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Growing up in the San Francisco Bay area during the early 1970s, Fred Dekker collected comic books, made amateur films, and indulged in a passion for classic monsters. At the age of 12, Dekker and a friend got to show off their homemade Planet of the Apes (1968) masks on Bob Wilkins' legendary Creature Features program on KTVU, where George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) had its television debut. Eager to study film but rejected by the cinema departments of both University of California-Los Angeles and the University of Southern California, Dekker instead entered UCLA as an English major, where he fell in with a crowd that included future Hollywood screenwriters Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, 1987), Chris Matheson (Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, 1989), and Ryan Rowe (Charlie's Angels, 2000). With another college roommate, Ethan Wiley, Dekker crafted the original story for the lighthearted horror lampoon House (1986), the success of which promoted Wiley to the director's chair for House II: The Second Story (1987) and Dekker to spearhead his feature film debut, Night of the Creeps (1986), released by TriStar Pictures in the summer of 1986.
Though Dekker's concept for House had been a spare black-and-white psychological thriller influenced by William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973), horror comedies were par for the course mid-decade. In competition, Dan O'Bannon's goofy, antic The Return of the Living Dead (1985) had bested George Romero's grim, lugubrious Day of the Dead (1985) and good-natured yuks were the soul of the plots of Gremlins (1984), Fright Night (1985), and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Part 2 (1986). Crafting his maiden voyage in the genre as an homage to the films and filmmakers who had inspired him, Dekker set the tongue-in-cheek but decidedly gnarly Night of the Creeps at the fictional Corman University, where extraterrestrial parasites have turned the student body into a legion of killer zombies. Tipping his hat to a host of influences, Dekker named characters after George Romero, David Cronenberg, John Landis, Tobe Hooper, Sam Raimi, and John Carpenter and anchored the film's cast of fresh faces with Tom Atkins, star of Carpenter's The Fog (1980) and the Carpenter-produced Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982).
Shemping Corman University out of parts of USC and the campus of the California State University-Northridge, Dekker and his crew set up a soundstage inside the shell of an old Woolworth's department store and shot exteriors at the manmade Lake Castaic and Hollywood's Griffith Park Observatory, a popular film location with appearances in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Teen-Age Crime Wave (1955), War of the Colossal Beast (1958), and The Terminator (1984). Zombie makeup effects were created for the film by Howard Berger, who would go on to found with Gregory Nicotero and Robert Kurtzman the KNB Efx Group, whose creations can be seen in such films as Scream (1996), Boogie Nights (1997), Kill Bill, Vol. 1-2 (2003-2004), The Mist (2007), and AMC's continuing, weekly zombie series The Walking Dead. Night of the Creeps was also an early credit for character actor David Paymer, who later went on to acclaim for his work in Quiz Show (1994), City Hall (1996), and Mr. Saturday Night (1992), for which he received an Oscar® nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
A multiplex nonstarter in its day, Night of the Creeps was quickly remaindered onto video cassette, where it developed a cult following due to its party favorite pacing - an anything goes aesthetic that anticipated the juicy excess of Peter Jackson's Dead Alive (1992) and the recursive curlicues of Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Scream. Dekker's next at bat was the similarly nostalgic The Monster Squad (1987), which brought Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, the Wolfman and other classic monsters into contemporary times. Cowritten with Shane Black, the film was another box-office failure that ultimately found favor on the home entertainment scene. Dekker's third and final film to date was RoboCop 3 (1993), the critically barracked second sequel to Paul Verhoeven's well-regarded original. That film's inability to recoup its $22,000,000 budget seemed to spell the end of days for Fred Dekker as a director-for-hire, though the filmmaker has felt vindicated by the attention and enthusiasm bestowed upon commemorative DVD releases of both Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad and by sold-out cast and crew reunion screenings at the Alamo Draft House in Austin, Texas.
Producer: Charles Gordon
Director: Fred Dekker
Writer: Fred Dekker
Cinematographer: Robert C. New
Music: Barry De Vorzon
Editor: Michael N. Knue
Special effects makeup: Howard Berger
Cast: Jason Lively (Chris Romero), Steve Marshall (J. C. Hooper), Jill Whitlow (Cindy Cronenberg), Tom Atkins (Det. Ray Cameron), Wally Taylor (Det. Landis), Bruce Solomon (Sgt. Raimi), Vic Polizos (Coroner), Allan Kayser (Brad), Ken Heron (Johnny), Dick Miller (Walt), David Paymer (Young Scientist), Shane Black (Cop at Police Station), Robert Kurtzman (Beta Zombie), Howard Berger (Beta Zombie), Greg Nicotero (Extra).
by Richard Harland Smith