The cast of Tremors outside Walter Chang's place

The cast of Tremors outside Walter Chang’s place

Every now and then a movie comes along which defies all your expectations. On the face of it, Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward, plus a cast of TV actors, filming giant worms in the small town of Perfection, Nevada doesn’t seem like it leaves any room for manoeuvre. And to be honest, there’s no great ambition on the part of the film-makers – no Romero-style political subtext, no revolutionary special effects, nothing. However, the movie succeeds wildly in its only aim, which is to entertain its audience.

As a result, it built up tremendous word of mouth during its initial cinema release, enough to make me drag along several sceptical friends back in 1990, and no-one was disappointed.  It’s a pleasant surprise that Tremors has maintained its reputation, and still looks good today, as can be seen from its frequent appearances on TV.

Ariana Richards, Perfection's youngest resident, gets in some good practice for her later stint in Jurassic Park
So what’s the secret? First time director Ron Underwood learns from the classics (and particularly Jaws) by gradually revealing the monster, keeping the audience guessing about the nature of the of the peril, while keeping the goofy characters pitched at exactly the right level of cartoonish earnestness. Bacon and Ward are great fun as our heroes, making the most of the best lines along with romantic interest Finn Carter, and even getting laughs out of sewage spill jokes.

To be honest, I expected a movie that would appeal to film geeks only, along the lines of Fred Dekker’s Night of the Creeps, and to be fair there are plenty of in-jokes including the appearances of reliable genre veterans such as Victor Wong and Dee Wallace Stone. However all the cast keep admirably straight faces, and Michael Gross and Reba McEntire (in her first movie role) enthusiastically chew the scenery as a survivalist couple relishing the chance to use some of their usually redundant firepower.

The effects are surprisingly good, if not quite as gory as you might expect by today’s standards, and the Nevada scenery is nicely photographed in western style by Alexander Gruszynski. The regular use of strong language may stop Tremors being the ideal family film, but for anyone over 12 it’s a must-see. Many monster movies have attempted the combination of scares and laughs but very few have been so perfectly pitched between the two.

Mild Peril Rating: ★★★★½

The Crazies

This was Romero’s second attempt at a horror thriller, a genre to which he was reluctantly forced to return after a couple of domestic dramas failed financially. Unfortunately for him, The Crazies didn’t have much more success, despite being stronger in many ways than Night of the Living Dead. In fact it turned up on the BBC just a couple of years after it was made, at a time when movies were normally held back from TV for five years after their initial release. So it was my introduction to Romero, as Night of the Living Dead was banned for a few years in the UK. Consequently, I’ve always had a soft spot for it. Even with its many faults, it’s still a neat distillation of what Romero does best.

First, the faults: as is usual with Romero, the standard of acting varies wildly. The nominal heroes are a couple of firemen played by W.G McMillan and Harold Wayne Jones, and their role seems to be to provide an identifiable centre to the movie while everything goes nuts around them, but they’re given so little to go on, it’s almost as if Romero is defying you to regard them as heroes. Despite this, McMillan in particular turns in a creditable performance, which is more than can be said for some of the bit-part players.

Secondly, the budget doesn’t really stretch to giving the movie the sheen that is demanded by lots of audiences today, although that’s not really a problem for me. It was finally released on video in the UK at the same time that the massively expensive Outbreak was in the cinemas, and it’s an instructive exercise to sit down and decide which movie is more effective. In fact the low budget and lack of stars gives The Crazies an edge, as you’re never quite certain that any of the heroes is safe, or indeed who the heroes are supposed to be. Romero seems to have spent most of the budget on white uniforms and bright red fake blood, which have a terrific shock value in combination. On the other hand, all of the stock footage looks completely out of place and adds an unintentionally comic touch to some scenes.

The Crazies was also released under the titles CODENAME:TRIXIE and THE MAD PEOPLE
Another fault is the eternal curse of movies made in the seventies: fashion. No matter how hard Tarantino tries to make it all hip, there’s something fundamentally hopeless about big collars and flared trousers, especially in a hard-edged cynical movie like this. One of the cast, Richard Liberty, is a fine actor and his part here is tragic, but he’s saddled with a pair of orange crimplene flares that take a lot of getting over. It’s the same problem as suffered by Gene Hackman in Night Moves, who gave one of his best performance despite being hampered by brown suede lapels.

Still, the strengths of The Crazies far outweigh its weaknesses. As well as Liberty, there’s another familiar Romero figure, Richard France, who was to play the mad TV scientist in Dawn of the Dead. Here he plays the slightly less mad scientist charged with finding an antidote to the chemical, and again he chews the scenery to memorable effect. And Lloyd Hollar is good as the colonel who is put in charge of containing the outbreak.

Despite all this, it’s very much Romero’s movie. The atmosphere of complete chaos is perfectly conjured up by bizarre editing, terrific production design and a deafening soundtrack, as well as the story which is never predictable and has the courage to kill off most of the cast at unexpected times. You get the expected shock ending (not the least of which is a Carole Bayer Sager song over the end titles) but more importantly Romero seems to have found a way of getting a coherent political viewpoint into an action movie. In this way The Crazies is as much a forerunner of Day of the Dead as an unofficial sequel to Night of the Living Dead, as it’s often portrayed, especially in its anti-military stance. In terms of action and style, it contains a lot of ideas that Romero would expand on in Dawn of the Dead.

I’ve made it sound like a jigsaw made up of essential Romero elements, and while it is that, it’s got an angry tone and a number of set-pieces that make it unusual for Romero, and unique anywhere. And it’s got a great tag line on the poster (see above), which sums it all up nicely.

Mild Peril Rating: ★★★★☆

TV recommendations

After a few months of not much happening, there’s suddenly a few new series that deserve your attention.

Spiral. Third series of the edgy French cop show, labelled Spiral: The Butcher of La Villette by the BBC in the hope you won’t realise you’ve missed two series already. (You don’t really need to see them to understand this, but they’re only 15.99 on Amazon anyway) Apart from the thriller elements and the terrific cast, it’s fascinating to see a completely different judicial system in operation. Saturday nights on BBC4 with a midweek repeat, and on iplayer.

Rubicon. An outstanding conspiracy thriller shown on US TV last year. Sometimes slower than treacle but never boring, it’s reminiscent of ’70s paranioa movies and the cast is perfect. I’ve never rated James Badge Dale before but he’s found the right part at last. Or would have if Rubicon hadn’t been canned at the end of the first series. It just about ties things up so don’t let that put you off. And watch for Michael Cristofer’s marvellously eccentric performance as Truxton Spangler. Starts Thursday night on BBC4 and on iplayer.

The Walking Dead. Weekend terrestrial showing on Channel5 for Frank Darabont’s adaptation of the ongoing graphic novel, patchy but the basic set-up, a less political telling of the Romero stories with a large budget, means it can’t fail. Non-spoiler review of the first episode here.



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