Thomas Dekker’s 1986 sci-fi zombie film Night of the Creeps features a lot of the features that frequently reoccur in 80s horror. For one, it has elements of comedy while still remaining firmly a horror film, possessing neither the self-seriousness of earlier films nor the explicitly parodic or self-aware tone of later films. It also calls back to earlier horror films quite a bit, not only featuring characters named Cronenberg, Romero and Carpenter Hooper, but acknowledging the similarity of its plot to Plan 9 from Outer Space by running scenes from that film within this one. And then there’s the eclectic nature of the film. It’s not just a zombie film. It’s a zombie film with a science-fiction theme that works serial killers and urban legends come true into the mix as well, genre-blending being a common trope of the era as well.
The film starts with aliens running through a space-ship, desperately attempting to keep a dangerous experiment from escaping. They fail, and we cut to a small college town in 1959, complete with sudden black-and-white footage, where we follow a young couple out to a make-out point where they see a shooting star. Investigating, she gets hacked to death by a patient who has escaped from a mental hospital, while he becomes infected with whatever alien life-form has just crashed to Earth. Jump forward again, and it’s 1986 and we’re in the college party scene from every teen sex comedy that came out in the 80s. Chris has fallen in love from afar with sorority girl Cynthia, but only his pal J.C. has the nerve to talk to her. J.C. needs crutches to walk, though the exact nature of his disability is never stated, but it’s an important detail that becomes important later, as well as being a significant character marker. Chris, the handsome able-bodied kid has no nerve, while the crippled kid is the one who isn’t afraid of the world. In any case, Chris decides that the way to impress Cynthia is to join a frat, and he and J.C. are told to steal a corpse from the college medical school by the frat president, who also happens to be Cynthia’s boyfriend. Instead they stumble upon a cryogenics lab preserving the body of the 1959 frat boy, who wakes up due to their fiddling with the cryogenic equipment, scaring them off. Unfrozen frat boy kills a lab attendant and makes his way to his girl-friend’s sorority house, the same sorority that Cynthia is a member of. Hijinx, as they say, ensue, and soon slugs are roaming campus turning people into corpses and Chris and J.C. are being investigated by a police detective, who as a patrolman dated the girl killed in 1959 and killed the escaped maniac in revenge and hid the corpse. Following the resurrection of the maniac axe-murderer and the death and subsequent zombification of Cynthia’s ex-boyfriend and his frat brothers, Chris and Cynthia wind up in a frat boy zombie killing spree involving shotguns and flamethrowers.
At first blush, it’s a pretty typical zombie film, with some boobs and gore thrown in to appeal to the horny teenage boy crowd. But Dekker’s script is actually fairly slick for a horror film. He uses flashbacks and dream sequences in visually interesting ways and to develop characterization without the need of lengthy exposition. And the relationship between Chris and J.C. is quite unusual as well. Early in the film, J.C. becomes infected with the zombifying alien slugs, and leaves a suicide/farewell tape for Chris in which he explains to him what needs to be done to defeat the slugs. It’s a heart-breaking scene, not just for the emotional impact, but for the terrible joy with which J.C. describes being finally able to walk…now that he’s undead. The scene is also notable for its subtle outing of J.C. as a gay character. Yes, it’s a horror film, so of course the gay character had to die, but a sympathetic gay character who receives the closest thing in the film to a heroic death is pretty noteworthy.
There are some problems with the film. The timeline is so contracted that people’s behavior frequently seems incredibly unrealistic. For example, an entire house full of sorority girls making preparations to go to a formal dance the day after their house-mother is brutally axed to death in the sorority house and two days after a naked, headless man shows up on their doorstep. That’s a pretty important dance, to go to it instead of dealing with the aftermath of two traumatic events in as many days. But these lapses into irrational behavior can be overlooked by the sheer glorious lunacy of some of the set-pieces. Such as horny frat boys transformed into zombies, or sorority girls with flamethrowers. Seriously, girls in formal gowns burning zombies to death. You can’t tell me that hearing that doesn’t make you just the slightest bit curious about the film.