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'Tremors' - the Film Series

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Tremors illustration with desert scene and worm-like graboid
If you've got ass-blasters, you've got graboids.

Tremors is a low-budget comic horror film series featuring highly unlikely horrific creatures. The monsters were created by Brent Maddock and Steven Seth Wilson, the writing team behind Short Circuit (1986) and *Batteries Not Included (1987) and co-founders of Stampede Entertainment, which produced the first four films and the television series. Years earlier when making documentaries in the desert, one of the writers was sitting on a rock and had the thought, 'what if I could not get off this rock?' which led to the development of an idea under the working title 'land sharks'. Tremors developed out of being essentially Jaws (1975) in the middle of the desert, with the desert as the sea that the 'landsharks', called 'graboids' in the films, could swim through with only solid rock or anything off the sand safe. In fact, one sequence in Tremors in which someone is eaten by a graboid is similar in style to that of Quint's death in the earlier classic.

A recurring theme of the series is that no matter what survivalist Burt Gummer does, with his going to extreme lengths to be ready for anything, he is not prepared for what happens next. This is because he never learns vital, but unknown, information until it is too late. In many ways he is always preparing for the previous battle; after encountering graboids he learns a way to deal with them, but next encounters shriekers. After ensuring his home is graboid and shrieker-proof, impenetrable from underground or on land, he encounters the flying ass-blasters.

The monsters in the films are not called 'Tremors', that is the name of the series and refers to the graboids' seismic vibrations as they burrow through the ground. It would be fair to say that as the series progresses the tension and horror lessens and amount of comedy increases. All the films are rated '15' in the UK.

Graboids etc

In the first film of the series these were 30-foot long subterranean worms nicknamed 'Graboids' with three snake-like tentacles in their mouths that can each reach six feet. Blind, they hunt by sensing sound. They are strong enough to pull a car underground and could burrow through the earth quickly and sense people's locations through vibrations in the loose desert soil. The creatures are patient enough to lie in wait for their prey for days as well as intelligent, with the ability to change tactic. Other techniques seen include smashing the foundations of a building that people are inside as well as digging a pit in front of a bulldozer to trap fleeing prey. When creating the graboids for film the main concern was making them look believable, different from the giant sandworms seen in Dune (1984), as well as ensuring they did not appear phallic.

As the series developed more of the creatures' lifecycle was revealed. Perhaps inspired by the bizarre life of the xenomorph in the Alien series, the creatures gained more and more stages in its lifecycle in subsequent sequels, each more bizarre and unlikely than the last.

Tremors II: Aftershocks revealed that the graboids 'give birth' by being eaten from the insides by three to six 'Shriekers'. Shriekers are deaf but 'see' in infra-red. They are attracted to body heat, which they sense with a flap on the top of their heads. Bipedal, 4ft tall and 5ft long, they can run quite quickly, have powerful jaws and are hermaphrodites. They can all reproduce at will and, after eating enough food, will 'spit' another shrieker out of their mouths which will grow full-size in minutes. They get their name from the 'shriek' noise they make when they discover prey, which is a side-effect of their real method of communication which involves body-heat. They also co-operate to seek food, often grouping in herds and will even form a pyramid in order to reach prey sheltering on the roof of a building.

The next stage of their development involves shedding their outer skin and metamorphosing into 'ass-blasters'1. These are similar but longer than shriekers, retaining the heat-sensor but gaining wings and the ability of rocket flight by mixing two chemicals that their bodies produce that react with air and launch them into the air. Ass-blasters can lay eggs that stay viable for 300 years before hatching into graboids.

When the eggs hatch as infant 'Dirt Dragons', seen in Tremors 4: The Legend Begins, they are small graboids approximately 3 feet long. These not only grow at a tremendous rate, they can move much faster than mature graboids and are capable of acrobatic leaps out of the ground.

Perfection

At the start of the first film Perfection, Nevada, is a small hamlet with a population of 14 that is isolated at one end of Perfection Valley. This is an arid desert area surrounded by steep mountains on two sides with a sheer cliff drop between. Only a narrow road leads through the mountains to the town of Bixby, some 38 miles away, although there is an old jeep trail over the mountains that only a 4×4 could traverse. Life in Perfection revolves around Chang's Market, the only shop in the area.

By the start of Tremors 3: Back to Perfection, which is set 11 years later, the town's population is now merely 5. There is a fledgling tourism industry encouraged by Jodi Chang who owns the market as well as 'Desert Jack', who runs graboid tours and fakes graboid attacks, little realising until too late that graboids are back for real. Twelve years later the town has a population of two, one of whom is Burt Gummer.

In Tremors 4: The Legend Begins it is revealed that the town's original name was Rejection and that it was renamed in 1889. The town developed due to its proximity to the Bottom Dollar Silver Mine.

Films

The tables below list the main characters in each film. Characters in Bold are recurring characters, actors in Bold show that these recurring characters are played by their original actor. Also mentioned is whether the films pass the Bechdel Test (this can be summarised as whether the film involves two or more female characters who have a conversation together that does not include or mention any male characters).

Please note – this contains spoilers.

1. Tremors (1990)

DirectorRon Underwood
Plot

Val and Earl are two handy men with only $3 to their name and no prospects in the dead-end 'town' of Perfection. Deciding to leave the town for good, on their way out they discover the town drunk's corpse, having died of dehydration having stayed up a electricity pylon for days, as well as the severed head of another of their neighbours. Believing that a serial killer is on the loose they try to flee and get help, only to discover the only way out of Perfection has been blocked. The phone line is cut off and no radio signal can bypass the valley's cliffs.

After discovering a snake-like head they begin to believe a previously unknown creature is behind it all. With the help of a university seismologist's seismographs2 they learn that the truth is even stranger and that they are in even greater danger than they could have predicted, realising that four subterranean monsters are grabbing people, taking them underground and eating them alive.

Length92 minutes
SettingPerfection, Nevada, 1989
Characters
  • Valentine McKee, handyman (Kevin Bacon)
  • Earl Bass, handyman (Fred Ward)
  • Rhonda LeBeck, seismology graduate (Finn Carter)
  • Burt Gummer, survivalist (Michael Gross)
  • Heather Gummer, Burt's heavily-armed wife (Reba McEntire)
  • Melvin Plug, abandoned teen (Robert 'Bobby Jacoby' Jayne)
  • Nancy & Mindy Sterngood, mother and daughter (Charlotte Stewart & Ariana Richards)
  • Nestor Cunningham & Miguel, locals (Richard Marcus & Tony Genaro)
  • Walter Chang, shop owner (Victor Wong)
  • Edgar & Old Fred, locals (Sunshine Parker & Michael Dan Wagner)
  • Megan and Dr Jim, elderly couple (Bibi Besch & Conrad Bachmann)
  • Howard & Carmine, roadworkers (John Goodwin & John Pappas)
CreaturesGraboid
BechdelPass

This film was made on a low budget, but by people who knew what they were doing. By filming underground monsters, it kept the tension high and also ensured that they did not need to appear very often, allowing bare desert to nevertheless feel tense and threatening. The town of Perfection was built as a set near Lone Pine, California. The store was designed to be able to collapse, to simulate the graboids' attacks, and be reset, to allow reshoots. However, the sequence in which the 'station wagon' car was dragged underground and buried with Megan at the wheel failed to work as planned and so was abandoned. The film was also edited slightly in post-production; the swearing was edited out to allow for a wider audience and the ending changed to seal Rhonda and Valentine's romance.

Tremors was made back in the days when Kevin Bacon was a film actor, rather than merely someone who appears in an infinite plethora of mobile phone adverts3. Sadly, his character Val never once says 'Help me Rhonda, help - help me Rhonda!', though the seismologist does indeed save his bacon. Reba McEntire was a country & western singer under contract with MCA, the then parent company of Universal Pictures, Tremors' distributor, and had expressed a desire to break into acting. This led to her being given an audition for the role of Heather Gummer and she also sings over the end credits. However, she did not return for future films in the series4. Michael Gross, who plays her husband, was then best-known for starring in sitcom Family Ties (1982-7), playing Michael J Fox's character's father. Ariana Richards would later star as the girl in Jurassic Park (1993).

As Tremors was a horror/comedy that Universal Pictures was unsure what to make of, the film was barely promoted on first release. This was partly because MCA was in the process of being sold off to Panasonic at the time; the film had been made under the old regime and was not appreciated by the new. The trailer appears to take the title 'Tremors' literally and combines some film footage with the 1950s song 'Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On'. It then forgets whether it was supposed to be advertising the record or the film, and finally decides to concentrate on the song. Although Tremors made a minor profit, it was not until it was released on home video that the film became regarded as a cult classic, recouping three times the amount it had made in cinemas.

2. Tremors II: Aftershocks (1996)

DirectorSS Wilson
Plot

Earl is still living in Perfection, attempting to make a living from ostrich farming, when a taxi driver pulls up outside with an oil company executive from Mexico. Earl is told that the oil fields in Mexico are swarming with graboids and if he goes down and kills them, he will earn $50,000 for each he kills. Along with the taxi driver, Grady Hoover, Earl goes to Mexico and kills a few graboids before inviting his heavily beweaponed friend Burt Gummer, who has been suffering from depression since his wife left him, to come down and kill some too.

Shortly after the local geologist, Kate, has discovered that the graboids existed in the Precambrian era (4,600 million years ago) the team learn that the graboids are dying, giving birth to an even deadlier form.

Length95 minutes
SettingSix years later in Perfection, Nevada & Petromaya Oil Field, Chiapas, Mexico
Characters
  • Earl Bassett, handyman (Fred Ward)
  • Grady Hoover, taxi driver (Chris Gartin)
  • Kate 'White' Reilly, geologist and former model (Helen Shaver)
  • Burt Gummer, survivalist (Michael Gross)
  • Senor Ortega, oil company executive (Marcelo Tubert)
  • Julio, Kate's Assistant (Marco Hernandez)
  • Pedro, Chief Engineer (José Rosario)
CreaturesGraboids, Shriekers
BechdelFail

This film, also marketed as Tremors 2: Aftershocks, introduced the shriekers form of the graboids. It had originally been planned to make a cinematic sequel, which had been budgeted for $18 million. However, when Kevin Bacon was unable to appear due to making Apollo 13 and Reba McEntire had tour commitments, the film was almost cancelled entirely before Universal's home video department expressed an interest in funding it. This meant the budget was slashed to $4 million and it was made as a direct-to-video release. It had the same writers as the first film, one of whom, SS Wilson, also directed. It is the last film in the series to feature Fred Ward as Earl, who mentions that Valentine and Rhonda are happily married.

Made in 1994, advanced screenings were positive enough for Universal to consider releasing it in cinemas after all, before eventually releasing it to the home market two years later. There was some criticism that only Mexican characters are killed off in this film. The film lacks the tension of the first as over two dozen graboids are killed off easily in quick succession without feeling a threat or menacing the cast and instead is much more comedy-focussed, with Grady purely present for comic relief.

3. Tremors 3: Back to Perfection (2001)

DirectorBrent Maddock
Plot

After fighting a herd of shriekers in Argentina, Burt returns home to Perfection to discover that a property developer is trying to buy everyone's property. Jodi Chang, an unspecified relative of Walter Chang, is selling graboid merchandise in Chang's store as part of a long-term economic strategy. A conman, calling himself 'Desert Jack', is conducting 'Graboid Tours' that fake graboid attacks. However, the town doesn't stay peaceful for long; soon more graboids emerge to endanger the town's lives. Government agents arrive with plans to capture a graboid alive, preventing Burt from killing them before they evolve into shriekers. They also threaten to 'eminent domain' (compulsory purchase) the townspeople's properties unless Burt and Desert Jack help them capture the creatures.

Yet the shriekers aren't the end of the lifecycle as they evolve into a form, able to fly, nicknamed 'ass-blasters'. With everyone hiding on their roofs, who will be safe?

Length99 minutes
SettingPerfection, Nevada, 11 years after the first attack
Characters
  • Burt Gummer, (Michael Gross)
  • 'Desert Jack' Sawyer, conman (Shawn Christian)
  • Jodi Chang, shop-owner (Susan Chuang)
  • Nancy Sterngood, local mother (Charlotte Stewart)
  • Mindy Sterngood, local daughter (Ariana Richards)
  • Miguel, local farmer (Tony Genaro)
  • Dr Andrew Merliss, Government researcher (Barry Livingston)
  • Agent Charlie Rusk, Government official (John Pappas)
  • Melvin Plug, property magnate (Robert Jayne)
  • Buford, Jack's Assistant (Billy Rieck)
CreaturesGraboids, Shriekers, Ass-Blasters
BechdelPass

This was the first film in the series to make extensive use of CGI for the graboids rather than just for when the shriekers move, although the quality of the creatures compared to with the modelwork is definitely deficient. It also establishes that an albino graboid, known as 'El Blanco', is infertile and therefore remains a graboid without being eaten from the inside out by shriekers. This graboid, inspired by Moby Dick's great white whale, is gradually seen as a pet rather than a threat. Michael Gross won the 2001 'Best Actor' Video Premier award for actors in direct-to-video films.

In this film it is mentioned that with their profit from Tremors II, Earl and Grady opened a theme park.

Tremors: The Series (2003)

In 2003 a spin-off television series was made by channel Sci-Fi (now Syfy). 13×45-minute episodes were made. Though it met with good viewing numbers it was felt to be too expensive to justify a second series. It was set in Perfection and dealt not only with graboids, shriekers and ass-blasters but also government agents with their own agenda, and the consequences of nefarious top-secret projects. The series also features El Blanco the graboid, but the series has not been released on home video in Europe. The series does at least clarify that Walter Chang was Jodi's uncle.

SettingPerfection, Nevada
Characters
  • Burt Gummer (Michael Gross)
  • Tyler Reed (Victor Browne)
  • Rosalita Sanchez (Gladise Jiminez)
  • Nancy Sterngood (Marcia Strassman)
  • Jodi Chang (Lela Lee)
  • WD Twitchell (Dean Norris)
  • Larry Norvel (JD Walsh)
  • Dr Cletus Poffenberger (Christopher Lloyd)
  • Dr Casey Matthews (Sarah Rafferty)
  • Harlowe Winnemucca (Branscombe Richmond)
  • Melvin Plug (Robert Jayne)

4. Tremors 4: The Legend Begins (2003)

DirectorSS Wilson
SettingTown of Rejection and Bottom Dollar Silver Mine, Nevada, 1889
Plot

Following the mysterious deaths of several miners near the isolated town of Rejection, the mine's owner Hiram Gummer arrives in the all-but abandoned ghost-town to investigate. On discovering that the miners had been eaten by 'dirt dragons', infant graboids, he hires a mercenary, Black Hand Kelly, to kill them. Discovering the eggs reveals that four of the creatures had hatched. Will Black Hand Kelly teach Gummer how to stand up for himself? Can the town and its inhabitants be saved? Does the dying town of Rejection have a future?

Length96 minutes
Characters
  • Hiram Gummer, mine owner (Michael Gross)
  • Christine Lord, hotel owner (Sara Botsford)
  • Black Hand Kelly, mercenary (Billy Drago)
  • Juan Pedilla, local (Brent Roam)
  • Tecopa, local (August Schellenberg)
  • Old Fred, local (JE Freeman)
  • Pyong Lien Chang, store owner (Ming Lo)
  • Lu Wan Chang, store owner's wife (Lydia Look)
  • Fu Yien Chang, their son (Sam Ly)
  • Victor, miner (Neal Kopit)
CreaturesDirt Dragons (infants), Graboids
BechdelPass

This prequel is set exactly a century before Tremors, and like it features only graboids as the main menace. The title The Legend Begins is misleading as the inhabitants of Rejection decide to hide the truth of what had happened to such an extent that they not only rename the town to 'Perfection' but also swear never to tell a soul about the events they experienced – particularly their own family members. Which is a shame as otherwise the Chang family's great-great-grandson Walter Chang would have survived the first film. The film also concentrates on the town's nearby silver mine, which hadn't featured in the films previously but was an important part of the television series.

As well as seeing the founding of Chang's market the film also features Burt Gummer's wealthy, aristocratic ancestor Hiram Gummer, played with relish by the reliable Michael Gross. This Gummer is completely unlike Burt, disapproving of guns and instead enjoying much more refined, and delicate, tastes. Yet he proves his true colours by the end of the film.

5. Tremors 5: Bloodlines (2015)

DirectorDon Michael Paul
Plot

Gummer is making his living making monster-hunting survival videos that advertise his brand of cooking sauces when his existing cameraman quits and is replaced by a reckless, annoyingly foolhardy but persistent 40-year-old cameraman named Travis, who comes from a town in Florida that Gummer visited just over 40 years ago. He tells Gummer that he wants to completely reinvigorate and change the Burt Gummer brand just before Gummer is approached by someone from South Africa asking him to hunt an ass-blaster killing people in nature reserves there.

Gummer flies to South Africa but because of the stricter gun laws, his arsenal has been impounded leaving him hunting the graboids with basic weapons, including a 1940s' BSA .3035. After an attack on nearby palaeontologists he learns that the African graboids are significantly different from their American cousins. He is also instructed that he needs to capture a graboid alive.

After they meet the local wildlife reserve team consisting of Dr Nandi, her daughter Amahle and their friend Baruti, poachers seek profit by capturing an egg. The graboids and ass-blasters begin co-ordinating their attacks on all humans while leaving the local wildlife alone. Why is this? Can the locals defeat the monsters armed with machetes and bows and arrows? Is blood thicker than water, and do graboids have maternal instincts that make them willing to do anything to protect their bloodline? And what is Travis' secret?

Length95 minutes
SettingMojave Desert, Nevada and Cradle of Humankind Nature Reserve, South Africa
Characters
  • Burt Gummer, survivalist investigating Graboids in Africa (Michael Gross)
  • Travis B Welker, cameraman strangely interested in Burt (Jamie Kennedy)
  • Dr Nandi Montabu, wildlife reserve vet and mother (Pearl Thusi)
  • Amahle Montabu, Nandi's daughter (Nolitha Zulu)
  • Baruti, wildlife reserve worker in love with Nandi (Rea Rangaka)
  • Erich van Wyk, South African Wildlife Ministry agent (Daniel Janks)
  • Johan Dreyer, South African Wildlife Ministry agent (Brandon Auret)
  • Den Bravers, helicopter pilot (Ian Roberts)
  • Thaba, Baruti's machete-wielding friend (Sello Sebotsane)
  • Lucia, palaeontologist (Natalie Becker)
  • Dr Michael Swan, palaeontologist (Emmanuel Castis)
CreaturesAfrican Graboid, Assblaster, Tentacles
BechdelPass

This film was the first to be made by Universal Pictures without Stampede Productions' involvement. It seeks to refresh the series by once again making the monsters menacing, presumably believing that over-familiarity and multiple defeats had reduced the threat level of the original incarnation.

The African graboids are longer, slimmer, much faster and able to leap 15 feet in height. Instead of having three snakelike tongue tentacles in their mouths to sense food and bring it into their maws, the tentacles detach from their parent graboid and move entirely independently. No evidence is seen of the shrieker phase, yet the ass-blasters are larger and have far more teeth than the American equivalent, but hunt at night when their heat-vision is more effective in the hotter climate. There is also a far greater degree of co-operation between graboids and ass-blasters in their efforts to protect their nesting site.

When Baruti and Amahle are stalked by an ass-blaster in a kitchen the scene is a recreation of Jurassic Park's scene involving velociraptors in the kitchen, right down to the talons at the end of the predator's feet. The girl menaced in Jurassic Park was played by Tremors and Tremors 3: Back to Perfection star Ariana Richards.

6. Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell (2017)

DirectorDon Michael Paul
Plot

Having refused to pay taxes, all Gummer's possessions are confiscated by the government. After his son Travis visits, he is asked to travel to the Canadian Arctic where, in an isolated valley experiencing global warming that has melted much of the ice and snow, graboids and ass-blasters have killed three researchers. One of the surviving researchers is the daughter of Burt's old friends Valentine McKee and Rhonda LeBeck.

As they hunt the creatures, Gummer collapses. They learn that he had been infected with deadly graboid parasitic bacteria during one of his previous encounters with the creatures, and unless a graboid is captured alive to allow for the removal of its antibodies, he will die. Yet soon the research facility is under full attack.

Who will win an aerial combat between a light aircraft and an ass-blaster? Are the graboids' presence related to the top-secret DARPA government research facility nearby? When it comes to Burt and Travis' relationship, is blood thicker than ammo? Who would climb down a graboid's throat to get the antibodies that are Burt's only hope? Why doesn't Rita wear underwear in the Arctic Circle? Can Gummer survive battles with parasitic infection, subterranean monsters and the taxman?

Length94 minutes
SettingPerfection, Nevada and Boite Canyon Arctic Research Facility, Canadian Arctic
Characters
  • Burt Gummer, survivalist infected by a graboid parasite (Michael Gross)
  • Travis B Welker, Burt's filmmaking son (Jamie Kennedy)
  • Dr Rita Sims, head of the Arctic Research Facility (Tanya van Graan)
  • Valerie McKee, research intern and Graboid enthusiast (Jamie-Lee Money)
  • Hart Hansen, researcher (Kiroshan Naidoo)
  • Aklark, Inuit researcher (Keeno Lee Hector)
  • Swackhammer, caretaker (Rob van Vuuren)
  • Mac, pilot (Adrienne Pearce)
  • Dr Charles Ferezze, researcher (Francesco Nassimbeni)
  • Mr Cutts, DARPA official (Paul du Toit)
CreaturesGraboids, Ass-blasters, Taxmen
BechdelPass

Set in the Arctic, this was filmed in the South African desert and the sand was digitally altered to look like snow, although most of the film is set in an area that is explained as being so unnaturally warm all the snow and ice has melted. A replica of Chang's Market was also constructed in South Africa in order to film the opening scene. In this, Perfection is now a town with a population of two, with Burt running Chang's market, which predominantly sells his Bullseye brand products. It is not revealed who the other inhabitant is.

Like the previous film, which was also made in South Africa without the involvement of Stampede Films, shriekers do not appear. The graboids look similar to the Africa variety in their length and colour, leaping out of the ground to swallow their prey from above. Once again like the American variety they have three tongue-tentacles attached to their mouths. Their appearance, movement and especially the way they leap at prey is largely due to the special effects. As the graboids are computer-generated monsters, the director wanting to ensure that action sequences are no longer limited to the physical restrictions that would have been imposed by using animatronic monsters, although characters swallowed by a jumping monster is less terrifying than being pulled directly underground by an unseen menace.

The Future

It seems likely that the continued popularity of the film series will result in more instalments being made, with rumours of a possible new television series also often spreading. Fans keep hoping that at least one more will be made at a time when Kevin Bacon isn't engaged churning out more mobile phone adverts and that he will be tempted to resume his acting career and appear in one, although he appears to believe that appearing in direct-to-video B-Movies about subterranean terrors are beneath him.

1'Ass' in this context is the American slang for 'arse'; they are not known for blasting donkeys.2The modern seismograph was developed by John Milne in 1880, who died on the Isle of Wight in 1913.3Luckily, adverts don't count in the game 'The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon' - Bacon has been in so many adverts over the years that any film or television programme broadcast on commercial channels in Britain in the last decade has automatically had him in. Take Orson Welles, for example: Welles was in Citizen Kane (1941) and the last time that film was broadcast there were surely at least 27 phone adverts in the breaks featuring Kevin Bacon.4She would later voice a singing dog in The Fox and the Hound 2 (2006) and the head of a spy organisation in Spies in Disguise (2019).5A lightweight carbine version of the highly reliable Short Magazine Lee-Enfield rifle, Britain's standard service weapon created in 1904 and still used in service by various nations in 2019.

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