Talk about an underground classic. Tremors—easily the greatest subterranean monster movie ever made—turned 30 years old this year. So, we’ve dug up some trivia that’ll help get you in the mood for an anniversary screening. Just watch your step …
1. The premise for Tremors came to screenwriter S. S. Wilson during a rocky hike.
Giant, worm-like beasts terrorizing Nevada. Now there’s an idea as wild as the West. The Tremors franchise has proved remarkably successful, having spawned a short-lived TV series, a prequel, and three sequels (with a fourth—Tremors: Island Fury—being released in October 2020). But how did it all begin? According to co-writer S.S. Wilson, we can thank some scrap paper and the Armed Forces’s film division.
“I had a job working as an editor at a navy base in the middle of the Mojave Desert,” Wilson said. “On weekends, when they weren’t shooting at the gunnery ranges, I was allowed to go hiking out there. One day, while climbing over large boulders, I had a thought. ‘What if something was under the ground and I couldn’t get off this rock?’” Wilson jotted his idea down, pursued it years later, and the rest is history.
2. Saturday Night Live forced the movie to change its name.
Tremors (1990) began pre-production with the working title “Land Sharks.” However, upon realizing that SNL had already unleashed a recurring character called LandShark to spoof Jaws (1975), Wilson and company decided to change the movie’s title.
3. A menagerie of real-life animals inspired Tremors‘s creature design.
The real stars of Tremors are four grotesque carnivores known as “graboids.” Though there’s nothing quite like them in the animal kingdom, Mother Nature still played a big role in bringing these things to life. Special effects artists Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. threw bits and pieces of such real-world critters as elephants, crocodiles, dinosaurs, rhinos, slugs, and catfish into their graboid sketches. You may have noticed that, weirdly, this list excludes earthworms, which the pair found “very boring.”
4. Tremors, Gladiator (2000), and Iron Man (2008) share a key filming location
Alabama Hills in Lone Pine, California, has provided the backdrop for many movies. In addition to Tremors Star Trek V (1989), Gladiator (2000), Dinosaur (2000), Iron Man (2008), and Man of Steel (2013) are just some of the hundreds of movies that have shot here. In Tremors, these majestic mountains border Perfection, Nevada, a fictional near-ghost town.
5. Some of Tremors‘s early graboid concept art was deemed “too phallic.”
Special effects artists Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. dropped the idea of a turtle-like neck when somebody alleged that their monster’s blubbery folds resembled “foreskin.” According to Gillis, producer Gale Ann Hurd “said that when we would fax the drawings over, all the women in [her] office would pass ’em around and giggle.”
6. Like many PG-13 movies, Tremors gets away with a solitary F-bomb.
The Motion Picture Association of America—best-known for its (in)famous ratings system—allows “one nonsexual F word per script” in PG-13 films. Tremors takes advantage at the 34:07-mark, when Kevin Bacon’s Val tells off a recently-killed graboid.
7. The writers of Tremors thought it would be more realistic to never reveal where the graboids came from.
Wilson in particular was fed up with the sci-fi genre’s standard monster origin clichés. “[They’re] either radioactive or they’re a biological experiment or they’re from outer space or they’ve always been there,” he said in “The Making of Tremors.” “Those are the only choices you have.” Thus, Tremors offers no information about its creatures’ beginnings (though later films claimed the man-eaters were prehistoric reptiles).
8. Tremors was Reba McEntire’s first movie.
McEntire postponed her honeymoon with fellow musician Narvel Blackstock until after Tremors finished shooting so that she could make her feature film debut playing the fearless, gun-toting Heather Gummer. Unfortunately, the Tremors franchise outlasted the couple’s relationship; they divorced in 2015.
9. Only one full-length graboid model was constructed for Tremors.
After an overzealous graboid fatally crashes into a cement wall, our heroes Valentine “Val” McGee (Kevin Bacon), Earl Bassett (Fred Ward), and Rhonda LeBeck (Finn Carter) unearth the monster’s corpse. What they actually expose is a massive, one-of-a-kind dummy you can see in all its pebbly glory above.
10. Tremors‘s car scene was supposed to be much more explicit.
Horror’s all about what you don’t see. During one chilling sequence, a hungry graboid devours a middle-aged doctor, traps his petrified wife inside the couple’s station wagon, and drags the entire vehicle underground. At first, director Ron Underwood planned on recording the car as it sank into a pit filled with vermiculite, an earthy, “dirt-like” substance. But, maddeningly, this material hardened without warning and his crew was forced to improvise.
Their solution? Subtlety. Following a brief struggle, the finished movie cuts to a distant, wide-angle shot of two headlight beams shining upwards into a starry sky before flickering out. The insinuation of a deadly off-screen burial was pulled off with some last-minute imagination.
11. Tremors‘s original intro ended up on the cutting room floor.
Tremors opens with Kevin Bacon peeing into a canyon. Admittedly, that’s hard to top. Still, a much darker beginning—wherein the mule of Perfection’s town drunk is gobbled up inside his rickety, wooden pen—was shot but ultimately deleted.
12. The studio chose to replace most of Tremors‘s soundtrack.
A strong score with a western twang spices up this movie’s unique flavor. But Ernest Troost, who was officially credited with composing the movie’s soundtrack, actually wrote relatively little of what you hear in the finished product. Instead, Robert Folk created the lion’s share after Troost’s offerings were largely removed. “He must have had a very good lawyer,” Folk said, “because the provision in his contract stated, that if any of his music were used, that he would have screen credit … I was asked [if I wanted to share] screen credit and I really didn’t.”
13. Michael Gross began filming Tremors the day after Family Ties wrapped for good.
Kindly Mr. Keaton of Family Ties fame couldn’t be more different from Tremors’ breakout character. Gross’s tenure as Burt Gummer—a no-nonsense, gun-toting, and often anti-social survivalist—began less than 24 hours after the show which made him famous had its wrap party. Gross has stuck with the Tremors franchise over the decades and we’ll be seeing more of him in October’s Tremors: Fury Island.
14. Tremors gave Kevin Bacon severe sleepwalking nightmares.
For years, Bacon considered Tremors a low point in his professional career. “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!’” he told The Telegraph in 2013.
Bacon has since warmed up to the movie, but still remembers, “Having these crazy dreams about monsters” while filming, according to Seeking Perfection: The Unofficial Guide to Tremors. Those nightmares also led to some very bizarre evenings for Bacon’s then-pregnant wife, Kyra Sedgwick. “I would pick her up,” he said, “and sleep-walk and carry her out onto the street … She’d be like ‘Honey, honey, honey, you’re asleep!’ and I’d say ‘No! I’ve gotta get you out of here!”
15. Director Ron Underwood nearly appeared in Tremors as female stunt double.
Director cameos don’t get much stranger than this. When the time came to film Tremors’s climax, Finn Carter’s stunt double was a no-show. So Underwood grabbed a wig and jumped into the fray himself for a few frames (which he later cut).
16. Tremors‘s moving graboid “humps” were achieved with a boat buoy.
Insert Jaws theme here: By chaining these maritime units to a truck and dragging them through underground troughs, the team created an ominous tunneling effect complete with rapidly flying dirt during key action scenes.
17. Tremors’s ending was altered due to test audiences.
Val and Earl spend the entire movie pining for the greener pastures of a nearby town named Bixby. Yet, as their graboid-slaying quest unfolds, Val finds himself growing close to Rhonda. Naturally, pre-launch viewers hoped they’d kiss after vanquishing the monsters. Instead, Tremors originally ended with Val and Earl driving to Bixby before having a change of heart and turning around. Clearly, this wouldn’t do—or at least, that’s how Underwood’s test audience felt. The last few minutes were then swiftly re-shot to include that requisite smooch.
18. SyFy later gave Tremors‘s graboids a faux scientific name.
Before Tremors: The Series debuted on SyFy, a (now-defunct) tie-in website claimed that, following the events of the first film, scientists coined the Latin name Caederus mexicana for this newfound species.
19. James Gunn’s Slither (2006) includes a sneaky reference to Tremors.
In an obvious nod to Fred Ward, the heroine in James Gunn’s campy delight Slither teaches at Earl Bassett Community School.
20. There’s a Tremors exhibit at the Museum of Western Film History.
The Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine, California, features a wonderful display that features an enormous prop graboid head and a scale model of Chang’s Market. Next time you’re in eastern California, be sure to check it out!
Additional Sources: “The Making of Tremors,” Collector’s Edition DVD Bonus Feature; The Ultimate Tremors FAQ