During the 1980s, there were a lot of films that tried to recapture the spirit of the 1950s monster movie. They weren’t just limited to horror either. Everything from Gremlins to E.T. to Stand by Me tried to capture that slice of Americana that the earlier decade presented. As old fears from the 1950s re-emerged, styles found their way back into the horror of the ’80s as well. In a decade that had been dominated by madmen in masks in its early years, aliens were beginning to make return appearances. Sci-Fi horror was coming back in a big way. Nearly the entire mid-80s was dedicated to either remaking the pictures of that era or trying to recapture the atmosphere and spirit of those films. Few movies were better at this than Night of the Creeps.
In a similar fashion to Fright Night, Night of the Creeps plays with the conventions of a particular era and subgenre of horror. In this case, it’s 1950s alien invasion features. It’s much more tongue in cheek, though. Night of the Creeps is a love letter to some extremely campy flicks, so writer/director Fred Dekker wisely decided to make his film as campy as possible.
This could easily have been a recipe for disaster, but the film has a perfect blend of humor and genuine characterization, it plays with the tropes and conventions of classic B-Movies and adheres to them at the same time. Dekker was clearly inspired by them. With Night of the Creeps he doesn’t just want to pay homage to those features, he wants this to be one of them.
That’s a big distinction to make when it comes to creating a movie like this. Films with an inherent sense of nostalgia can be handled in a couple of different ways. Sometimes throwback pictures like this will be made in order to satirize older films or maybe the director respects that style of filmmaking but wants to appreciate it from a distance.
Others have nothing but respect and adoration for their inspiration. It’s clear that Fred Dekker has the utmost admiration for 1950s creature features. He doesn’t approach it as just a throwback or an homage, this is a 1950s monster movie that just happens to have been made in the 1980s.
The plot of Night of the Creeps is simple, as it should be. Two outcasts pledging a fraternity attempt to steal a corpse as part of a prank. The corpse happens to be host to an alien parasite. These aliens explode from the head in the form of little slugs and infect people, thus creating more walking corpses.
Our heroes have nowhere to turn and no one to believe them except a detective, wonderfully played by Tom Atkins, who witnessed the first attack in the 1950s. The pledges and the detective band together to put a stop to this invasion before it overtakes the whole campus–and naturally the world.
The tone of Night of the Creeps is remarkable. The balance of heart and humor is totally seamless. It’s not like there’s one and then the other; they’re completely intertwined. Moments of levity and moments of sentiment bleed into each other all the way through. This was a driving force of the 1950s monster movies, even when it wasn’t always meant to be. The humor in those films was not always intentional, but it very often was. One way or the other, moments of levity were added to pace out the scares and the moments of intense action.
It could be pointed out that Night of the Creeps is, for the most part, a zombie movie and that the modern zombie as we know it now did not come about until the late 1960s. But the film is really, like all of the great 50s creature features, about a looming alien threat. More than that, it’s about the tone and the style rather than the subject matter.
The old B-Movies were campy and they knew they were campy. They reveled in it and they had fun with it. Night of the Creeps recaptures this in a way that was very uncommon at that point in the 1980s. There were horror comedies, to be sure, but that’s a very different thing than embracing a sense of campiness, which is really what Creeps did.
Night of the Creeps revitalized the 50s monster movie in the most effortless way: it doesn’t feel like it’s revitalizing anything. If anything, Night of the Creeps feels like a 50s creature feature that was discovered years later and dusted off, with maybe the addition of newer clothing and effects. Other than that, it’s straightforward. Which, at the time it was made, was a completely refreshing thing.