Written by Jonathan Wojcik

GRABOIDS!



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My experience with Tremors is fairly similar to my experience with Gremlins; it is not at all a movie that would have actually scared me, but it maybe had just enough bloodshed in it that both my mother and me, a scared weiner, thought for sure that seeing it would shatter my mind. I was still vaguely aware of and fascinated by its concept however, and especially the trailer that barely showed the actual monsters.

I eventually saw the first two films on Sci-Fi channel, before any more were ever made, and for a while, the "Graboids" were my new favorite creature designs ever. I was even sad that they weren't real. I desperately wanted huge, man-eating, shark-like sandworms to really exist in our world as much as other kids wanted Tyrannosaurus Rex to be something they could pet at the zoo...



THE ORIGINAL GRABOID

So, there are surprisingly few good photographs to pick from for these guys, but a lot of you know what they look like well enough; a huge maggot-like shape, covered in black barbs, with a bony beak-like head and a lower jaw that splits into three hooked blades. It was that mouth that endeared me the most, not too different in structure from the mouths of actual nematode worms but with more bilateral than radial symmetry. The graboid also possesses three "tongues," each tipped with an almost reptilian mouth. This made for a pretty fun twist originally, since we saw these snake-like creatures before we ever saw that they were merely the appendages of something far larger; large enough to suck entire trucks under the ground. The film's central gimmick wound up being a lot of fun, with elevated places like rooftops or at least boulders being relatively safe from the tunneling predators. A simple, straightforward monster story, described by some as "JAWS on Dry Land."

Graboids clearly belong to a phylum all their own, but sci-fi channel once tried to explain them as giant cephalopods. Pretty goofy, and wouldn't work at all! The second film also held that they existed before even the Cambrian, but that would imply there had to be other animals present on the Earth to sustain them as prey. This could have been explored in some fascinating ways, but a still later film would retcon them as only dating back to the Devonian, when they would have preyed upon large vertebrate life.



THE SHRIEKER

The first sequel to Tremors pulled a real fast one on us; like the protagonists, we were all prepared for more subterannean worms, only to discover that the worms were merely the start of an entire weird life cycle; that eventually, a graboid is eaten alive from the inside by up to three little critters dubbed "shriekers," which run on a pair of vertebrate-like legs. A shrieker possesses only one prehensile tongue, without the additional mouth, and it hunts by exposing a thermoreceptive pit in the top of its skull.

It's a very interesting, fun little design, but as a kid, I was kind of disappointed to learn that the big sandworm I loved so much was just an overblown "larva," let alone for something that no longer even tunnels. Could they really still call it "tremors" anymore? It also left me wondering how in the world this species could have gone undiscovered by humans for so long, if a major part of its life cycle operated above ground anyway.

Still, I do like the shrieker. I always have a soft spot for creatures with just a single pair of limbs, creatures that emphasize a huge mouth and almost anything that evolved without eyes.



THE ASSBLASTER

Not stopping there, another sequel revealed that a shrieker eventually takes on a flying stage, further dashing all believability that humans just plain missed their existence. The assblaster is so named because it generates biochemical combustion in its gut to launch itself through the air, rocket-like, and glide for extended periods of time. This is a mechanism to disperse the single egg they carry in their stomach, which doesn't feel very efficient to me. Shouldn't it be a FEW eggs?

The assblasters were depicted entirely in CG, and honestly, it didn't look great. I do however love their gangly, alien vulture-like appearance, and it's certainly a fun concept even if it's more than a little hard to believe.



THE DIRT DRAGON

The last link in the life cycle is literally just a freshly hatched, baby graboid, but it gets a name of its own because its physiology is admittedly pretty different. Only a couple feet long with under-developed tentacles, it launches itself out of the ground like a missile at prey, leading the fandom to just call them "shooters." I guess the more official "dirt dragon" is a bit dramatic to be the smallest stage in the whole cycle.



THE AFRICAN GRABOID

We've long reached content I never actually saw myself, but Tremors 5: Bloodlines introduced a whole new species of bigger, stronger, meaner, and even eusocial graboid, living in massive community nests with presumably a "queen." Gotta say, strike one. Eusocialism is horribly overdone by monster movies at this point, without a single one of them exploring the complex biology we see in actual ants, bees or termites. Instead, every eusocial monster is just an excuse to have a big swarm of creatures with one giant-size boss-monster, and while it does at least provide us a rich history of huge, flesh-rending female monsters for little girls to aspire towards, even this is underwhelmingly utilized in these narratives. Graboids did not need to have queens and hives, and if they did, there's a lot more that could have been done with them besides another Aliens ripoff.

This design, too, is just kind of overwrought. The original has a subtle believability to it, really resembling a natural if very unusual animal. What I'm seeing here is more of a fangly Resident Evil monstrosity, and doesn't really look like something that can elegantly move through sand.


Even worse is the African Assblaster. What happened to that great, long-necked buzzard look? Why is this just the same scary monster mouth I've seen a thousand times, with legs on it? I hate to put down a monster design because I'm sure someone cared about this one, but it loses both that "believability" factor and the lighthearted charm that made graboids endearing.


All I can say I really like about the African graboids is that their snake-tongues can detach and operate independently, making them seem almost like their own special caste of forager carried around by their larger siblings. That actually IS the kind of cool biology we ought to get from "eusocial" movie monsters, though you don't even have to be eusocial to do weird stuff like this; there are even parasites in real life that can produce still smaller worms exclusively for self-defense, as I discuss briefly in my article on flatworms!

We're all done with the Graboids themselves, but we're not done with monsters!


TREMORS: THE SERIES MONSTERS!




THE GIANT "SHRIMP"

I never got to see much of Tremors: The Series, but I remember being excited for it anyway, because I found conceptual art for it on an official website many years before it would finally be greenlit. The series would have had the heroes of the second film operating as independent monster-hunters-for-hire, encountering all sorts of things beyond just the original sandworms. One of these were basically conceived of as "killer sea monkeys," or vernal pool crustaceans awakened by water. In the conceptual art, these resembled giant anomalocaris, one of the first times I ever saw the animal referenced anywhere outside books and television specials on paleozoology.

I always loved this piece, because it's a very very accurate look at an Anomalocarid except for those tiny, soulful cartoon eyes. That is precious!


When the series finally did do this storyline, the design was changed to more closely resemble an actual brine shrimp, and as cool as the giant killer anomalocarids might have been...yeah, this makes slightly more sense to me. It's also explained in the series as a genetic experiment, though I don't think that change was necessary if we're already expected to believe that giant sandworms were just kind of hiding from us for centuries. The thing about vernal crustacea is that their eggs can lie dormant for decades between rainfall, so I'd have no problem buying that somewhere, deep out in some exceptionally barren desert never colonized by man, there might be some isolated valley harboring monster eggs that hatch only once every few centuries.

It's also just a very nice design, because it has lovely little eye stalks reminiscent of an actual fairy shrimp, and at this point in time I've finally seen a lot more anomalocarids in media than these cuties.



PROJECT 4-12

This one would appear in the series ALMOST unchanged, but the artwork still looked a lot nicer than the low-budget CG model they had to work with in the end, which didn't even render the little hairs all over it! Only one exists by the time of the show, kept as a loyal pet by a well-meaning loner until it unfortunately goes on a rampage and has to be killed. Originally, the creature was engineered as a military weapon armed with an overwhelming skunk-like stench attack, but was presumably abandoned because engineering a bunch of vicious super-skunks almost makes the bat bomb sound reasonable.

Love this design though, such a delightfully pugnacious little reptiloid! Pleasingly flattened and low-slung, you can really see this thing scuttling and scurrying around like some cross between a rat and a silverfish, with that cool sucker-like maw hoovering up bits of food.



THE MICROBE SWARM

This one is originally mistaken for a "ghost," since it appears as a roaming mass of greenish vapor, but it's actually a swarm of mutated "silicon-based deep sea hydrophilic bacteria," which of course is gibberish, but what they're trying to say is that it's a bunch of microorganisms of some kind who somehow hold together closely in one airborne mass and can suck the moisture from living things until there's little left but a mummified husk. Cool concept, even if there's not much to it besides the fact that, once dissipated and seemingly defeated, the microbes simply pollute the local food chain with the mutagenic compound known as "mixmaster," which is somehow capable of fusing different species together.



THE TERMAGGOTS

One example of one of these "mixmaster" creations are supposed to be hybrids between termites, cicadas, and maggots. I'm not sure what they mean by that when maggots are merely the larvae of flies, but okay. The design does resemble a fly crossed with a termite, if you ask me, but lacks any visible cicada elements. Somehow, the combination of these three insects result in creatures who can eat literally any organic material from flesh to wood at an incredibly rapid pace and emit a collective scream powerful enough to paralyze a grown human. Weird, corny, a little fun, but kind of typical for a "killer insect swarm" story.



THE PLANTIMAL

You know what I love though? Plant creatures. You know what I love even more? Plant creatures that avert the usual Audrey II ripoff or flailing tentacle-vine business. Both are good, yes, but another of those things I've seen just enough times now that an exception is always welcome. Actually neither plant nor animal as its name implies, this monster consists of splendidly grotesque, slimy looking flowers and acid-spraying, stalked pods that can kill almost instantaneously! If allowed to complete its blooming cycle, the plantimal apparently could have spewed millions of minute, airborne seeds into the atmosphere and easily spread itself across the world. How fun is it when something that can't even move or think is one of the most threatening monsters in an entire canon??? Heck yeah!



THE TREE MONSTER

This was my favorite back when I first saw the conceptual art, but sadly, the TV series was canceled before it ever adapted this one. It's basically just what it looks and sounds like; a murderous land-kraken that evolved to live in and blend in with treetops! A simple, down-to-earth monster concept with a ton of potential, just the sort of thing you might expect a bunch of drunken lumberjacks to invent as a prank, which I think kind of captures what makes the monsters in this continuity so fun; they all have that feeling of the Fearsome Critters, creatures cooked up as entertaining North American tall tales.

The design in this art is cool as heck, too. It isn't JUST a big octopus or squid, but has its own distinct look and feel. I love the bulging eyes on the sides of that woody looking head, and how the beak is rotated to open and close more like insect mandibles!



THE RAMBLER

Before we get to one more old favorite, we've got relatively younger concept art for a monster that was planned after the series had already been running, but not long before it would get canned. There's no word on what this "rambler" or "wanderer" would have been all about, but we can surmise that it snaps between innocence and ferocity; always a fun enough gimmick, even if it's become a wildly common one. There's definitely a Lilo & Stitch vibe going on here, and I liked the two mouths!



THE AWFUL WINGED THING

Anyway, I say the tree monster was my favorite back in the day, but since then, I've come to love the AWFUL WINGED THING the most of anything in Tremors "continuity," assuming you count things that were going to be in that continuity. The idea was that our heroes would investigate a UFO alleged to be abducting people's livestock, only to encounter this totally unearthly, bioluminescent sky-horror that I'm going to presume is some sort of upper-atmospheric predator, something that perhaps never normally descends down to the surface. The look of this thing is just so weird and so cool, evocative of a bat and perhaps a stingray but truly unlike anything else known to man; not with that glaring, eerie eye stalk right smack in the center!

My only critique is that, if this thing hunts prey from above, shouldn't that eye be on the underside?

Though....actually.......

...wait a minute here....

WAIT A MINUTE!!!!



THE AWFUL WINGED THING

This illustration has been circulating the internet since at least the nineties, but I guess it's such an obscure part of a relatively quiet franchise that it spent over twenty years scanned in upside down and nobody noticed! Nobody until ME, JONATHAN, APPARENTLY THE ONLY ONE PULLIN' ANY WEIGHT AROUND HERE IN AWFUL WINGED THING FANDOM. How did I even miss that there's supposed to be a tear dripping from that eye?!

DON'T CRY, WINGED THING!! YOU'RE RIGHT SIDE UP NOW!!!





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