There are zombies everywhere these days. Not quite as many as there were at their peak in the Aughts, when it seemed like you couldn’t turn around without stepping in the latest zombie thriller, but they’re still everywhere you look. There are zombie movies, zombie books, zombie comics, zombie video games (oh, the video games!), and even a zombie TV show on prime time.
And – this pains me to admit, as a horror hound – for the most part, I don’t like ‘em. There are a few exceptions – Return of the Living Dead, both the original and remake of Night of the Living Dead, plus everything even remotely associated with The Evil Dead (though I would classify those more as demons than proper zombies) – but for the most part, zombies aren’t my thing. Part of the reason for this is that, like almost everyone else, I got zombied out back in the Aughts. As Special Effects go, zombies are cheap, and there was a while there when it seemed like everyone and their sister’s dog had talked their friends into putting on gray makeup and going out into the woods with a handycam to record their own steaming heap of brilliant social commentary.
The other part of it is that very social commentary aspect. Zombies are less monsters than they are a natural disaster. If the humans just kept their heads and worked together, they’d have nothing to worry about – but of course, they never do. The real monster in zombie fiction is us. The genre exists to showcase how stupid, cruel, cowardly, petty and bickering humans can be when put under pressure (and never mind how it ignores how brave, generous and ingenious we can also be under such circumstances). It’s a powerful message…once. Watching humans be horrible to each other can get tiresome when what you wanted was a fun creature feature.
What I do like is a story, in any medium, where the zombies are controlled by a greater force, be it a necromancer, a demon, an elder god, or an out-of-control A.I. You find this all over the place in video games, of course – need those end bosses, after all – but it’s surprisingly rare in movies. In fact, except for the Evil Dead series, which has the aforementioned blurring of the lines between demonic possession and proper zombies, the only movie I can think of that has its zombies controlled by a greater force is the 2006 film Slither. It probably doesn’t come as a surprise to you, then, that Slither is one of my favorite zombie movies ever, and one of my favorite horror movies in general.
Unfortunately, I seem to be in the minority on that. Slither bombed pretty thoroughly at the box office, and while it has become a definite cult classic in the years since, it is not without serious detractors even among horror nerds. The producer blamed the box office failure on the fact that Slither was the first horror comedy to come down the pike in some time, and people didn’t know quite what to make of it. There’s probably something to that. But the movie didn’t help itself with an audience that might have lifted it out of the swamps of unprofitability – the aforementioned horror nerds – by being just a bit too spot-on with its homages to the Eighties movie Night of the Creeps. I saw Slither before I saw Night of the Creeps, and for a long time I thought that people were overreacting a bit. There’s nothing new under the Sun (or the Moon) after all, and sly in-jokes and references (not to mention remakes) are the order of the day. But no, when I finally saw Night of the Creeps, I had to admit – some of these “homages” are shot-for-shot imitations.
Still, like I said before: Slither is and remains one of my favorite horror movies. The fact that I can understand why others don’t like it doesn’t change that. Part of it is because of my aforementioned preference for just this type of zombie movie. Part of it is because this movie offers – in addition to the zombies – a cool and unusual monster, and I will forgive a lot in a movie if it has a good monster.
But in truth, there’s not much to forgive, because in the end, this is actually a good movie. The horror and comedy that so confused audiences are actually well-blended, and the characters are well-developed and interesting.
Spoilers start now.
The movie begins with a rock flying through space. As it approaches the Earth, it begins to burn. Parts break off, but the main mass of the rock remains intact as it plunges toward the Southern United States. It roars down, down, down until it…lands in the woods with no sound whatsoever, completely unnoticed by Sheriff Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion) and one of his deputies, who are having a slow night at a traffic stakeout. When we get a look at the meteor next to objects of familiar scale, it turns out to be about the size of a basketball. And of course, as soon as we get that look, the meteor breaks open to give us a look at something meaty inside. Because it’s just that kind of movie.
The next fifteen minutes or so are spent introducing us to the small town of Wheelsy, South Carolina, and its people, who will of course be our protagonists this evening.
Wheelsy is an economically depressed little burg; although it’s never stated outright, the movie gives us several clues that the automotive factory that was the heart of the economy in better days closed down a generation or so ago. There are a few people here and there who are still prosperous – mostly farmers and ranchers on the edge of town – but for the most part, the people of Wheelsy just try to fill the days and make ends meet. The biggest event of the year is the opening of Deer Season. Not only is it something that the people of Wheelsy enjoy for its own sake, but it brings an influx of hunters from outside the area…and their money. Those tourist dollars may be all that keeps Wheelsy from drying up and blowing away entirely.
Then we start meeting the people, and I have to say that the movie makes some interesting and unusual choices with its characterization, which is all the more extraordinary in a genre that tends to stock its stories with shallow caricatures so you don’t care when they die. The characters in Slither are three-dimensional and true, and you find yourself caring about the ones you least expect.
First of all, while Our Heroes are generally nice, pleasant people in addition to being Good, they have some very real flaws.
Sheriff Bill Pardy, who we’ve already met, is a brave and competent fellow. But his time breaking up bar fights, scraping drunk driving casualties off the road, and confiscating dangerous explosives from tourists who want to use them for fishing has in no way prepared him for an alien invasion. He’s badly out of his depth in this movie, and it shows. Perhaps more serious in terms of actual flaws, Bill still carries a torch for the first girl he ever loved, the prettiest woman in town…who happens to be married to another man.
Bill’s One True Love, Starla Grant, is also brave and determined to help out to the best of her ability when things start to go wrong. On the other hand, she can be a bit childish and petulant, never having been allowed to grow all the way up by her possessive husband. And speaking of Starla’s husband, it soon becomes clear that she married for money…but then, just what was a dirt-poor girl from the trailer park – her father dead and nothing going for her but a pretty face – supposed to do when the richest man in town offered her a college education and a roof over her head for the price of a wedding ring? Bill himself defends her for this, and while we see several moments that tell us quite clearly that she returns Bill’s feelings, we also see that she takes her commitment to her marriage seriously.
Still, flawed heroes aren’t so unheard-of, even in the moralistic horror genre. What’s truly unusual and bold about Slither is that the unpleasant people, the abrasive and obnoxious people, are not bad people.
The mayor of Wheelsy is one Jack MacReady (yes, it’s a reference to John Carpenter’s The Thing).
He’s loud, vulgar and nasty. You wonder how he even got elected, until you see him give a barn-burner of a speech at the Deer Season opening celebration. You expect him to be this movie’s Mayor Vaughn, pressuring Bill to cover up the weird happenings so as not to ruin the hunting season. Instead, he’s there in the police station every day pressuring Pardy to solve the case, and when Bill raises a posse, he takes up a rifle himself to help.
And what about Starla’s husband, Grant Grant?
(Yes, that’s really his name. Some mothers actually do that to their children. I knew a girl in high school whose brother was named Murphy Murphy.)
Grant is the richest man in Wheelsy, as I mentioned before. And I have to say, living and working where I do, that it’s very strange to me to think that there are places like Wheelsy where “the richest man in town” means a big house and a big pickup truck, and a yearly income in the low to mid six digits. But I know that there are. I grew up in one.
Anyway. Grant is a controlling and possessive husband, and he has the kind of social skills that you just naturally develop when everyone in your life caters to you all the time. These things are not good for his marriage. On the other hand, he takes his commitment to that marriage just as seriously as Starla does. After a failed attempt to seduce his wife – an attempt roughly on par with a ten year old pulling the pigtails of the girl he likes – Grant storms out and goes to a bar to drown his frustrations. While there, he meets one Brenda Gutierrez. Brenda is another pretty girl from the trailer park, and she sympathizes with Grant’s frustration. Yes she does. She thinks he was always too good for Starla, and he would have been better off with someone else. Someone like her, for example.
Grant makes the perfectly reasonable point that Brenda was about ten when he married Starla. Brenda’s response: “Hell, I was game.”
This is…probably?…a joke on Brenda’s part – just an exaggeration of how much of a crush she had on Grant back in the day. But it’s a much darker joke, and probably less of an exaggeration, than we adult watchers would like to think. I knew a number of sexually precocious girls in high school, and even middle school. The trailer park and the poor part of town are hardly the only place where such things happen, of course, but they do deserve some of their infamy. And it’s usually an indication of abuse, or at least a hyper-sexualized environment…which, of course, is a kind of abuse in itself.
Anyway. Grant and Brenda stumble off into the woods together, and Brenda shows Grant evidence of her crush: a tree into which she carved their initials. Grant shows his usual charm by noting that the initials for her maiden name are BM – “You’re just a little turd, girl!” – but then surprises us all by deciding that, frustrated and drunk as he is, he just can’t cheat on his wife.
That’s the moment that they stumble upon the meaty thing from the meteor, and Grant gets possessed by the thing inside. Since the filmmakers state that the original human being Grant Grant died at the moment he was taken over by the alien, that means that his last act in this world was to choose to be faithful to his marriage. It’s not world-shaking heroism, but it’s a lot better than people like him generally do in these movies.
The Grant-thing returns home, and spends the next several days building a nest in the cellar, gathering meat (in the form of both groceries and neighborhood pets), and passing off his physical changes as an allergic reaction to a bee sting. We later learn that the alien inside is over a billion years old, and has done this many times on many worlds, making it a bona fide Lovecraftian Old One. Talk about your greater forces! But something happens on the first day that has never happened before, something that changes the course of the invasion:
Starla wakes up the morning after Grant’s adventure in the woods, and finds the bed empty. Maybe she feels a little guilty about turning him down the night before, maybe she worries a little bit about Brenda Gutierrez or someone like her taking the opportunity to make a move. Whatever the reason, Grant enters the living room to find Starla in a seductive little nightie, and their song playing on the stereo:
Yes. This is where the humor that confused some people comes in. Because apparently, this untellably ancient being from beyond space, this living cancer that has consumed a thousand worlds, has never known love before.
Can’t imagine why.
So what happens is that the Grant-things spends the rest of the movie doing standard alien invasion stuff – turning people into huge wombs to mass-breed brain worms, controlling the zombie hive mind, turning into a vast blob of alien flesh and tentacles – all the while trying to repair his marriage to his wife, who doesn’t seem to understand that possession by a world-consuming Old One comes under the heading of “for better or for worse”.
I’ve seen Grant’s transformation described as a metaphor for the transition of a controlling, jealous husband into a full-on abusive one, and I can buy that. In its way, that makes the horror more personal and comprehensible, instead of just another inscrutable alien trying to take over the world. When the blob of alien flesh and tentacles turns on “Every Woman In The World” to remind his wife what they once were to each other, that’s hilarious and a little bit sad. When it starts screaming obscenities at her – “I’ve seen you lookin’ at Pardy! You want to fuck him now ‘cause he’s so good-lookin’?” – it becomes chilling. You get the feeling that those are Grant’s insecurities talking, and that they might one day have turned ugly even without the intervention of ancient horror from beyond the stars.
(Of course, the fact that the question is asked by a blob of alien flesh and tentacles sort of makes it funny again.)
Meanwhile, Our Heroes, who somehow manage to be even more ragtag than your standard ragtag bunch of misfits, are stuck dealing with an invading Old One who is also a stalker ex-husband.
I hesitate to say any more, since jokes – even more than scares – are ruined if you see them coming.
In sum, I would recommend Slither to all of you horror hounds out there, and even those who aren’t so serious about it. It’s creature feature in the old style, a mix of chills and chuckles whose primary goal is fun rather than pushing the limits of the audience’s endurance. Just skip the stinger after the credits. Since there was never a sequel, the obligatory “it’s not over” twist isn’t just annoying, it’s pointless.