Review by Thomas Scalzo
Posted on 26 October 2007
Source HBO Cannon VHS
Reviews Let Sleeping Corpses Lie
Reviews The Nights of Terror
Reviews City of the Living Dead
Categories 31 Days of Horror
Cinematic hybrids are always a risky proposition, particularly when zombie horror and comedy are the genres being melded. In countless examples of such storytelling crossbreeding (which, owing to a dearth of zombie originality, blossomed during the mid-’80s), the undead terror is insipid and the comedy is lame—the latter often centered on uninspired spoofs of successful films, and lots of camera winking during hackneyed horror setups. When adventurous zombie filmgoers stumble across a film that advertises itself as a horror-comedy, or, worse still, a horror-comedy with a sci-fi twist, they are generally best advised to stay away.
But of course, if such advice were followed, no one would watch Night of the Creeps, and that would be a tragedy. An unapologetic amalgam of sci-fi monster schlock, college campus comedy, and, of course, gory zombie horror, Creeps avoids the hazards of genre mingling by pitting its heroes against a believable undead threat, and not allowing its audience many uneventful moments to dwell on the film’s inanity. Even when a joke falls flat or a bit of dialogue is especially painful, the frenetic pace, occasional hilarity, and solid horror set pieces overcome the letdown, and pull us irresistibly deeper into this manic tale of cops and coeds fighting to kick the ever-increasing numbers of undead permanently off campus.
Inexplicably, however, we begin, not on the quad, but in outer space, with several unclothed, homuncular aliens running around a spaceship firing laser guns at each other. Via subtitles that are rendered in both English and in the alien language, we learn that the ship is transporting a dangerous biological experiment, and that an unexplained enemy agent is attempting to eject said experiment into the dark vacuum of space. Inevitably, the research is jettisoned, and makes its way toward Earth—Sorority Row, 1959, America to be precise. The alien subplot finished, we’re now smack dab in the midst of a black and white monster movie starring guys with crew cuts, girls that say dreamy, and brain-eating space slugs. To make things more interesting, there is an axe-wielding maniac on the loose.
Just as we’re settling into to this second storyline, however, we’re whisked away from the slugs, the maniac, and the wholesome ’50s youngsters, and thrown headlong into the tale of Chris and J.C., two social undesirables bumbling through their first awkward days of college life in 1986. That we are once again compelled to reassess our conception of where this story is going is bad enough, but having to endure Chris and J.C. stumbling over truly horrendous lines (“I don’t like being depressed. It’s, you know, depressing.”), makes such manipulative filmmaking almost unforgivable.
Then something remarkable happens that transforms Creeps from a mere fusion of aimless storylines to the streamlined tale of hyperkinetic zombie horror it was meant to be. In search of a corpse for use in a fraternity pledge prank, the boys stumble upon the body of a young man cryogenically frozen since, you guessed it, 1959. It seems the space slugs from the opening sequence made a meal of the poor sap’s grey matter all those years ago, and have been biding their time in his iced-over cranium ever since, awaiting the chance to be unleashed once again unto the earth. When the frat boy hopefuls unwittingly defrost the stiff and release the slugs, the zombie invasion begins.
Although the corpses here certainly lumber about in a stupor, and sport hideous faces of decaying flesh, they are quite unique in the storied history of the zombie film. For starters, they are animated, not by radiation or voodoo, but space slugs. As Chris succinctly explains: “They go through your mouth. They lay eggs in your brain. You walk around while they incubate. You walk around even if you’re dead.” Also, as the quest for human brains in which to lay eggs and perpetuate their species is the main goal of the slugs, the zombies in this film are, narratively speaking, merely a side effect of the machinations of a greater evil.
In addition, the zombies here, compelled by the slugs within them, care not for brain-munching or entrail-eating. Instead, all they want is to sprew the extraterrestrial contents stored in their skulls into the mouths of other humans—the potential incubators of future slugs. On a final note, it is interesting that Creeps, an obvious homage to a bevy of popular films, owes its biggest debt, not to Romero, or any other American horror director, but to Canadian-born David Cronenberg and his masterful film Shivers—a powerful (though zombie-free) horror story centered on the abilities of parasitic, slug-like creatures to control the actions of their human hosts.
In any event, as the mounting terror of the zombifying slugs takes hold, the story is enlivened, not by the zombies, but by colorful ancillary characters that infuse the film with an infectious enthusiasm. From the hard-drinking, suicidal detective, to Chris’s dream girl Cynthia, to the Bradster and his loyal following of mindless frat boys, Creeps’s secondary players are appealing caricatures, often exaggerated to such a ludicrous degree that they manage to defy our expectations of stereotypical horror archetypes.
The detective, for example, is not merely miffed at life, but actually sits around his apartment idly twirling a lighter in his hands, while gas pours out of his open oven. And Cynthia is not merely cute, she is the epitome of adorable, constantly speaking in a soft half-whisper and tilting her head beguilingly. She also flouts stuck-up sorority girl convention by actually dumping the brainless Bradster and making eyes at nerdy Chris. Add to these a pair of zombified pets, scantily clad sorority sisters, a busload of drunken fraternity brother zombies, and a zombie extermination sequence featuring shotguns, flamethrowers, and a (pre-Braindead) lawnmower, and Night of the Creeps offers up a smorgasbord of delectable horror treats.
While much of this lighthearted film might well make gore-hungry zombie purists balk, it must be remembered that Night of the Creeps came along at a time when the zombie film was creatively moribund, beset by uninspired rip-offs and plotless exercises in ineptitude. Whether you appreciate the humor or the multitude of genre in-jokes (look for several famous names among the characters), at the very least, Creeps must be commended for injecting a much-needed vitality into the zombie film, and paying an enjoyable and respectful homage to a genre it so clearly loves.
The good news is your date is here. The bad news is… he’s dead.
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