Night Life (1989) Retrospective

Archie Melville takes a job with his Uncle Verlin at the mortuary. When the local bullies die in a car crash, they are taken to the mortuary, where they become reanimated. The bullies, now zombies, become even nastier and begin to torment Archie and his friend Charly.

Archie is tormented by jocks John Devlin, Rog Davis, and another friend. John is dating a popular girl named Roberta Woods, played by Darcy DeMoss. The torment doesn’t end there, as Archie works for his uncle Verlin, who more or less treats Archie badly, often forcing him to do disgusting work while Verlin does not. Perhaps Archie’s only friend is Charly Cheryl Pollak, a pretty tomboy who works at a local gas station fixing cars, but has announced her intentions to leave town. After Archie finally plays a prank on his tormentors, they plot revenge, though Roberta begs them not to, as she has grown tired of them picking on Archie for no reason. Before any play of revenge can take play, Archie’s bullies (and Roberta along with Joanie, another girlfriend of Archie’s tormentors) perish is a car crash. Verlin, who’d rather go out on a date than do his work, assigns Archie the task of getting the bodies or his tormentors ready for autopsy. As Archie is going about these task, a bolt of lightning re-animates the recently deceased teens. Though his now dead bullies seem intent on killing Archie, zombie Roberta seems to have more romantic intentions, as she tries to kiss Archie any time she is near them.


Uncle Verlin returns to find the mortuary a mess and begins to yell at Archie, who by now has the zombies trapped. Verlin dismisses Archie’s warnings and goes into the mortuary, where he is captured by the zombies. Instead of eating his brains, they strap Verlin onto a table and fill his body full of embalming fluid until it finally explodes, scattering his internal organs everywhere. Eventually, Archie escapes, but the zombies are hot on his trail, stopping to beat up and kill two cops that were on patrol. Finally, Archie is able to reach Charly and convince her of what’s going on. After the zombies take out a few more victims (including Charly’s would be boyfriend, a self-absorbed race car driver) Charly and Archie team together to rid the world of the Zombies, even Roberta, who still showing romantic interest in Archie, despite the fact she’s a zombie. Charly kills Roberta, and realizes that she has always bene in love with Archie. With the four zombies now dead, Charly and Archie look over the scene and ponder their life together.

Night Life, penned by Volunteers screenwriter Keith Critchlow and produced by genre vet Charles Lippincott, stars Scott (Critters) Grimes as a hassled high schooler whose troubles don’t end when the school bullies are killed. In fact, that’s just when the supernatural stuff starts.

We stumble through darkened fields toward Night Life’s dressing rooms and makeup trailers as the plot unravels. Grimes plays Arenie, a good kid pushed around by troublemaking teenage tricksters, basically because of his afterschool occupation: working at uncle John Astin’s mortuary. Things go from bad to worse for our hero when his four foes are massacred in a crackup with a chemical truck and brought to the mortuary for embalming.

“The dead bodies are autopsied quite realistically.” notes makeup FX artist Ed French, stepping out of the shadows to walk with us. Quite a bit of action takes place in that mortuary. We also do a scene where John Astin gets inflated with petrol and air and just blows up like a big balloon until he literally explodes.”

While working on the mutilated kids, the ever-astute Archie notices the corpses coming grotesquely back to life. Of course, no one believes him until it’s too late. When the zombie transformation is completed, the walking dead find themselves, much to their dismay, partially embalmed; some of their innards have already been removed,

while other parts of their guts are still falling out. “In fact, later in the movie, the Palumbo zombie takes out the gauze stuffing from his own stomach to tie someone up with,” notes Reardon.

Night Life’s four undead, not being the brightest kids at school, don’t seem to realize they’ve bitten the big one. They still steal cars and they still drink beer, only now they kill anyone that gets in their way.

“The first part of the movie is pretty much like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” explains publicist Jones as he leads the way from the makeup trailer down a steep incline toward the valley under the railroad bridge. “But when these homicidal lunatics come back to life, the story becomes a nonstop nightmare.”

“I have not been that enamored with recent zombie films, although I consider what Romero has done quite interesting.” explains producer Charles Lippincott. Recently, Lippincott and associate producer Susan Nicoletti have been searching through mountains of scripts for good low-budget horror films. The former vice president of the Star Wars Corporation theorizes that since zombies were born of the movie industry, there ought to be better films around. “It’s pretty well documented that the zombie is an original cinematic character, as opposed to Dracula, Frankenstein or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which all came from books and then went onto film. There is very little written about zombies that precedes movies.”


One thing that bothers Lippincott about the undead is the slow plodding-around-with-arms-out straight type creatures. “How can you endanger the hero if everyone’s dragging around?” he complains. Thus, Night Life’s living dead will be fast and furious and have distinct personality traits held over from their days in the sun. And although they’re apt to party at the drop of a hat, much of the silliness that’s crept into many of today’s zombie movies has been avoided. “The film has humor in it, but it’s not a horror comedy, which is one of the worst crossover bastardized genre forms to come along,” Lippincott asserts. “When it comes to horror, you have to do horror and stick to it.”

Which doesn’t necessarily mean there’s an overabundance of gore for gore’s sake in Night Life, either. “We’re not going to be like Phantasm II, which was recut to avoid an X rating for excessive gore,” Lippincott maintains. “I don’t doubt that we could verge on an x, but we didn’t go out of our way for a lot of blood. I really tried to emphasize suspense.

Before his two years with the Star Wars Corporation and a stint marketing Alien for his own company, Creative Movie Marketing. Lippincott served as publicist on Alfred Hitchcock’s last film, Family Plot. Later, he became involved as consultant and production exec with a number of Dino De Laurentiis features, including Flash Gordon, Conan, Dune and Amityville II: The Possession.

“The problem I find today is that very few horror directors are into suspense, Lippincott frowns. “John Carpenter is probably the only one. Despite all this criticism I hear about him, Prince of Darkness was the only genre film I saw last year that actually had suspense. John works very hard and doesn’t try to deal with the pandering and conventions that everyone wants nowadays-like, ‘You have to have horror in the first half of the film, which is a big demand I’m having placed on me at the moment.”

Nevertheless, when the horror finally kicks in. it’s unrelenting. There’s very little let-up from that point in the movie, the producer promises. These zombies are driven about what they want to do and that drive is centered around getting Archie and his girlfriend Charly (Cheryl Pollack). They’re as unyielding as the Terminator.”

“Actually. Night Life has a Lost Boys feel,” chimes in Scott Grimes, just arriving from an interview for the TV show Flip. “The direction’s pretty trendy, but really scary. too. Even though I’m in it, I’m on the edge of my seat. I’m still scared! Just when you think nothing’s going to happen, a head will split open or blood and guts will come out of nowhere.”

Grimes. 17, who came to genre fame with Critters, is less than enthusiastic about that film’s ill received sequel. I’ve told the Night Life people that they should do a sequel, though, ’cause there’s plenty of places you can take this kind of movie,” Grimes relates. “Plus. I’m finally getting to do my own stunts.” Said stunts include jumping off a 17-foot bridge and landing flat on his back in the water in order to match how the stunt double lands when he jumps off a 40-foot bridge in the long shot.

Grimes is elated about doing his own combat against combustible creatures. Near the film’s finale, he shoots lead zombie Rog, then gets pulled into an open grave for the fiery fight of his young life. “When I throw a lantern at him, he immediately catches on fire but still gets up.” Grimes enthuses. He’s totally blazing and grabs me for a wrestling match.” Although the long shots will show the two actors stunt doubles. the close-ups are definitely Grimes, painted in fire resistant gel and rolling around with a flame-engulfed zombie.

“That’s a very disturbing piece of film,” intones director David Acomba. “When Rog. Archie’s mortal enemy, catches on fire, he drags the kid down into the grave. So there’s a horrible image of a zombie on fire. It’s like the devil himself coming out of the grave and pulling you into hell. As hard as you try to get out, you can’t make it. That type of image will be much more powerful and effective to an audience than a great deal of gore or effects, which is terrific but doesn’t have the resonance of that scene.”


Coming from a background in comedy. Acomba, who worked with Second City in Toronto and directed the 13-part Showtime special Four on the Floor, had to learn the rudiments of horror very quickly. “There are different ways you can thrill an audience, and horror is one of them,” he feels. “I didn’t think I was any great director of violence. but I’ve found I can easily dredge that out of myself.”

Although he punched up a great deal of the script’s humor, Canadian-born Acomba feels the horror elements are still quite intense. “We never make fun of the genre,” he clarifies. “In order for it to be a good horror film, you have to take it seriously. And we take it dead serious.”

While not accustomed to working on a modern-day genre effort. Acomba quickly felt at ease working with FX. “They took a little long sometimes, but it was always worth it,” the director nods. “One of the dummies we used had so many controls on it that I could actually direct it through a scene. I got right into its character and told it to smile more. move a little to the right or to the left and so on. It wasn’t much different than some actors I’ve worked with.”

“This is definitely the most difficult shot in the film,” agrees Jones. There will be a crash between a police car full of zombies and a locomotive up on that bridge.” The publicist points to the trestle 40 feet above us. Originally planned to be shot with models, the train and the car have to speed toward each other and explode upon impact while the zombies dive over the side.

“There are five cameras set up at various positions,” Jones notes. “We have only one go at doing this.” Tonight is the last night of all-night shooting, after which the train has to be returned. The bridge, a declared historical landmark erected more than a century ago, cannot be damaged. According to safety regulations, several firemen stand among the two dozen or so technicians and onlookers shivering in the blackness.

While not accustomed to working on a modern-day genre effort. Acomba quickly felt at ease working with FX. “They took a little long sometimes, but it was always worth it,” the director nods. “One of the dummies we used had so many controls on it that I could actually direct it through a scene. I got right into its character and told it to smile more. move a little to the right or to the left and so on. It wasn’t much different than some actors I’ve worked with.”


The FX mainly revolve around the four zombies and what happens to them. “At one point, they even get barbecued. Yeah, barbecued zombies, that’s something you haven’t seen in a long time,” laughs French, the man behind the makeup FX on The Exterminator, Rejuvenator, Breeders and countless others.

The zombies of Night Life are reanimated through accidental inhalation of toxic gases from the chemical truck combined with lightning from a more-than convenient electrical storm, a la Dr. Frankenstein.

“The audience has to have some reference point, some pretext for the zombification,” elaborates monster master Craig Reardon from the makeup trailer. Reardon, responsible for the look and style of Night Life’s undead, applies the finishing touches to a zombie cranium as he chats. “So the mysterious gas and the electricity send the kids to the fifth dimension or whatever happens to zombies. They start out inert and smashed-up and get trucked over to the mortuary.”

“Their heads are twisted around,” adds French. “It’s pretty gruesome.” “It’s a very straight faced, black humor kind of scene,” continues Reardon. “You see the kids getting prepped. Astin and Grimes pull out their loose teeth and punch staples in their jaws to wire them shut.” Reardon took some liberties, though, to enhance the climactic gore potential later on. “We didn’t inject too much embalming fluid into the bodies, because we didn’t want them to leak clear liquid. We wanted to be able to bloody them up later. Aside from that, all the indignities and the nasty antiseptic things that are done to us after we ‘give it up’ are portrayed.”

Having headed up makeup FX on Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist and Funhouse, Reardon, who claims he’s never seen a George Romero zombie flick, takes the task of the zombie transition very seriously. “You start out with the two ‘big men on campus’ Beach Boy-types and the two golden ‘rah-rah’ girls. And I take specific measures to degrade them subtly-and sometimes not so subtly-through every scene. Every time you see the zombies, they’ll look slightly different and slightly worse. So before undergoing some really phenomenal degradation, like being thrown into a boiler room and burned, they already look pretty sorry. We’re dealing with the decay of these kids from ultimate beauty to a quite trashy, rather damaged look.”

The veteran makeup FX experts keep moving backward as huge Smoke machines start noisily filling the valley with eerie, billowing. purplish gray clouds. A bloodcurdling train whistle adds to the anticipation, while a stunt assistant wets down a mountain of cardboard that will act as a landing cushion for the diving zombies. They hope.

The smoke turns the entire valley into a dreamlike fantasy. French and Reardon, meanwhile, explain their own Night Life nightmare. “We’ve been doing 12-hour night shifts for the past three weeks and can still only deliver effects minutes before they have to be used. That just adds to your disorientation and exhaustion,” groans Reardon. “You lose all concept of time.”

“You should realize,” confesses French, “that Craig does 98 percent of the work on Night Life. I’m only here to support him and pick up the slack. He’s worked his butt off. And since you don’t sleep much on these deals. Craig and I are probably babbling incoherently.”

David Acomba

Charles Lippincott

Keith F. Critchlow

Special Effects
Craig Reardon
Frank Ceglia
Steve Fink
Ed French

Scott Grimes as Archie Melville
John Astin as Uncle Verlin
Cheryl Pollak as Charly
Anthony Geary as John Devlin
Alan Blumenfield as Frank
Kenneth Ian Davis as Rog Davis
Darcy DeMoss as Roberta Woods
Lisa Fuller as Joanie Snowland
Mark Pellegrino as Allen Patumbo
Phil Proctor as Randolph Whitlock
Erik Cord Police Officer


One thought on “Night Life (1989) Retrospective

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s