With horror industry heavy hitters already in place from the 1970s, the 1980s built upon that with the rise of brilliant minds in makeup and effects artists, as well as advances in technology. Artists like Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff Jr., Tom Savini, Stan Winston, and countless other artists that delivered groundbreaking, mind-blowing practical effects that ushered in the pre-CGI Golden Age of Cinema. Which meant a glorious glut of creatures in horror. More than just a technical marvel, the creatures on display in ‘80s horror meant tangible texture that still holds up decades later. Grotesque slimy skin to brutal transformation sequences, there wasn’t anything the artists couldn’t create. It Came From the ‘80s is a series that will pay homage to the monstrous, deadly, and often slimy creatures that made the ‘80s such a fantastic decade in horror.
The great thing about the ‘80s, as far as horror is concerned, is that practical effect driven creature features were entertaining whether the budget was massive like The Thing or a rag-tag DIY affair cobbled together with whatever money or materials could be found. The Deadly Spawn fell squarely in the latter category. Also known as Return of the Aliens: The Deadly Spawn as a cash grab by distributors in the wake of Ridley Scott’s Alien, this labor of love and strife defies its meager budget to deliver one of the most surprising, gory creature features of the decade.
A swift pace that begins the carnage almost immediately, the plot follows an alien that takes refuge in the basement of a suburb after crash landing via meteor, devouring anyone it meets, and spawning at a rapid pace. It’s up to a handful of teens and a monster obsessed boy to stop it. Of course, the acting is proportionate to the budget, which is to say it can be pretty terrible. The minuscule budget also means that the story doesn’t fall into predictable territory, either. There’s some time spent around lead teen Pete’s wooing of would be girlfriend Ellen, but the actress who played her (Jean Tafler) got another job. With no money to work around this, as the director was a high school teacher who had to shoot on weekends only, she was simply written out by way of gruesome death. The love-story between Ellen and Pete makes even less sense, anyway, because it was trimmed down to make room for special effects reshoots once special effects director John Dods (Spookies, Black Roses, Ghostbusters II) took over directing post principal photography.
Written by director Douglas McKeown and production assistant Tim Sullivan, based on a story idea by producer Ted Bohus, it was associate producer and effects director John Dods, apathetic towards Bohus’ man-in-suit creature concept, that would provide multiple alternatives and designs. With a budget of roughly $25,000 that didn’t allow for much in the way of special effects, many of Dods’ designs weren’t feasible, but one design that was settled on immediately was the Mother Spawn, a full sized mechanical puppet.
Built in Dods basement, the three-headed puppet with mechanical infrastructure and latex rubber skin was too big to squeeze through the doorway of the set, so it had to be broken down and reassembled. Mother Spawn had to live up to her name, too, so Dods and team also assembled multiple life-stages of her spawn. Baby spawns, the first stage featured swimming in the basement, were puppets on an S-shaped tracking line and pulled by wire to give the appearance of swimming movement. It was a super cheap, but effective approach. The same tactic was used for the slightly larger, more advanced mini spawns that scaled the walls. The overt use of miniatures for the colossal, fully-grown spawn was a charming addition, too.
Unlike other horror films of the era that employed guerilla filmmaking, like The Evil Dead, The Deadly Spawn is a bit more obvious in its rough edges. Filmed on 16mm in the house of fantasy illustrator Tim Hildebrandt with a cast and crew comprised of most family members, the final product is uneven at best. But thanks to fantastic creature designs and effects by Dods and his team, a relentless dedication to gore and carnage, and an extreme sincerity at heart, there’s a lot to love with The Deadly Spawn.