In honor of Swiss Army Man, which you can buy tickets for here, we're proud to present Over My Dead Body, a week-long series of articles on films that prominently feature corpses.
As far as freshman films go, Fred Dekker’s Night of the Creeps possesses more chutzpah than most. The obvious end result of its creator’s lengthy love affair with horror cinema, it wears its influences like badges of honor on its sleeve. Yet for all of Creeps’ goofily referential rib-tickling (the last names of our central coed lovebirds are Romero and Cronenberg, after all), there’s legitimate humanity owned by its characters. That’s what makes Dekker’s directorial debut so special: we see the seams, witness the fuck ups, and feel the influence of a young artist still in the throes of matinee idol worship, but also comprehend the souls of Dekker’s nerd front men, craggy detective, and the girl one of the geeks falls hopelessly in love with. That’s a tricky balance for any filmmaker to pull off, let alone a first timer behind the camera. But Dekker brings this latex-slathered tale of aliens, parasitic slugs, lover’s lane serial murderers and frat boy zombies to life with flair and personality to spare.
Like all great college campus hijinks, the central “prank” in Night of the Creeps revolves around the theft of a corpse. We’re air dropped in during pledge week at Corman University (heh), and Chris Romero (Jason Lively) will do anything to impress Cynthia Cronenberg (Jill Whitlow). Of course, he’s not going to do it alone, so he enlists the aid of his hobbled best buddy, J.C. (Steve Marshall), to try and join the fraternity of which Cynthia’s hyper-douche, popped collar boyfriend, Brad (Allan Kayser), is president. Brad and his Old Milwaukee pounding associates instantly recognize that Chris and J.C. don’t belong in their homoerotic ranks, so they dream up a preposterous task for the boys to carry out. In the school medical lab rests a gaggle of cadavers set aside for educational dissection. Chris and J.C. are to break in, steal one of the stiffs, and deposit the pasty carcass on the sorority house steps. Like moths to a formaldehyde-stinking flame, the boys oblige these walking slabs of hamburger (much to J.C.’s smartass chagrin), leading to a shit storm nobody could forecast.
Unbeknownst to these pledge class dupes, aliens accidentally released experimental slugs into the Earth’s atmosphere nearly thirty years earlier. After the canister containing these slithery Shivers refugees crashes down (during the film’s evocative '50s drive-in B&W prologue), a local boy and his best girl investigate, only to be intercepted by an axe-wielding maniac. While attempting to defend his date, the beau grabs the canister. It cracks open, and one of the parasites jumps down his throat. It’s pretty gross, and (as any astute horror fan could probably guess) lands him in the deep freeze, just waiting for two nerd-bombers to set him free. After being released from his cozy fridge, the reanimated slug farm trudges back to the sorority house where he picked up his date twenty-seven years earlier. However, his cold form isn’t the only thing that’s been awakened; the zombie’s head splits open, spewing gooey undead-generating fuel onto the green grass that quickly slinks away in search of fresh hosts to inhabit.
Did you get all that? Because it happens within the first twenty or so minutes of Dekker’s movie. Night of the Creeps thoroughly commits to creating a gauzy, EC Comics inspired universe that is jam-packed with every sort of creepy crawly imaginable. It’s the kinetic byproduct of a mind obsessed with B-Movies presented by late night mavens like Bob Wilkins, going for broke like Dekker was never going to get the opportunity to make another picture again. This embracement of garish anti-reality is utterly infectious, as DP Robert C. New (Prom Night) lenses the insanity with an eye for textured creature feature eccentricity. This is breakneck pulp with no need for respectability. In essence, Dekker’s paying cheeky tribute while rubbing elbows with the grinning genre output he loved as a kid; shameless trash homage that wants to join the gang, not poke fun of it.
Enter Tom Atkins. Best known for his roles in such John Carpenter classics as Halloween III and Escape From New York, Night of the Creeps’ Detective Ray Cameron may actually be his very best role (though he’d have to knife fight with Atkins’ boozy, libidinous Daniel Challis from Halloween III in order to confirm this claim once and for all). Cameron is a smokestack dick pulled straight from a dime store novel, arriving at crime scenes barking “thrill me” after being awakened from dreams in which he’s being served fancy coconut cocktails on a beach while wearing a white tuxedo (seriously, it’s one of the great character intros in any film, ever). But the more we learn about Cameron, the more we find he’s a haunted soul, covering up gaping psychic wounds with layers of shotgun-racking machismo. It’s a play pulled straight from the book of Dekker’s best bud, Shane Black, lending weight to an otherwise jokily vibrant send up.
Just as Cameron appears to be letting his dark past lead to potential suicide (putting him in league with Lethal Weapon’s Martin Riggs in terms of troubled men bearing badges), Chris shows up on his doorstep to let him know the alien slugs consumed his best friend (in another scene that is oddly painful for such a “fun” motion picture). The two form an unlikely duo of destruction, storming the sorority house so that Chris can rescue Cynthia, and Cameron can destroy an evil that has plagued him his entire life. The climax of the picture is over the top bliss, as Cameron blows holes in several slug infested zombie frat boys while Cynthia torches them with an industrial flame thrower. “I got good news and bad news, girls,” Cameron tells the residents of this posh dormitory after he spots the possessed corpses of their Greek letter-donning suitors. “The good news: your dates are here. The bad news? They’re dead.” Cue the exploding domes, screaming babes and buckshot blasts, as Dekker captures the action with a maniacal glee that’s downright contagious.
It’s easy to see why Dekker has often said he has trouble revisiting his directorial debut. Night of the Creeps is shaggy, weird, filled with gonzo effects and is possibly too cutesy at times for its own good (though that’s never stopped this author from giggling through the film’s entirety). Nevertheless, there’s a distinct voice and beating heart at Creeps’ core that causes its charms to transcend the movie’s meager flaws. Dekker’s horror picture is fueled by adoration, both for his characters and the pulsating genre world in which they exist. In a way, the visible seams actually add to the movie’s appeal, as we can almost taste the blood, sweat and tears that went into making this poppy pastiche, all while getting high on the glue that keeps the aliens’ lumpy visages intact. Night of the Creeps is a pure labor of love, crafted for those who consider other horror fans family, and their personal favorites warm comforting blankets during times of trial. And we forgive our family members’ minor fuck ups when they’re in service of delivering a gift that continues to give, over thirty years after its initial, mostly ignored, theatrical bow.