Zach Galligan, Gizmo, and the Gremlins: A Study in Black Comedy

Zach Galligan—a mainstay of ‘80s cult horror films and black comedies—lovingly cleared a space for an ever-cute plush Gizmo on his table, moving the silver pitcher of water as far from the mogwai as possible. It was a charming and endearing start to his panel in the Hilton’s Grand East Saturday afternoon to celebrate all things Gremlins, where Galligan showed off his stellar memory and penchant for meticulous, droll storytelling.

This is Galligan’s first Dragon Con, despite being a Georgia resident the last four years. “I love Georgia, and I love living in Atlanta,” said the Manhattan native, who got his acting start as a kid when casting directors would recruit from his elite high school. JFK Jr. went there, and so did David Duchovny.

Galligan detailed his start in film, saying he began auditioning between 1980–81 after being plucked from his lunchroom by his drama teacher—who had a distinctive voice, which Galligan imitated perfectly. His first audition, for a film called Tempest, involved meeting Susan Sarandon, still fresh-faced and not that far out of Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Phoebe Cates, during what Galligan called a “mix and match” session wherein you read with multiple actors/actresses to test chemistry. Even then, Cates “radiated superstar” and was “cute as a button.” He didn’t get the part.

“This is really disappointing,” he said, recounting his reaction. “It really is kinda crushing if you don’t get a movie.” Still, he persevered, booked an agent strangely akin to his mom because he was 17 and he was like a “scared little rabbit,” and started to get small parts. After two years, he got Gremlins, saying he was just in the right place at the right time.

During the audition process, he again ran into Cates in another “mix and match” session, saying he opened the door and there she was, “ponytail again, chewing gum, in her Reeboks, cute as a button.” They ran lines, and he felt it would be a stroke of fortune if she were his match that day since they knew each other a bit. Fortune was on his side, and so was Steve Spielberg, who reviewed the audition on VHS tape (ah, the 1980s!) and made the final casting call.

Overall, when asked about Gremlins, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, and even a possible Gremlins 3, Galligan talked fondly, candidly, and good-naturedly about his experiences facing fame at such a young age on, what he himself described as a “very, very strange” film.

“I like the first one because I love the balance of the horror and the comedy,” Galligan said at one point. “And I think very, very few movies have actually managed to balance horror and comedy as well tonally as that movie does.”

The funniest scene? Old miser Mrs. Deagel meeting “a tragic, but fitting and deserved end” via a stair lift. Does he hate Gremlins 2? No, but he does prefer the first film, which he doesn’t think is too scary for kids, though when filming he thought he was making a film more in the vein of Alien. Working with Director Joe Dante? The man was cranky, but understandably so, and also really wonderful to work with as an actor.

Galligan said shoots were endless—20-35 weeks—because of the amount of special effects and puppetry needed. To circumvent this, Dante actually tested monkeys in Gremlin costumes, which Galligan thought was just a rumor. Nope, it’s true, and it failed miserably.

Dante was working with “technology that was really barely usable in comparison to, like, technology today,” Galligan said. “Yeah, so he was cranky. He was fun. You know, he had a very…he has kind of a squeaky voice.” Galligan then imitated Joe Dante chastising Zach Galligan for keeping his mouth open all the time.

Galligan said found his original script in his sister’s attic recently and was shocked to realize how much of the dialogue in the final film was adlibbed, exclaiming “I don’t remember any of this!” as he flipped through the script.

“Not that Chris Columbus didn’t write a great script,” Galligan said. “Because he did write a beautiful script, but we just started to find other things in it. It was plotted exactly the same way. The dialogue was definitely different.”

Galligan said he tries as much as possible to stay in touch with the cast, but that, with a movie that is 35 years old, it is difficult, especially since several actors have passed on. He ran into Judge Reinhold recently and sees Corey Feldman at conventions. “He was only 11,” Galligan reminded the audience when talking about Feldman. “People are like ‘what was he like?’ And, I’m like, ‘he was kinda like an 11-year old.’ You know, kids are cute. They’re not super complex when they’re at 11.” He said when he sees Feldman, he still ribs him about playing arcade games on set and always winning Food Fight because of a glitch in the program, which Feldman, at 11, couldn’t figure out. Galligan doesn’t see Cates much but talked to her recently. She retired from acting to raise her kids and became a business woman, opening a boutique in 2005 in New York City. He said she is super happy.

One actor from the film who has passed that Galligan talk fondly about was Dick Miller, describing him as “kinda like a guy from the 40s-50s, 20th century—that, like America doesn’t really make anymore” and saying he had a type of “retro swagger” that was just great, fun, and seemed very natural—the latter being the key to a great screen performance.

Galligan gave an educated guess when asked about rumors for Gremlins 3, saying Chris Columbus wrote a script Warner Brothers got sometime in 2018. Then, radio silence until this year when the animated comedy series Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai—which will follow baby Gizmo—was announced for their upcoming streaming service, HBO Max. Galligan, with good humor and a twinkle in his eye, said the news sparked joy—selfishly for himself and altruistically for the franchise. He reasons that Columbus’ script demands a high budget, and, before Warner Brothers invests that kind of money, they must seed a new generation of fans, raising awareness amongst the under-20 crowd who would then pay to see a live-action film.

When asked about Cates’ infamous monologue—the one about her character’s dad getting stuck in a chimney at Christmas and dying—he said it was always controversial, like many of the original ideas, which Spielberg nixed: Billy’s mom being decapitated upon finding the Gremlins hatching; Gizmo dying halfway through the film; Billy being a much younger child. The monologue originally belonged to another character, but they grafted it onto Kate to make her more interesting and attract better actresses. Cates was ecstatic about it, rehearsing it ad nauseum. She nailed it and instant devastation manifested on her face—a la Puss n’ Boots from Shrek, Galligan said—when Dante, with Galligan in tow, approached to tell her it might be cut; the big wigs at Warner Brothers found it too dark. In the end, Dante didn’t want to break his promise to Cates, and the monologue helped further cement Gremlins as an anti-Christmas Christmas movie.

Galligan was asked in the closing moments what is was like to find fame at such a young age and how he handled it. He noted that was one of the few times he’d be asked that and, yet, it’s an obvious question. Gremlins was the fourth highest grossing film of 1984. Suddenly, Galligan was in Seventeen, Teen Beat, and People.

“Within 9 months,” he said, “I went from unknown to on magazines covers and stuff like that. And, let’s just say the response from both the female and the male population was, um, fairly overwhelming. And unrelenting. And constant. And really, without going into details, most people really wouldn’t believe it. But you just kinda went from being a normal person to getting… let’s just say you get anywhere from the nature of 5-50 offers per day. For years.”

And, yet, Zach Galligan came out on the other side with a level-head, it seems, a great sense of humor, and a life-long best friend named Gizmo.

Author of the article

Kelly McCorkendale is a dog-lover, avid quilter, and occasional creative writer who loves the color orange and boycotts cable (except Game of Thrones because, well, what if winter is coming!?). After college, she realized poets weren’t in demand, so she shipped off to Madagascar with Peace Corps. Since then, she’s found a niche working on health systems in Africa but has a long-list of life tasks yet to be fulfilled--such as perform blackmail, learn a trade, and become a competitive eater. She has an MA in International Education, believes rice is the elixir of life, and, in high school, won the best supporting actress honor for the state of Missouri. She may also recite poetry (her first love) when imbibing in alcohol.