It’s very exciting to see ambition in the world of horror. Yes, pleasure can and always will be derived from one more well formed slice of the blade or swing of the axe. However, occasionally a filmmaker comes on the scene overflowing with imagination and verve, a need to spew forth fresh ideas, or at the very least, a new take on a haggard trope. And then you have Fred Dekker, who decided for his first feature to include everything he loved about exploitation, horror and sci-fi, into one glorious, hearty stew that bafflingly flew under the radar at the time of its release. And like a good stew, the more it simmers, the sweeter the taste. 30 years later, Night of the Creeps (1986) will fill you up and have you begging for more.

Released by Tri-Star Pictures in late August, Creeps pulled in under $600,000 on a $5,000,000 US budget. The filmmakers attribute the poor performance to lack of promotion by the studio, and I’m inclined to agree. Releasing a film on only 70 screens is fine for a Merchant-Ivory production, but a crowd pleasing horror practically begs for the multiplexes and a mass audience. Make no mistake – Creeps, which received good notices upon release – would have killed if people actually had a damn chance to see it (probably – what do I know? Soul Man pulled in $28 million that same year. Jesus wept.). A cross between Night of the Living Dead, Shivers, Alien, and Revenge of the Nerds might seem like a hard sell, but all people needed to know is that it’s so much FUN.

Some story is in order, but you don’t have all day, so I’ll break it down: 1) Our film starts in outer space, as aliens aboard a space ship chase around something that escapes through an air lock, and heads toward earth. 2) Cut to Sorority Row 1959 (filmed in glorious black and white, natch) where we’re introduced to a young couple making out in a car. They see a shooting star (one guess what that is) and are approached by a young beat cop named Ray, who tells them to pack it up as there’s an escaped killer on the loose. Soon our young miss is dealing (not very well, I might add) with the escapee as well as her boyfriend who’s been infected by our space visitor. 3) Cut to present day, where we meet our heroes Chris Romero and J.C. as they ready for Pledge Week at Corman University. The boys try to join a fraternity but are told they have to steal a cadaver from the local morgue first, and they unwittingly thaw out the infected boyfriend from Sorority Row 26 years prior. The boys flee the scene as the cadaver comes back to life, and infects others by spewing a slug like creature into the mouth of its victim. 4) Called onto the scene is hard boiled detective (and former rookie) Ray Cameron, who must now defend the town (with the help of Chris, J.C. and plucky gal Cynthia), from the parasitic invaders who are turning frat boys and sorority girls into zombified Pre-med monsters. Student loans will not be repaid.

As you’ve surmised, there’s a lot going on here, but miraculously Dekker keeps all of his B movie plates spinning right until the end. And this probably contributed to its lack of success as well. It is a ballsy move to attempt to weave together so many different sub genres, and I’m sure the studio thought that one would outshine the other – it’ll be, say, a zombie take with a romantic subplot, or an alien invasion with a romantic subplot (boy + girl = bucks) – but Dekker gives each its due, and the balancing act is impressive, especially for a debut feature. And why wouldn’t he go for it? You get the feeling that Creeps is a ‘wish list’ movie – everything that Dekker wanted to see on the big screen, he plastered it up there for all eternity. How cool is that? Ambition is one thing, but when it collides with the talent to back it up, the results spill over and off the screen into our horror lovin’ hearts. Dekker would follow this up with his funny and affectionate ode to the legendary Universal creatures, The Monster Squad (1987), which captures the zeitgeist of the era way better than the overwrought The Goonies ever could.

Helping him realize his vision is an all star team of the genre. Among the effects people involved are Howard Berger, Robert Kurtzman, and David B. Miller – the first two are 2/3’s of juggernaut K.N.B., and Miller has done amazing work on, as just a part of his resume, several Elm Street films. Their work here is colorful, lively, and bombastic in all the right ways. Most importantly, these are practical effects, and no amount of CGI trickery will substitute that palpable feeling, the visceral delight, of seeing these magicians of the macabre unfurl their illusions before our very eyes. All of this is framed by Robert C. New’s (The Borrower) slyly gorgeous camerawork. Primary colors pop and coo like the best comic books, infusing Dekker’s script with a playful E.C. tone (this would make a great double feature with Creepshow, me thinks).

Pushing the story from panel to panel is an enthusiastic group of young actors. Jason Lively (European Vacation) headlines as Chris, his regular Joe looks and hangdog demeanor getting you on his side from the start. Steve Marshall as J.C. and Jill Whitlow (Weird Science) as Cynthia give humorous, sympathetic performances to round out our impromptu zombie squad.

However, the spotlight is reserved for one Tom Atkins, as Ray Cameron. Relegated to sidekicks, pals, and dads in most mainstream films, Atkins always flourishes in a role when given the lead (see Halloween III, now). A long time fixture in genre filmmaking, Atkins infuses his best role with a dripping sarcasm, undercut with an infinite sadness and melancholy that he plays like an embittered bluesman. It’s no wonder that this is his favorite character, as it gives him a chance to stretch out as much as possible within the genre he loves (and that loves him back).

It’s very hard to find fault with a horror film built not only on moxie, but a whole lot of heart and talent as well. There is pure joy to be found in this collection of frames. Night of the Creeps is a huge bear hug of a film – eager to please, and it won’t let go until you surrender to its charms. 30 years is an awfully long time to hold out. What are you waiting for?

Night of the Creeps is available on Blu-ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: MARK OF THE DEVIL (1970)
  • Scott Drebit
    About the Author - Scott Drebit

    Scott Drebit lives and works in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is happily married (back off ladies) with 2 grown kids. He has had a life-long, torrid, love affair with Horror films. He grew up watching Horror on VHS, and still tries to rewind his Blu-rays. Some of his favourite horror films include Phantasm, Alien, Burnt Offerings, Phantasm, Zombie, Halloween, and Black Christmas. Oh, and Phantasm.