both have a tone that captures something elusive, I think.