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A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: Tremors – The 30th Anniversary

“Can You Fly You Sucker?!” A 30th anniversary celebration of Kevin Bacon’s beloved “Tremors”. It’s B-movie heaven that is funny, exciting and fun. “Tremors” was created by the writers of “Short Circuit”, and deemed a box office failure but becoming a cult favorite phenomenon. If your looking for a B-movie horror movie, with flashes of comedy, you can’t go wrong than with “Tremors”.

You gotta hand it to Kevin Bacon, he started his movie career with side roles in high profile films, like: 1978’s “Animal House”, 1980’s “Friday The 13th” and 1982’s “Diner”. All before becoming a superstar and teen heartthrob thanks to 1984’s “Footloose”. Still riding high from the success of “Footloose”, and becoming a recognizable name. Prior to the film’s release, Bacon felt that the film was a career low. He has stated: “I broke down and fell to the sidewalk, screaming to my pregnant wife, I can’t believe I’m doing a movie about underground worms!”.

Kevin Bacon would later call the filming of Tremors to be “The single most fun time I’ve ever had making a movie in my entire career”. Here he was in 1990 starring in one of the greatest B-movies of all time called “Tremors”. It’s the kind of movie that should have started his career off, instead of coming after hitting it big. It’s the kind of movie that could have broken his career, but instead became a cult classic and fan favorite for thirty years. “Tremors” is a love letter to the B-movie creature features of the 1950s. 

“Tremors” began with writers S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock who came up with the initial idea for “Tremors” in the early eighties while making educational safety videos for the US Navy. Wilson and Maddock were out in the desert, when they had climbed a boulder for a shot and asked themselves what they would do if, for some reason they were stuck there due to some creature. They called their story idea “Land Sharks”. 

Wilson and Maddock shared their idea to friend filmmaker Ron Underwood who was working with National Geographic as a documentary director, and used his knowledge of zoology to better develop the “land sharks” into creatures that could realistically exist. In 1986 Wilson and Maddock had written, John Badham’s “Short Circuit” starring Steve Gutenberg and Alley Sheedy. 

After “Short Circuit” became a box office success, they immediately began to shop around their script for “Land Sharks”. The title was changed because of a “Saturday Night Live” sketch featuring a character of the same name. The final draft of the script was completed in 1988 under the new title “Beyond Perfection”. 

Filmmaker Ron Underwood’s career as an educational director for National Geographic had led him to direct more than 100 educational films, before turning his attention to children’s television and then movies. Underwood made his feature film debut with “Tremors”. 

After directing “Tremors”, Underwood followed it up with “City Slickers” in 1991, starring Billy Crystal and Jack Palance. Underwood also directed “Heart and Souls” (1993) with Robert Downey, Jr., “Speechless” (1994) with Michael Keaton and Geena Davis and the remake of the classic 1949 film “Mighty Joe Young”, starring Charlize Theron and Bill Paxton. In past years Underwood has been keeping busy directing tv series like: “Scandal”, “Castle”, “Grey’s Anatomy”, “Hawai’i Five-O” and the new “Magnum PI”.

Filming for “Tremors” began in early 1989, over the course of 50 days. “Tremors” takes place in the very tiny fictional desert town of Perfection, Nevada. Local handymen and best friends Val (Kevin Bacon) and Earl (Fred Ward) are living out an existence doing odd jobs for the residents, that include a terrific cast of diverse characters, including: Walter (Victor Chong “Big Trouble In Little China”) who runs the local market and scene stealing survivalist couple Burt and Heather Gummer. Played by a perfectly cast Michael Gross (who started filming the day after “Family Ties” ended), and playing his wife is country star Reba McEntire in her first film role.

There’s also a grad student, Rhonda (Finn Carter), who is spending the summer monitoring her university’s seismology equipment. In a scene which Rhonda had to get out of her pants to escape the Graboid that was about to eat her, Finn Carter intentionally didn’t rehearse the scene. That way the response she gives to having to depants in front of Kevin Bacon was authentic.

Rhonda soon picks up on some very strange readings, right about the time Perfection’s residents start dying under mysterious circumstances. Eventually, everyone discovers their are four giant subterranean creatures that Walter dubs “graboids”, since they hunt by sensing vibrations and shooting snake-like protrusions out of their mouths to grab their prey. 

Underwood brilliantly sets up the narrative up like a mystery, introducing us to the main characters and setting as they realize the threat that is coming for them. We don’t see the graboids at all at first, just their victims. Underwood ratchets up the suspense by revealing there are a total of four graboids. Eventually the surviving residents of Perfection find themselves trapped on a cluster of boulders in the desert (the scenario that inspired the film) while the last two graboids lie in wait for them to run for safety.

The ingenious design of the graboids was designed by Amalgamated Dynamics. One of the design ideas by the special effects crew, was for the worms to have an outer shell. When they are above the dirt, the shell would retract to reveal a slimier ‘inner worm’. However, many production members started to laugh at the resemblance it had with a male body part, so the design was changed to the big worm sprouting several smaller worms from its mouth.

The full scale graboid was cast in lightweight foam and was placed in a trench, then buried, and dug up again to achieve that desired “used” effect. The graboids are smart creatures and capable of learning about their human prey and adapting accordingly. When the humans hide in a car, they dig around the surrounding soil so the whole vehicle sinks underground. 

They do the same to loosen building foundations when the residents take refuge on their roofs. The ingenious ways Val and Earl outwit the monsters is a huge part of the film’s delight. One of the early dropped concepts for the graboids was that they had the ability to perfectly mimic sounds, which they used to lure in unsuspecting prey. This idea was dropped because the writers thought the graboids had too many special abilities.

“Tremors” was set for a November 1989 release. However, the Motion Picture Association gave the film an R-rating due to language, and the creators decided at the last minute to make the film more commercially viable. Over 20 uses of the word “f***” were either cut or redubbed with softer words, like: “can you fly, you sucker?” and “we killed that motherhumper”. The film was pushed back to allow more time for editing, and the film was released in January 1990 with a PG-13 rating. Wilson and Maddock later stated they were happy with the decision to make “Tremors” appeal to a family audience

“Tremors” spanned five sequels, which would bring the newly green lit “Tremors” the seventh installment in the franchise. A television series that found Kevin Bacon reprising his role as Val, never got picked up past the pilot episode. 

“Tremors” opened in theaters on January 19, 1990 against no new releases and debuted at the #5 spot, behind “Born On The Fourth Of July”, “Tango & Cash” and “War Of The Roses” grossing $3,731,520 in its opening weekend. It dropped to #6 on its second week but would stay in the top 10 for four weeks before finally dropping to #11 in week 5. “Tremors” ended up grossing $16,667,084 at the domestic box office, which while being a financial success over its $11 million budget, was still below projected numbers. 

Its creators blamed the subpar theatrical performance on its marketing campaign; S.S. Wilson felt that the film was not well promoted once its release date was delayed, while Brent Maddock stated the theatrical trailer was “cringeworthy” and likely deterred audiences.

While only a modest hit at the box office, “Tremors” went on to become a massive hit on home video purchases, rentals, and on television, becoming one of the most rented films of 1990. Because of this, it has gained a very large cult following over the years. If your looking for a B-movie horror movie, with flashes of comedy, you can’t go wrong than with “Tremors”.

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros lives on the beautiful island of Maui. He is a member of The Hawaii Film Critics Society, movie critic for Maui Watch, a commentator and cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, learning about movies from his Grandfather and being self taught.

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