"Slither" is a gleefully nasty and ingeniously twisted horror-comedy that pits a populace of heavily armed but mostly clueless rednecks against flesh-eating zombies, slimy extraterrestrial slugs and an acid-spewing, multitentacled mutant. Call it "Night of the Living Dead" meets "Tremors."

“Slither” is a gleefully nasty and ingeniously twisted horror-comedy that pits a populace of heavily armed but mostly clueless rednecks against flesh-eating zombies, slimy extraterrestrial slugs and an acid-spewing, multitentacled mutant. Call it “Night of the Living Dead” meets “Tremors.” Scripter James Gunn infuses the pic, his debut feature as a director, with the exuberance of a movie geek given carte blanche to play fast and loose with the cliches and conventions of his favorite films. Result is a rock-the-house crowd-pleaser for genre aficionados, though its breakout potential appears iffy.

Gunn — a Troma Entertainment alumnus whose writing credits range from “Scooby Doo” to 2004’s “Dawn of the Dead” remake — deftly balances broad humor, rude shocks and gross-out special effects for a fang-in-cheek extravaganza that often feels like a slightly more upscale version of cheapie-creepy Troma product.

Wheelsy, the kind of small town where the start of hunting season is celebrated as a local holiday, is where Grant Grant (Michael Rooker), a wealthy but none-too-refined businessman, somehow managed to claim Starla (Elizabeth Banks), a local beauty, as his trophy wife. Trouble is, Starla has grown tired of fulfilling her conjugal duties.

Stung by Starla’s latest rejection, Grant seeks solace in a seedy bar, where tarty Brenda (Brenda James) proves far more receptive to his sex appeal. Unfortunately, when the couple decides to take a walk in the nearby woods, they come across a recently landed meteorite. Something emerges from within — and plunges into Grant.

For the first half-hour or so, “Slither” seems to be a seriocomic riff on sci-fi thrillers in which hapless humans are infected by extraterrestrial contamination or manmade maladies. As such, the pic often echoes David Cronenberg’s “Rabid” and John Carpenter’s remake of “The Thing.”

But by the time Grant evolves into a toothy, slime-encrusted behemoth with a pronounced resemblance to a squid, and Brenda expands to become a humongous breeder of malignant slugs, it’s clear Gunn won’t be content to reference only one kind of monster. Much to the great distress of dry-witted police chief Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion) and blowhard mayor Jack MacReady (Gregg Henry), the victims of the malignant slugs won’t stay dead. Rather, the dearly departed reawaken as staggering, shambling zombies, mentally connected to Grant, an increasingly more powerful (and more disgusting) entity.

“Slither” begins briskly, gradually accelerates and eventually achieves a breakneck momentum that makes the wild ride even more exhilarating. Here and there, though, pic slows down for a clever bit of throwaway lunacy, like the revelation that Wheelsy has a karaoke bar.

The special effects are a nifty mix of old-school prosthetics and high-tech CGI, making for a few genuinely shocking moments amid the farcical facade. Overall tech values are smartly dedicated to making “Slither” appear polished, but not too polished, so it can impress without straying too far from its B-movie roots.

The well-cast actors — including Tania Saulnier as a feisty teen whose family gets slugged — go just far enough over the top to maintain the jokey/scary tone without becoming cartoonish. Fillion is particularly amusing while delivering wisecracks and ironic asides with the same sly spin he brought to cheeky dialogue in the cult fave “Firefly” TV series (and, more recently, its “Serenity” feature spinoff). For all his funny moments, however, Fillion also rises to the challenge of being, relatively speaking, the straight man, or at least the pic’s voice of sanity. Henry gets big laughs with a much-bigger-than-life approach. And Rooker is surprisingly sympathetic even as his character turns into a special effect.

Incidentally, the film has absolutely nothing to do with Howard Zieff’s 1973 pic of the same name, starring James Caan and Sally Kellerman. Latter also was a comedy but had no slugs to speak of and nary a single zombie.

Slither

Production

A Universal release of a Universal Pictures and Gold Circle Films presentation of a Strike Entertainment production. Produced by Paul Brooks, Eric Newman. Executive producers, Marc Abraham, Thomas A. Bliss, Norm Waitt, Scott Niemeyer. Co-producer: Jeff Levine. Directed, written by James Gunn.

Crew

Camera (color), Gregory Middleton; editor, John Axelrad; music, Tyler Bates; production designer, Andrew Neskoromny; art director, Michael Norman Wong; costume designer, Patricia Louise Hargreaves; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), William Skinner; visual effects supervising producer, Joan Collins Carey; visual effects supervisor, John Gajdecki; makeup and creature effects, Todd Masters, Dan Rebert; associate producer, Jonathan Shore; assistant director, Bryan C. Knight; casting, Eyde Belasco. Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Round Midnight), Austin, March 17, 2006. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 94 MIN.

With

Bill Pardy - Nathan Fillion Starla Grant - Elizabeth Banks Jack MacReady - Gregg Henry Grant Grant - Michael Rooker Kylie Strutemyer - Tania Saulnier Brenda Gutierrez - Brenda James Wally - Don Thompson

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