Monsters & Mullets: Tremors (1990)

Way to go, dudes!

Ah, earthquakes.

You may not be from earthquake country, so you might not have had to participate in earthquake drills at school, including an annual, day-long 'event' to help students and teachers prepare for The Big One. The pride of my young life was being selected to play an injured student during our 1988 day-long drill. I was assigned a broken arm, to my disappointment, (so pedestrian!) and when they later asked for volunteers to play dead, I of course threw my (good) arm up and then spent four boring hours lying still on a patch of grass, secretly wishing I still only had that broken arm and was allowed to talk to people.

It’s hard to imagine now, what with the whole absolutely everything is unutterably awful thing, but there was a time in living memory when the entire west coast of the US was obsessed with earthquakes. Specifically, the earthquake, the promised Big One that was a century overdue, or a millennium overdue, or a billion years overdue, whatever; but man that sucker was coming and it was going to knock California into the sea. Universal Studios’ tour ride included an Earthquake ‘set visit’ where the tram would stop, the ground would shake, and fake cars would explode at a safe distance from the tourists. The California Science Center in Los Angeles boasted an exhibit where you could stand on a platform and be shaken as though you were in a major earthquake. I visited this museum on school field trips many times and genuinely can’t remember a single thing about it except that one exhibit.

In California, in the 1980s, earthquakes were big business, is what I’m saying.

above: the cutest natural disaster.

The Loma Prieta earthquake – not quite the big one, perhaps, but certainly a big-enough one - happened on October 17, 1989, and the memory of it lingered, and lingers still. You may have forgotten, or never seen, the photos that came out of the San Francisco Bay Area in the aftermath of the earthquake. You may never have looked up the footage from the baseball game that it interrupted - a baseball game that is credited for saving untold numbers of lives, as the earthquake occurred during rush-hour, but so many people were home watching the game that the roads were clearer than usual. My family and I moved to the Bay Area about two months after the quake and its scars were everywhere; my mother pointed out the section of the Bay Bridge that had collapsed, and I never drove over it again without looking for the signs of its repair.

It was into this world that Tremors was born. Tremors, of course, is not actually about earthquakes. It's about giant, carnivorous worms that eat the shit out of some people. But that title alone was enough to promise young me something beyond just standard monster-movie fare. Tremors was, by virtue of its title, relevant in a way I couldn’t possibly begin to comprehend at age 10. Whatever it was, whatever it was going to be about, I had to see it.

Although I wasn’t permitted to see Tremors in the cinema when it came out, there were very few restrictions placed on what I could rent and watch by myself. My mother was pretty permissive (I saw both The Thing and Watership Down before I was seven, which; being a parent now myself, my kid isn’t allowed anywhere near either of those films until he’s 93). Meanwhile, the teenager who ran the check-out desk at our local movie store could not have given fewer shits about what I rented if he tried. Someone somewhere probably should have thought twice about letting a ten-year-old kid take home things like Caligula and Barbarian Queens, but no one ever did. So I managed to get my hands on Tremors pretty much immediately after it hit the home video market.

And man, it did not disappoint. Honestly, it still doesn't. Tremors is a superb monster movie, with an excellent cast, some inventive effects, a good sense of humour and an endlessly quotable script. There’s also a refreshing lack of philsophising about The Greater Meaning of It All, which is amazing considering the fact that the film’s two heroes are hyperverbal friends who talk constantly.

Basically, if you haven't already seen Tremors seventy-three times, what you need to know is this: Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward are two down-on-their-luck handyman types who live in a tiny, very isolated town, and the same day they decide to throw in the towel and go live their best lives somewhere else is the day people start turning up dead. It turns out, however, that while our two heroes may not love their lives, their little town loves and respects them, and they keep finding themselves being asked to deal with the situation as it unfolds. That situation being, spoiler alert, gigantic carnivorous worms. 

The good news is, they’re smart and capable guys, and (with the help of a smart and capable grad student and a smart and capable pair of survivalists), they manage to save almost everyone and get rid of the monsters.

The film, clocking in at an economic 98 minutes, never really pauses to wonder much about the monsters. They're here, they want to eat everyone, the end. Indeed, when characters make the mistake of pausing to ask questions like 'wtf' and 'no really, wtf' someone - usually Kevin Bacon's Val, will point out that questions like these are better considered when one isn't being menaced by a giant hungry worm.

And he’s right. There’s no time to sit around and wonder about the meaning of it all when survival is on the line. Who cares where the monsters came from? Who cares why the earthquake struck at this exact moment? Get through it, help as many people as possible, and maybe write a long, introspective essay about it 30 years down the line, when time and tide have given you enough space to draw extremely shaky parallels between historical disasters and monster movies you liked when you were a kid.

It occurred to me as I was rewatching Tremors that I was, someday, going to have to explain this particular thing to my kid. Y’know that scene where we first meet Rhonda and she’s got white stuff all over her nose? That’s supposed to be sunscreen. See, people used to go to the beach and only apply sunscreen to their noses (maybe to prevent freckles??), a brief trend that was so bafflingly popular that you could buy nose-sunscreen in various neon colors. I wish I could say I’m making this up. I think it’s a thing that lifeguards did and was popularised on Baywatch, and kind of went mainstream for like three minutes? Look, I don’t know, the 80s were really weird.

Monsters: Four, count ‘em, four ‘graboids’. They explode with extreme gooishness. Fun fact; the writers wanted to call this film Land Sharks. Good thing everyone was obsessed with earthquakes at the time and they landed on Tremors instead!

Mullets: Kevin Bacon sports a mullet-adjacent hairstyle, hurrah! Honestly, we get many fewer mullets in these movies than I’d like.

Representation: Women do very well in Tremors; Finn Carter’s Rhonda is smart and capable, while Reba McEntire’s survivalist Heather Gummer is a total badass. Val comes to like and respect Rhonda because she’s awesome, not because she’s naked/helpless. No one is sexualised and no one does any stupid hackneyed ‘girl in horror movie’ nonsense.

The only significant character of colour is Victor Wong’s Walter Chang, and while his characterisation isn’t blatantly racist and no jokes are made at the expense of his skin colour, there are certainly arguments to be made that his character is not the most progressive representation ever committed to film. Tony Genaro’s Miguel doesn’t have much of a role in Tremors and survives until, apparently, Tremors 3.

Remake watch:Tremors became an almost immediate cult classic when released on home video, spawning multiple sequels and a short-lived tv series, and I’m afraid I haven’t seen a single one of them. It’s the OG Tremors for me, for ever.

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