Paste’s ABCs of Horror 2 is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in 2019’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019, nor last year’s first ABCs of Horror project. With many heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?
Some horror films possess a strain of what might be best described as embarrassment or self-loathing for their more puerile elements; a sheepishness against the perception of horror cinema as tacky garbage, inserted willingly or unknowingly by a filmmaker who perhaps believes he’s better than the material he’s working with. It’s an apologetic sort of quality, which seems to say “I’ll stoop to this level if it’s what you want to see, but I’ll take no ownership of this silliness.”
And then there’s something like Night of the Creeps, which is the polar opposite. Fred Dekker’s 1986 zombie flick—although calling it a “zombie movie” is really only scratching the zany surface—is stuffed to the gills with absurd material that is utterly unnecessary for the story it’s trying to tell, seemingly included only because the director seemed to find it personally amusing. Even in the midst of a campy decade in horror cinema—especially in the back half of the 1980s—Night of the Creeps still stands out for its utter devotion to madcap absurdity and gross-out thrills. It feels like the product of a deranged cocaine bender of a writing session, where not a single idea was shouted down, rejected or refined in any way. Instead, somehow it all made it up there on screen, and the result has “cult classic” written all over it.
All of this is made gloriously and bizarrely apparent by the film’s opening moments, which drop us with no context whatsoever into the steam-spouting corridors of an alien spacecraft, in which a squad of nude, pint-sized aliens who look like mutated Pillsbury Dough-Men are engaged in a firefight with one of their own, who jettisons a tube of hazardous material toward Earth. The film never returns to these aliens again, simply using the sequence to immediately wake up its audience and set events in motion. Could this information have been conveyed just as easily by simply showing a falling object enter Earth’s atmosphere? Sure, but then how would the Dough-Men costumes, with their exposed buttcracks, have gotten their moment to shine? Night of the Creeps is defined by these moments—any time there was an opportunity to make the movie more memorably weird, Dekker jumps all over it.
Our actual protagonists, meanwhile, are a pair of collegiate geeks who feel as if they’ve been culled from the roster of any given “college movie” of the post Animal House era—they’re too lame to join the frats full of preppy, rich assholes, and they pine after the sweet young damsel they meet on the first day, who is obviously already dating the Grand High Douchebag of the douchiest frat in town, with his platinum blonde hair and casual cruelty. Truth be told, they’re archetypes more than they are characters, although they do have access to a deep pool of memorable one-liners. The only actual character one is likely to remember after watching Night of the Creeps is Tom Atkins’ alcoholic police detective, who gets to have booze-fueled flashbacks and say things like “Is this a homicide, or a bad B movie?”
No, what Night of the Creeps is all about is chaotic action, as the downed extraterrestrial canister unleashes a plague of parasitic slugs who launch themselves down the throats of unsuspecting hosts and turn them into zombies in the process. Oh, and there’s also an axe murderer in there as well, because Night of the Creeps won’t settle for simply being a mishmash of ‘80s zombie and sci-fi pulp action—it also has to be one-part slasher movie as well. What’s more, we even have flashbacks between the “modern day” of 1986 and the thickheadedness of 1959, which is portrayed with maximum camp value and a total embrace of every possible cliché. Before long, we have college dorks in tuxedos, wielding flamethrowers as they try to keep the hoards of zombified frat boys and alien slugs at bay.
All these elements coalesce into a film that feels like a living embodiment of what people now picture when given the prompt of “1980s zombie movie.” Faces are peeled. Heads explode. Slugs are incinerated. Breasts are bared. Every imaginable horror director has his name invoked in tribute, no matter how ridiculous it sounds on screen. From “Cynthia Cronenberg,” to “Sgt. Raimi,” to “Officer Bava,” they’re all here. All that, and some bare-assed miniature aliens … what’s not to like?
Night of the Creeps is undeniably a product of its time; the sort of film you’d never be able to extract from the context of the 1980s, but it also proved surprisingly influential on even the likes of Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn, whose career also began in the trenches of low-budget horror. His 2006 directorial debut Slither seemed to be indebted more than a little to Night of the Creeps, given the fact that it’s about, oh I don’t know … alien slugs that turn people into zombies. A tip of the cap to the strange mind of Fred Dekker is clearly deserved.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.