In the early 1980s, two luminaries of the horror genre got together to make a movie inspired by the gross-out horror comics they’d loved as kids. The result was Creepshow, a film that combined the playful horror fiction of Stephen King with the visual style of George A. Romero, with the creature effects of a third legend-the-making, Tom Savini, thrown in for good measure.
Creepshow’s five horror story segments and animated sequences made it an instant cult classic among genre fans, inspiring a comic book adaptation, a 1987 movie sequel, and now, a new series on Shudder.
To celebrate the streaming revival of Creepshow, here are 10 facts about how the original film was made, from Romero’s inspired direction of King in one of the film’s segments to Leslie Nielsen’s fart machine. There are also cockroaches. Lots and lots of cockroaches.
1. It began with Salem’s Lot.
The road to Creepshow began rather unceremoniously in the late 1970s, when George A. Romero was screening his vampire film Martin at film festivals. After Warner Bros. executives saw the film and enjoyed it, they approached Romero and asked if he’d be interested in meeting with Stephen King, who had just sold film rights to his novel Salem’s Lot to the studio. Romero agreed, and the two bonded after discovering each was a fan of the other’s work.
“In the end, Warners decided to make Salem’s Lot for TV and not theatrical. Steve bailed, and I was no longer invited, and that’s what they did,” Romero recalled. “But we stayed in touch.”
When Salem’s Lot didn’t work out, Romero and producer Richard P. Rubinstein traveled to Maine in 1979 to discuss the possibility of adapting King’s post-apocalyptic novel The Stand into a movie, but it became clear that the budget required to bring the epic to the screen might be a little out of their reach. From there, Romero pitched King the idea of a horror anthology tracing the history of horror movies, with each segment representing a different era. King liked the anthology idea, but with a different influence.
“Steve said ‘No, you know what? We both grew up on EC Comics. We should do a comic book.’”
According to Rubinstein, he then asked King how long it would take him to write a script. King replied “60 days,” and delivered the first draft of Creepshow exactly 60 days later. The film marked King’s screenwriting debut.
2. Creepshow was a King family affair.
As Creepshow came together, Romero got the idea that King should do more than serve as screenwriter on the project. He talked the author into doing much more than a cameo and starring in his own segment in the film, as the title character in “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” (adapted from King’s short story “Weeds”). But even that wasn’t the end of the King family’s work on the film: The little boy in the frame story of the film, who’s caught reading the Creepshow comic by his angry father, is played by King’s son Joseph Hillstrom King, better known now as horror novelist and comic book writer Joe Hill.
3. An EC Comics legend contributed art.
Because Creepshow was taking inspiration from the EC Comics horror titles that both King and Romero devoured as children, Romero endeavored to recreate the look of those comics on the screen. For the animation that runs in between the segments of the film, he turned to animator Rick Catizone, whose company shared a building with Romero’s own commercial production company in Pittsburgh, but there was also the matter of the physical copy of the Creepshow comic used as a prop in the film. For that, Romero turned to EC Comics legend Jack Kamen, whose work included classic titles like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror.
4. Stephen King was deliberately over-the-top.
In “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill,” King starred as the title character, a country bumpkin from Maine who sees a meteor crash onto his land one night and, after accidentally breaking it open, discovers that his property and his body are quickly being overrun with bright green alien moss. King’s performance is marked by over-the-top mannerisms that made it seem like he was overacting, perhaps due to inexperience. According to Romero, though, that was all part of the concept.
“I don’t think Steve to this day has forgiven me, because my only direction to him was ‘Play it like the Roadrunner in the Warner Brothers cartoons ... Just go way out into left field with it and exaggerate it as much as you want,’” Romero recalled. “And of course critics came back and said ‘Well, this is not a very subtle performance,’ and it’s not supposed to be! I mean it’s supposed to be a cartoon. It basically is a cartoon.”
5. Leslie Nielsen was constantly making everyone laugh.
Because he was shooting five different standalone story segments plus a frame story, Romero was able to pack his cast with a wide array of actors, from up-and-comers to seasoned stars, comedians to Hollywood veterans. One of those actors was Leslie Nielsen, who played the villainous and vengeful husband Richard in “Something to Tide You Over.” Nielsen’s performance in the film is particularly menacing thanks to the glee he seems to be taking in killing his cheating wife and her lover (played by Ted Danson, star of Cheers and The Good Place). But according to the Creepshow crew, a lot of the glee onscreen was thanks to a fart machine Nielsen kept with him at all times. According to Romero, he’d even take the machine out to restaurants after shooting was done for the day, and according to makeup effects guru Tom Savini, his manic laugh of terror near the end of his segment is also thanks to the fart machine.
“He’s laughing because he’s got everybody laughing with the fart machine,” Savini said.
6. The Creep was made from a real skeleton.
To create the many makeup effects required for Creepshow, from covering actors in the flesh of the undead to building an entirely new monster for “The Crate,” Romero turned to Tom Savini, who’d worked with Romero already on films like Dawn of the Dead, Martin, and Knightriders. For Savini, whose pre-Creepshow credits also included the unforgettable gore effects in Friday the 13th in 1980, it was a chance to break out of the “Wizard of Gore” mold that his career to that point had placed him in.
“I wanted to make the transition to monsters and creatures and character makeups and Creepshow was the opportunity to do that,” Savini later said.
Among the many challenges Savini faced—including designing the monster in “The Crate,” which required a long consultation phone call with The Thing effects wizard Rob Bottin—was designing “The Creep,” the Cryptkeeper-style creature who introduced the film and served as its mascot. According to Savini, that animatronic creature build started in a very creepy fashion: with a real skeleton.
“When the box arrived it was labeled ‘A Product of India,’” he recalled.
7. The film’s real star is an ashtray.
Because Creepshow is an anthology, no one character carries the whole film. Even The Creep, the film’s mascot, only appears in the frame story. But there is an unlikely star that happens to have a presence in each of the film’s five short stories: In “Father’s Day,” the first segment, Nathan Grantham is murdered by his daughter Bedelia with a dark marble ashtray. That ashtray then reappears as a kind of dark omen in every other story in the film. It shows up on desks in “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” and “The Crate,” appears on a bedside table in “Something to Tide You Over,” and becomes a soap dish in “They’re Creeping Up On You.” Basically, if that ashtray is a part of your decor, something awful is about to happen to you.
8. The roaches were brought in from Trinidad, and some of them never left.
Each segment of Creepshow posed its own set of filmmaking challenges, but most of them paled in comparison to the challenges the crew faced with “They’re Creeping Up On You,” the final segment of the film which was at one point going to be cut. According to Romero, there was a concern that the film’s budget wouldn’t allow them to do the segment justice, but Romero and King “fought for it” and decided to include it. That meant they needed cockroaches. Lots and lots after cockroaches.
After discovering that ordering “New York cockroaches” out of a catalog would cost about 50 cents each, Romero and Rubinstein turned to entomologists Ray Mendez and David Brody, who became the shoot’s official “cockroach wranglers.”
To get enough cockroaches for the production, Mendez and Brody went to Trinidad and dug through caves, eventually returning to the United States with, according to Savini, around 18,000 cockroaches—which then began breeding in a special trailer on the set that was dubbed the “Roach Motel.”
Shooting with the cockroaches proved challenging for a number of reasons. Some members of the crew handled their presence better than others, and they proved so adept at scattering all over the place—including over walls that had been lined with Vaseline in an attempt to make them unclimbable—that even their wranglers started to lose track of them.
“Roaches don’t take direction. So all you could do is dump ‘em out. Dump ‘em on the desk … 20 seconds, you can’t see them. They’re gone, you can’t see one,” Romero recalled. “Now, you take apart the telephone, and inside the telephone was a telephone-shaped thing that was ... you know, just solid roach. Everything, the computers, everything. They would get in anywhere.”
After the shoot, the roaches were all exterminated because they were imported from outside the United States. That’s the official story, anyway.
“I don’t know how many got away,” assistant director and composer John Harrison said. “A lot got away.”
9. Creepshow introduced Greg Nicotero to filmmaking.
In 1981, while he was shooting Creepshow, Romero called a teenager from his hometown of Pittsburgh and asked if he’d be interested in visiting a set. The teenager, a fan who’d met Romero while on a trip to Rome, jumped at the chance, and it changed his life. His name was Greg Nicotero, and Creepshow became a defining moment for him. Out of that set visit grew a working relationship with makeup effects wizard Tom Savini, which turned into Nicotero’s own career in makeup effects, which ultimately landed him a job on The Walking Dead, where he wound up working as an executive producer and director.
Now, in 2019, Nicotero is the creator and showrunner of a new iteration of Creepshow, which arrived as a TV series on the horror streaming service Shudder in September, complete with a blessing from King himself. Nicotero has risen through his industry to become one of the most important creators in horror, and he attributes it all to visiting Creepshow when he was still a kid.
“Living in Pittsburgh, I never imagined that the film industry or special effects or doing monsters or any of this stuff—I never even knew that that was a job,” Nicotero told The New York Times. “To me, it was a hobby.”
10. Creepshow is part of the Stephen King universe.
Longtime Stephen King fans know that many of his stories seem to take place within a shared fictional universe, or even a shared fictional multiverse if you take his epic Dark Tower saga into account. We know this in part because of the frequent use of fictional towns King has created within his native Maine, thus forming his own version of the state’s map.
Thanks to “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill,” Creepshow is explicitly part of this fictional Maine landscape. That story reveals at the end that Jordy’s farm is about five miles outside of King’s most famous fictional city, Castle Rock, the setting for stories including Needful Things, The Sun Dog, The Dead Zone, and more.
Just Desserts: The Making of Creepshow (2007)