“I’m amused when people are upset by horror and splatter,” says George A Romero on Creepshow’s Making Of. “I celebrate it! Same with people getting upset about sexual content… [Shakes head, sadly.] C’mon – lighten up!”
There he is: Gore-geous George. Crumple-eyed and bleach-bearded; the dark half of Cap’n Birdseye, Ken Bates or – with the grandpa waistcoat and goggle-specs – a schlock Scorsese.
Creepshow was a sleeper-creeper hit back in 1982; a gleeful jostle of five “jolting tales of horror”, hammered together for just $8m, with a studio-stunning $25m payback (hence the rack of drowsy sequels).
Romero and mad make-up scientist Tom Savini planned to shamelessly swipe the lurid look and feel of the ‘Entertaining Comics’ series – balls-out compilations of Gothic-graphic skits illicitly torchlit by a ghoulish generation of bedtime-defying ’50s American kids (Tales From The Crypt!, The Vault Of Horror! and, possibly, Really Scary Stories From Out Of A Musty Cupboard!).
“I loved those comics, man!” gushes Savini with flashing eyes, looking – disturbingly – not that much older than he did 25 years ago. “You’d get some really sick shit, like guys having their still-beating hearts cut out... They were so cool. They really pushed it!” Romero, brilliantly, convinced the mighty Stephen King to scribble (and guest-star in) his fearsome quintet. It was – in a good way – the collaboration from Hell...
Opener Father’s Day sees a graveside homage soured by an uninvited, sugar-crazed and maggot-sprinkled guest. The Lonesome Death Of Jordy Verrill follows a redneck retard (King) who unwisely pokes around inside a fallen space-rock. Something To Tide You Over sees a sadistic cuckold dispatching his cheating wife to a soggy grave – complete with echoing evil laughter. The Crate peers in at something feral and feisty used by a hen-pecked nebbish to make his problems disappear, bar the odd conspicuous – but moppable – lake of gleaming crimson. Finally, They’re Creeping Up On You features a Howard Hughes-a-like hygiene-junky scuttled by an unstoppable cockroach army.
Romero takes King’s wiry blend of bluecollar/ white-knuckle and sculpts a hair-raising labour of love, powered by Savini’s cut-rate but high-impact splash and gurn. The dated TV-movie vibe only makes the scares blare louder; with the lights on, those classic horror tricks (jump-edits, sound drop-outs, time/ space cheats) seem more subversive and unpredictable. Lashings of beige; billowing hair; rib-cracking waistbands; squelching analogue synths; widescreen tie-knots… All the better to yank out the rug and blacken the tone.
By smuggling the movie in under a cloak of cartoonish respectability, Romero gets away with the kind of material that would have banished other releases of the era onto the video nasties list: death by crushing, cutting, drowning, neck-breaking, shotgun suicide, being eaten/buried alive, and in the film’s most scarring surge of nightmare-fuel, the bit with the cockroaches. The bit with thousands of cockroaches, swarming and scattering out of a corpse’s mouth, punching up through pulsing chest-skin, splattering a gut-spinning action-painting of bloody footprints. “We used around 250,000 roaches,” confirms Romero. “When they brought them over the border, the guard wasn’t happy, but then the handlers told him they were for a Stephen King movie and he was like, ‘Stephen King? Go on through!’.” Romero fleshes out the brittle genre bones with some glorious heavyweight stunt-casting: Tom Atkins, Ed Harris, Ted Danson, Viveca Lindfors, Hal Holbrook, EG Marshall and the gorgeous Adrienne Barbeau as The Crate’s waspish harpie-wife (“Get out of my way or I’ll be using your balls for earrings!”).
The exceptional feature-length Making Of doc is chapterised with authentic EC-style art and ropes in all the key players – including a still-stunning Barbeau and grumpy Ed Harris (“All I remember was doing a bunch of goofy dancing and falling in a grave or something. It was a favour for George…”). Savini and Romero’s chat-track is wonderfully wheezy; two sly old geezers joshing and reminiscing (gotta love the way Savini refers to his absolutely petrifying crate-creature as ‘Fluffy’). “Ah, boy. What fun this was!” chortles Romero after a glassy-eyed silence. “It was before we all got cynical and swallowed by the studio system. What – we get to turn Stephen King into a plant? Cool!”
Before Sin City and 300, before green-screens and digital sheens, Romero was the first to tear out that comic-book mood and paste it up on-screen: tilted shot-framing; split-screen; scrolling panels; captions; liquid lens filters and simple but striking live-action/ hand-drawn buffers and segues. Creepshow has endured because it so faithfully – and affectionately – channels the timelessness of the comics that inspired it: macabre but playful; lean, structured storytelling; goofy but confident character sketches. Schlocky as they are, the tales’ themes are surprisingly prescient about current twitches: body horror, blind faith in technology, fear of animal-spread disease... They’re also – typical King – fiercely moral tales where the bad guys always get it in the end (the baddest guy – the abusive father of the intro – ends up tortured by his son’s voodoo doll in the outro).
If a slick, high-budget blockbuster really is, so the cliché goes, a ‘rollercoaster ride’ at a brash franchise theme-park, then Creepshow is a go on the ghost train at a provincial fairground: improvised mist; rickety animatronics; glow-in-the-dark wall-art and leering papier-mâché skellingtons. Oh, and the ride operator secretly tagging along and ruffling your hair half-way through. “It’s not about killing people,” says Savini. “It’s about scaring people.”