RETRO REVIEW: “Tremors” (1990)

TREMORSposterImagine a movie that opens with Kevin Bacon standing on a ledge and peeing into a vast Nevada canyon. Inspiring, right? Yet it’s an opening that strangely fits “Tremors”, a goofy creature-feature comedy that barely made a dent in the box office back in 1990, but went on to earn a pretty big cult following over the next few years. Enough in fact to spawn at least five direct-to-video sequels and an ill-fated 2003 television series.

That indelible opening image introduces us to Bacon’s character, Valentine McKee (how’s that for a name). He and his older but not always wiser partner Earl Bassett (Fred Ward) are a couple of redneck “handymen” in the small town of Perfection, population 14. Val and Earl are basically jacks-of-all-trades, doing all sorts of odd-and-in jobs for the motley group of townsfolk. But the pair dreams of brushing off the dust of Perfection to strike it rich in the bigger town of Bixby.

But the boys have their plans interrupted by a pack of giant subterranean slug-like varmints who begin devouring residents and destroying the town. Val and Earl team alongside their fellow local eccentrics fight to fend off the underground beasts. In the process the two guys learn that maybe Perfection isn’t such a bad place after all.


PHOTO: Universal Pictures

The origin of “Tremors” is as amusing as the movie itself. Writers S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock came up with the idea while doing safety videos for the United States Navy. They shared their concept of “land sharks” with director Ron Underwood who was doing documentaries for National Geographic. They shopped it around soon getting Universal Pictures to distribute.

A big part of the fun comes from the wacky assortment of supporting characters. Finn Carter plays a grad-student named Rhonda. She’s out in the desert doing seismology studies when the big worms hit. Victor Wong plays Walter, the town’s lone store owner. But the best may be Michael Gross and Reba McEntire. They play Burt and Heather Gummer, a gun-loving couple who just happen to have their own “bunker” filled with firearms and explosives. Gross was just coming off the successful TV show “Family Ties” while Reba was (obviously) a beloved country singer. The two steal nearly every scene they’re in.


PHOTO: Universal Pictures

“Tremors” builds on its foundation of goofy, often foul-mouthed, banter (how it managed a PG-13 rating is beyond me) and modestly budgeted special effects that fall somewhere between cool and comically bad. But to be honest the effects are part of the film’s strangely infectious charm. The slugs themselves (designed by Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis) are well conceived and Underwood has a lot of fun easing us and the characters into understanding what makes them tick. Three things are certain: they’re huge, they’re hungry, and they have a weakness (you know, because they always have to have a weakness).

Unashamedly silly and playfully irreverent, “Tremors” is born from plenty of inspiration while still carving out its own offbeat identity. It’s smartly made and you can’t help but see traces of old westerns, slice of 1950s sci-fi, maybe even a bit of satire. While I may not hold it in as high regard as it’s passionate cult following, I do see where their enthusiasm comes from. And after watching this 30-year-old movie again, it’s kinda surprising to see how well this kooky concoction still holds up.



31 thoughts on “RETRO REVIEW: “Tremors” (1990)

  1. Dude – 4 stars for this one. Great chemistry between Bacon and Ward, the movie builds the suspense up nicely, and the movie shows the characters thinking things through. Also manages to walk the line of having a light, slightly comic touch and still taking the events seriously. Plus that scene in the basement of the survivalists is hilarious. Probably about as well done for that kind of movie as you could hope for.

    I don’t really remember any effects I thought were bad, but don’t tell me, I don’t want anything to be spoiled in that department.

    • It’s wacky fun for sure. Some of the dialogue is just laugh out loud hilarious. I don’t think I’ve seen any of the straight to video sequels. Are they worth watching?

      • I confess I watched whichever sequels they have on Netflix. Of course, the main characters from the first one dropped off, and in the sequels Michael Gross is the central character. They actually aren’t bad, but they don’t have that spark that makes the first one so much fun, and with, I presume, a lower budget they are a little rough around the edges. But I did get the idea they were trying and not just cynically cashing in on the popularity of the first one.

  2. I was going to say no about Bacon in a later sequel, but IMDB shows he was in one. 137 votes for the rating, so not too many people ever saw that one.

    • Gotcha. I was thinking I saw something about him showing back up in the series. That one would be fun to watch just for the nostalgia kick.

  3. Saw this several times back in the day, my little boy loved it, as did I. Reba was such a hoot, and Bacon was quite adorable. We had it on rotation with Big Trouble in Little China and knew all the words to both. Still have the DVd’s 🙂

  4. This film is so fun. I have a ball watching it. Why couldn’t they do a sequel with just Michael Gross and Reba? Just the two of them talking shit and killing monsters? Now that is $$$$$$$$.

  5. Yeah, what a goofy classic. I haven’t watched it in awhile but then the last time I did it was also a long span of time before that viewing and my first time and like you I was amazed at how much fun I still had with it

    • I love it when movies hold up well. My saw me watching it and said pretty much the same thing, “I haven’t seen this in years”. She ended up watching the rest with me.

  6. Ah, I remember this playing on USA, Sci-fi channel (pre-SyFy), and AMC. Goofy, camp and carefree fun. Aftershocks scared me more as a kid because there was so much more graboids (and they evolved!), but the movie was sorely missing Kevin Bacon. Shame the TV show reboot with him didn’t pan out. I believe they shot the pilot, but the network passed. Probably for the best.

  7. I love Tremors. It’s an under-rated classic in my view. Your great review covers what’s so brilliant, but I especially love the buddy bromance between Val and Earl. Bacon and award really sell the crazy storyline with their energy. Plus, I could really identify with their characters constantly being foiled in their desire to escape their dead-end jobs.

    • There is no doubt that Bacon and Ward bounce off each other so well. Their goofy chemistry is terrific. But I still can’t get over Gross and Reba. I had forgotten how hilarious they were!

  8. Pingback: RETRO REVIEW: “Tremors” (1990) — Keith & the Movies | Fantasy/Sci-Fi FILM & WRITING FESTIVAL

  9. Sounds like fun; it’s a movie I’ve long been mildly interested in. Didn’t realise Reba Macintyre (I hope I spelled her name right) was in it, otherwise I’d have probably watched it by now.

  10. Pingback: RETRO REVIEW: “Tremors” (1990) — Keith & the Movies | Fantasy/Sci-Fi FILM & WRITING FESTIVAL

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