Saturday, January 3, 2015

Review: Night of the Creeps (1986)

I've got some good news and some bad news. The good news is, we've got a whole year of new movies in front of us. The bad news is, we've got to start in January.

Oh well, at least I've still got DVDs to watch.

Night of the Creeps (1986)

Rated R (director's cut reviewed)

Night of the Creeps should not have been as enjoyable as it was. Objectively, it's got problems, and big ones at that, and if you try to enjoy it as a serious zombie movie, you'll wonder what the hell you just watched. Indeed, the first time I watched it several years ago, I thought it was alright but couldn't see what the point was, and even now I can see why it flopped initially. However, when you look at it for what it is -- a hilarious homage to '50s sci-fi B-movies -- it works wonders. Night of the Creeps is up there with Evil Dead II (which, upon second viewing, has held up remarkably) as one of the great horror-comedies of the '80s, a blast from the past no matter what generation you're from.

The film starts aboard an alien spaceship, where a rogue alien releases a hazardous experiment out the airlock. It crash-lands near a California university circa 1959, where an escaped mental patient is on the loose, hacking people up. A young couple sees what looks like a meteor falling out of the sky, and goes to check it out. The girl, left alone in the car, gets hacked up, while the boy, venturing into the woods to find the meteor, gets a face full of an alien brain slug. Fast forward to 1986, where two college guys, Chris Romero and J.C. Hooper, are trying to get into a fraternity so that Chris can impress Cynthia Cronenberg, the girl he has a crush on. The frat boys' challenge to the two: steal a dead body from the school's science lab and dump it on the steps of a rival frat. They find what turns out to be the cryogenically-frozen body of the boy from the opening, who's soon reanimated by the brain slug, sending the two boys fleeing. Meanwhile, Ray Cameron, a detective who investigated the murders back in 1959 and has a personal interest in this case due to his connection to "patient zero", is trying to figure out what is happening and help Chris, J.C., and Cynthia stop the budding zombie apocalypse... if his own demons don't kill him first.

Make no mistake, for an '80s creature-feature homaging '50s creature-features, the plot can get surprisingly sprawling at times. Despite the fact that it's full of holes and, more often than not, runs on sheer coincidence and "rule of funny" more than anything, I must say that it worked, largely thanks to the glue holding it all together: Tom Atkins as Detective Cameron. Between his dialogue, his mannerisms, his trench coat, and his backstory, he feels like a hard-boiled gumshoe plucked out of another genre popular in the '50s, film noir, and dropped into a zombie movie. (Even his old '50s car stands out next to the modern '80s police cruisers all the other cops have.) Every time Atkins was on screen, he stole the show with a great, cool, multi-layered performance, an aging cop with a ton of guilt over the skeletons in his closet who is nonetheless ready to kick ass and save the day when needed. Even absent the winking, self-aware tone, Atkins was one of the big reasons why I enjoyed this movie. Out of the rest of the cast, Steve Marshall as J.C. was the other standout as the joker of the three main college-age protagonists, a guy who refuses to let his disability (he needs crutches to walk) stop him from striving for coolness. However, I can't say the same for Jason Lively and Jill Whitlow as Chris and Cynthia. While they were acceptable enough for me to get invested in their budding romance, they didn't stand out against all the insane goings-on around them, especially once the film kicked into high gear towards the end.

Those insane goings-on, of course, are the other great thing about this movie. Again, the Evil Dead II comparisons fly fast and thick; while it's not as overtly comedic as that film, it's still filled with all manner of great gags in both the writing (all the main characters are named after horror directors, for instance) and the visuals. You get the feeling that writer/director Fred Dekker tried to pack in every old B-movie trope he could think of, and from the black-and-white '50s opening to the final battle against the zombies at the sorority house, he did wonders, reinventing many of them for the '80s and delivering a film that's funny, thrilling, and even kind of scary at times. It feels like the sort of film that a horror fanboy made in his fantasies, likely because it was. The special effects are appropriately disgusting and very well-done; even if it's not the goriest '80s horror film, it's still an icky movie between what it shows outright and what it suggests and cuts away from at the last second. You get a lawnmower used to shred zombies, a reanimated corpse literally punching his way through the floorboards of the house built upon his grave, lots of skulls popping under shotgun blasts, slugs crawling around and getting lit ablaze, and shots lifted straight from Jaws. Like I said in the opening, this is not the sort of film you go into expecting pure gritty zombie action; it's a film made for horror geeks, by a horror geek, with its tongue firmly in cheek from start to finish.

Score: 4 out of 5

It's a lot better than the sum of its parts, and considering that its parts were already pretty good to begin with, that speaks well of its quality. A must-see for any fan of horror-comedy. Now thrill me!

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