'Gremlins' Star Reflects on an '80s Classic

'Gremlins' Star Reflects on an '80s Classic

Nearly three decades after its summer 1984 release, Gremlins remains as iconic as it gets when film fans look back at classic '80s popcorn cinema. As the Steven Spielberg-produced, Joe Dante-directed movie nears its 30th anniversary, its star Zach Galligan has returned to the big screen and the horror genre, and he sits down with ETonline for an extended, exclusive interview about all things Gremlins, from working with the stunning Phoebe Cates and those unpredictable animatronic creatures to the controversy surrounding the film's MPAA rating and the unexpected celebrities who have since outed themselves as fans!

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"People like Marilyn Manson come up to you and say, 'Will you sign my [Gremlins] lunchbox?'" says Galligan, now 49, also name-dropping Brad Pitt as a fan. "And that's one of the surreal things about being in a movie that's 30 years old and a kind of a classic."

In Gremlins, an eccentric inventor (played by Hoyt Axton) looking for the perfect Christmas gift finds a rare creature called a Mogwai in Chinatown and brings it to his son Billy (played by a 19-year-old Galligan) as a pet. The fuzzy little friend, named Gizmo, quickly endears himself to the responsible teen, who promptly but inadvertently breaks all three rules of the Gremlins: Never expose them to bright light; never get them wet; and, most importantly, never, ever feed them after midnight. Once that happens, of course, all hell breaks loose.

"Oh, I remember the three rules, and if I ever forget them, people often times on the street shout them at me," says the amiable star. "So someone'll [yell], 'Where's Gizmo? I hope you're not gettin' him wet! Are you keeping him out of bright light?' I'm like, 'Yeah, yeah, I've got it under control.'"

Billy's love interest in the movie is played by Cates, and it didn't hurt that the brunette star was white hot off one of the most talked-about swimming pool fantasy sequences of the '80s in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

"There was a certain amount of hysteria around her after that very charged scene, and it made a very lasting impression; people still talk about it 30 years later," grins Galligan. "Guys would sort of react to her with awe, and they were completely intimidated, which was so funny, because she is one of the nicest, most approachable, down-to-earth, cool [people]. She's a beautiful woman who doesn't have that sense of, 'I'm amazing and maybe one day you'll be able to talk to me.' She doesn't have any of that. … So it was great working with her. She was so cool, and she had a boyfriend at the time, so [an on-set romance] never really became an issue."

The PG-rated Gremlins was very well-received and did major box office in the summer of '84, but paired with the release of Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom just two weeks prior, also rated PG, parents were beginning to grumble loudly that their children's summer escapist fare was getting too violent -- but not so violent to warrant an R rating -- and some sort of a solution was called for.

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"I think the whole PG-13 controversy also had a lot to do with the way the film was marketed," says Galligan, who points out that the film's teaser poster with cute paws reaching out of a dark box led people to believe they were going to see another fluffy Spielberg film just like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. "I felt that it was kind of fair for parents to say, 'I thought this was going to be E.T. 2, and it's more like -- as Joe Dante put it -- It's a Wonderful Lizard of Oz in Hell.' It's two movies: It's the first half that lulls you into a false sense of security, and then it’s the second half which is like this brutal, somewhat vicious flip side of E.T. … So that, combined with [the violence of Indiana Jones] … Junior now needs therapy; something probably needs to be done about that."

And thus the PG-13 rating was born (with Red Dawn being the first film out of the gate at the end of the summer with the brand-new MPAA rating). Despite the hoopla, Gremlins emerged a monster hit, and spawned a sequel in 1990: Gremlins 2: The New Batch. The chaos moved from the small town of Kingston Falls to the big city of Manhattan and saw the triumphant return of Galligan, Cates and their little buddy Gizmo in a high-tech high-rise environment. A rare feat in Hollywood, the sequel had critics buzzing for its clever, subversive nature, with some saying that it bested its predecessor. But The New Batch was ultimately a disappointment compared to the box-office of the first film.

"I really think the second movie, in terms of the box office success, would have done better if Warner Bros. had not made a last-second decision [to open it opposite Dick Tracy because the test market screening scores were so high]," Galligan explains. "We pretty much got creamed. … You don't want to open against Madonna in the '90s."

After two Gremlins movies came and went, Galligan failed to land another major hit franchise, though not for lack of trying. He was this close to landing top roles in some major, well-known films, going so far as to shoot screen tests for St. Elmo's Fire, The Rocketeer and even Platoon.

"But, you know, close only counts in horseshoes -- doesn't really count in anything else," says the practical star. "You just go through a phase where your luck isn't clicking."

Galligan has persevered in his craft, which he considers "a marathon, not a sprint," and has maintained a busy schedule as a working actor on lots of indie films and network TV shows ranging from Star Trek: Voyager to Law & Order: Criminal Intent. He also teaches acting at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, and is currently back on the big screen as a sheriff taking on a monstrous killer in the haunted swamps of New Orleans.

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"Now I'm making the return to the horror genre in Hatchet III, which is such a fun movie and I'm so glad I did it," says Galligan. "[The film's writer Adam Green] loves the 1980s about as much as any human being I've ever met. He's like a kid in a candy store … and that's kind of what's been happening to me in the last seven or eight years; all of the young people who grew up watching me have now become filmmakers, and they want to throw me in and include me in some of the new stuff they're doing, and my feeling is like, 'Heck yeah!'"