“Tremors” Turns 30

Bob Skotak lines up a Graboid shot in the quarter-scale miniature basement constructed for 'Tremors.'
Bob Skotak lines up a Graboid shot in the quarter-scale miniature basement constructed for ‘Tremors.’

As the lights dimmed in the intimate theater of the Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine, California, last Saturday evening, a cheer went up from the room, packed with a hundred die-hard movie fans assembled for a screening of the science fiction cult favorite, Tremors. They had gathered from all parts of the country for this moment, the highlight of a two-day event organized by the museum to mark the 30th anniversary of the film. And while the museum’s meticulously curated exhibits of memorabilia celebrate the area’s rich film history as the ‘largest Western back lot in the country’ – the shooting location of countless B-movie westerns from Hopalong Cassidy to Roy Rogers – Lone Pine’s real claim to fame, at least for the gathered throng that weekend, is that Tremors was filmed there.

The Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine, California, site of the ‘Tremors’ 30th anniversary celebration.
The Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine, California, site of the ‘Tremors’ 30th anniversary celebration.

On hand for the festivities were some of the movie’s original cast – including Robert Jayne, who played teenage troublemaker Melvin; Charlotte Stewart, cast as young mom Nancy; and Michael Gross, whose comic turn as armed-to-the-teeth survivalist Burt Gummer has since become a fan favorite. Joining them were director Ron Underwood, production designer Ivo Cristante, creature effects designer and creator Alec Gillis, and screenwriters and producing partners S. S. Wilson and Brent Maddock.

Writer/producer Steve Wilson (left) and Cinefex founder Don Shay.
Writer/producer Steve Wilson (left) and Cinefex founder Don Shay.

My husband (Cinefex founder Don Shay) and I first learned of the Tremors event through Steve (S.S.) Wilson – a longtime friend whom Don first met when Steve was still in film school and Cinefex was in its infancy. Steve had even done some freelance writing for Cinefex, contributing an article on Dragonslayer back in 1981, before he and Brent made it big in Hollywood with Short Circuit, *batteries not included, Wild, Wild West and others. When we heard that Steve and his wife, Michelle, would be attending the reunion, and that it was to be held in Lone Pine – a favorite place of ours – we eagerly made plans to join them.

After settling into our hotel on Friday night, we headed out the next morning to the nearby museum, just down the road on Lone Pine’s single-stoplight main drag. Despite having attended a previous 25th anniversary screening of Tremors in Los Angeles and witnessing the single-minded devotion of its fans, given the remote location of this event, we were a bit surprised to see a line already forming at the entrance to the museum, waiting for the doors to open. Perhaps our first clue should have been the car parked opposite ours, which sported a custom license plate frame that read: ‘Perfection, Nevada: Home of the Graboids.’ Clearly, these were serious fans, some of whom had traveled great distances to be here, as we soon learned after chatting with one woman in line who had flown in the night before from Chicago.

A full-size Graboid puppet, built by Amalgamated Dynamics, is one of many 'Tremors' artifacts on permanent display in the Museum of Western Film History.
A full-size Graboid puppet, built by Amalgamated Dynamics, is one of many ‘Tremors’ artifacts on permanent display in the Museum of Western Film History.
Cinefex 42

Inside we discovered that, in addition to the Tremors display – complete with full-size Graboid – that is part of the museum’s permanent collection, there was now a much more expansive display in the main lobby, featuring additional memorabilia and artifacts from the Tremors universe. There were creature models of varying scales, production photos, movie posters, scripts, props, and much more. There was even a copy under glass of Cinefex 42 from 1990, featuring Tremors as its cover story. That back issue can still be purchased, by the way, on the Cinefex website.

Tremors writer/producer Brent Maddock, director Ron Underwood, writer/producer S.S. Wilson, actor Michael Gross and production designer Ivo Cristante share a laugh during a panel discussion on the film.
Tremors writer/producer Brent Maddock, director Ron Underwood, writer/producer S.S. Wilson, actor Michael Gross and production designer Ivo Cristante share a laugh during a panel discussion on the film.

After a meet-and-greet, everyone gathered in the museum’s theater for a panel discussion in which all of the film’s luminaries were interviewed about the genesis of the movie and the details of the eight-week location shoot. It was fascinating to hear their stories and how it was that the filmmakers chose Lone Pine’s remote Alabama Hills, with its dramatic views of the Sierra Nevada mountains, for the shoot – a decision that ultimately paid off in spades by giving the story its small town charm and sense of place. Other anecdotes told of the camaraderie of the cast and crew, despite the challenges of working in the harsh desert environment where one day it was snowing and the next sizzling, or dealing with a budget that today would barely cover craft services on a major effects film. The personal stories clearly delighted the fans, and the morning passed quickly.

Creature creator Alec Gillis discusses the challenges of building and puppeteering the subterranean Graboids for ‘Tremors.’
Creature creator Alec Gillis discusses the challenges of building and puppeteering the subterranean Graboids for ‘Tremors.’

Following lunch at a local eatery, we all raced back to the museum to hear a presentation by special effects designer Alec Gillis, who, along with partner Tom Woodruff, Jr. and their company, Amalgamated Dynamics Incorporated, was responsible for designing and building Tremors’ subterranean Graboids. In the pre-digital age of 1990, with a company that was barely underway, the task of creating convincing creature effects proved no small feat. In fact, Gillis related, initial strategy sessions with the producers took place in restaurants because, unbeknownst to the filmmakers, Gillis and Woodruff had yet to set up a physical shop. But such minor details weren’t about to deter them, and ultimately their on-set animatronics, working in conjunction with miniatures by Robert and Dennis Skotak, gave Tremors its genuinely terrifying moments.

There’s nothing like watching a movie with an appreciative audience, and when it came to the evening’s entertainment – the screening of Tremors – the payoff was huge. These were, after all, the very people who had enabled Tremors to achieve its cult status, and they cheered their favorite moments, yelling “Wait for it!” when lines like Burt’s “Guess you broke into the wrong God damn rec room, didn’t ya!” were coming. Afterwards, cast and crew once again took the stage to answer more questions from the audience.

Production designer Ivo Cristante with Steve Wilson at one of the filming locations in the Alabama Hills.
Production designer Ivo Cristante with Steve Wilson at one of the filming locations in the Alabama Hills.

On Sunday morning, we all gathered in the museum parking lot one last time to caravan out to the Alabama Hills with the event’s special guests and local guides, who had mapped out the precise locations of key scenes in the movie. The movie-set town of Perfection was torn down after the picture wrapped, but we visited the stretch of blacktop where telephone repairmen in the film meet a gruesome fate, and the exact spot where our heroes pole-vault from rock to rock to reach the safety of their vehicle.

Don and Estelle Shay at the filming site where ‘Tremors’ characters pole-vault from rock to rock to evade a fearsome Graboid below ground.
Don and Estelle Shay at the filming site where ‘Tremors’ characters pole-vault from rock to rock to evade a fearsome Graboid below ground.

Upon our return to the museum, which had scheduled additional screenings of other Tremors franchise films for the rest of the day, Don and I said our goodbyes and headed home. It was a fitting end to a perfect weekend, spent in the company of people whose magnificent obsession with this little gem of a film got me wondering: What was it about Tremors that made it so special? I think, perhaps, one of the fans in the audience the previous night had hit the nail on the head when he stood up during the Q&A to thank the people on the stage for making Tremors. It was a perfect script, he observed – a flawless blend of humor and genuinely scary moments, with characters you like and care about, and a story that hits all the right notes. I couldn’t help thinking those are the ingredients that make real movie magic – and, in this case, all achieved without the aid of fancy computers or sophisticated software. I miss that.