Fred Dekker’s “Night of the Creeps” is both a full-fledged sci-fi/horror B-movie and a send-up of those types of movies.
It’s quite juvenile at times and, because it’s unashamed of being lowbrow, doesn’t always work. “Creeps” is still among the best genre offerings of the 1980s.
Dekker later achieved greater cult status for directing the enjoyable “The Monster Squad,” but this is his better, far more sincere and consistent homage to drive-in worthy monster movies.
Jason Lively stars as a nerdy college student named Chris who resists the urgings of his best friend (Steve Marshall) to ask out the object of his affection (Jill Whitlow). When extraterrestrial slugs appear on campus, possessing the brains of anyone unlucky enough to swallow them (gross), Chris turns to a crusty cop (Tom Atkins) with experience dealing with these slimy identity snatchers.
From the start, Dekker’s film evokes the gleeful horror feel of E.C. Comics and not just in the type face of the opening credits. After a funny, really odd start with naked aliens at war on a spaceship, we get yet another prologue, a lovely black and white mood piece, setting the tone of an alien invasion that begins similarly to the one in “The Blob.”
A gruesome murder is interrupted by a great flash cut to “Pledge Week 1986” (nothing says ’80s like the blare of “Let Go” by Intimate Strangers on the soundtrack). After the introduction of our heroes and the frat boy bullies who harass them (all of whom are amusingly played by actors visibly too old for their roles), the sci-fi element regains focus and the movie kicks into gear.
Dekker’s screenplay reveals a writer awfully amused with himself, as the main characters have last names taken from great genre directors (Cynthia Cronenberg, etc.). Plus, the dialog is peppered with knowingly dopey one-liners.
The line “Thrill Me” is uttered so often, Dekker clearly thought he had a popular catch phrase on his hands.
“Night of the Creeps” is the kind of movie that admirably has a great movie poster tagline (“The Good News is, Your Dates are Here…The Bad News is, THEY’RE DEAD”) which is, unfortunately, also deployed as dialog. We also get an especially inventive use of a cat, a villain with a vanity license plate and a hysterical bit where a sorority girl has a heart-to-heart with her boyfriend and doesn’t notice that he’s turned into a zombie.
Early on, Atkin’s grizzled cop wonders aloud, “What is this, a homicide or a bad B-movie?” Either you groan and give up right there, or you stick with Dekker’s insistence on reminding the audience how much fun he’s having.
While the inspiration is clearly “Night of the Living Dead,” “The Blob,” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” a far less reputable film gets a bona fide tribute. Wee watch Atkins stop to smell a rose in front of a house for no reason, which brings to mind Bela Lugosi’s similar moment in the notorious all-time stinker, “Plan 9 from Outer Space.”
Well, sure enough, a character is seen watching the movie on her TV, clarifying that Atkins and Dekker, of all things, were taking a moment to smell the roses and pay tribute to none other than the infamous Edward D. Wood Jr.
Atkins is clearly game for his role, though it helps a lot that Lively (who also played Chevy Chase’s son Rusty in “National Lampoon’s European Vacation”) and Marshall are handsome, likable and, most importantly, believable at playing genuinely awkward guys. Also on hand is David Paymer, playing his second mad scientist in 1986 (the same year, he played a similar role in “Howard the Duck”).
For all the dopey things about “Night of the Creeps,” it nails the impressive feat of managing alternating tones, which is everything for a movie like this. It’s gross, funny and polished enough to play as a double feature with any of the “Creepshow” installments and has an affection for its genre that is refreshingly uncynical.
It’s also vastly superior to James Gunn’s “Slither,” which shamelessly ripped this off and has practical, optical and make-up effects that are impressive.
Although the screenplay has too many bad one-liners, there’s far more that Dekker’s film gets just right. Note a quick shot of a bus driver being so alarmed by what he sees, his eyes briefly pop out (no doubt a nod to George Miller’s tendency to stick this effect into “Mad Max” and his “Twilight Zone: The Movie” segment).
Dick Miller’s cameo is a perfect touch, and the zombie attack/ flame thrower grand finale is everything you’d want it to be. The same proves true for the fan favorite alternate ending, which is even crazier than the already wild theatrical conclusion.
“Night of the Creeps” is scary and often hilarious, an adoring ode to B-movies that is all too happy to become the kind of movie it’s sending up. While it lays on the winking at its audience too heavily at times, it’s still sharp, cleverly made and preferable to many straightforward horror films that came out that decade.
Dekker’s “The Monster Squad” has received the most fanboy praise of all his films (though even his widely disliked “RoboCop 3” is a lot of fun and, like the others, clearly relishes its position as top tier cinematic junk food).
Yet, it’s “Night of the Creeps,” Dekker’s film debut, that most endearingly expresses his love for late night creature features…and a welcome disdain for fratboys, the real monsters.