Zach Galligan Knew Just How To Act Opposite Gremlins' Gizmo

The old showbiz maxim goes, "Never work with children or animals," but what about mogwai? That was Zach Galligan's challenge on the set of Joe Dante's 1984 creature feature "Gremlins." Part black comedy and part family adventure, the Chris Columbus-penned story follows a young man who receives a mythic furry creature as a pet and, once that pet multiplies, the havoc that ensues. Against an $11 million production budget, "Gremlins" earned more than $150 million at the box office and became a game-changer of sorts; its violent sequences (including a mother's gremlin killing spree) prompted the MPAA to amend its rating system to include the PG-13 rating.

The film's human star, Zach Galligan, spent a fair amount of the 106-minute runtime acting opposite an assortment of Chris Walas-designed mechanical puppets. As young Billy Peltzer, Galligan interacts largely with the cutest of all gremlins, the googly-eyed furball Gizmo, teaching the mogwai to sing and interact such that the movie takes on the shape of a horror-tinged shape of a boy-and-his-dog-companion story (Dante originally had much darker ambitions for the story). In Jack Watkins' oral history of "Gremlins" for The Guardian, Galligan reports that having a physical representation of the mogwai was important, even if it's a mute puppet:

"Acting opposite Gizmo wasn't difficult, because pretending a lifelike puppet is a live animal is no harder than pretending a woman you've just met has been your wife for 15 years. It was also beneficial having practical special effects, because I was reacting to a thing that was really there in front of me, as opposed to stuff you are attempting to imagine, as you would with CGI."

With Mogwai comes much responsibility

Alongside his sweetheart Kate (Phoebe Cates), Billy spends most of "Gremlins" trying to subdue a mogwai uprising. When Billy's clumsy friend Pete (played by Corey Feldman, the same year that he would take on the role of Tommy Jarvis in one of the superior "Friday the 13th" sequels) breaks the second of three simple mogwai rules and gets Gizmo wet, several baby gremlins burst from its back like popcorn kernels. All it takes is for Billy to accidentally break the third rule and feed the creatures after midnight, and the cute holiday movie takes on a creepy-fun dimension that Christmas horror movies like "Krampus" have since emulated.

Thankfully, "Gremlins" is one of the proud few horror films in which the dog makes it to the end credits intact. Barney (played by Mushroom) is the intrepid canine hero of Dante's film, a Very Good Boy who quickly gets on the bad side of the miserly Kingston Falls grinch Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday of "Alice" fame). Despite the old Scrooge's stated aim of giving the dog a slow death, Barney quickly becomes besties with Gizmo; despite a few mean pranks by Stripe and the rest of the hooligan gremlins, the dog outlives their shenanigans. Zach Galligan praises his co-star's professionalism to Guardian:

"You can even see it in the performance of the dog, Barney, which must be one of the top 10 animal performances in movies. He was convinced the puppets were real. The affection he had for me was genuine, too, because I'd spent days playing with him and petting him. Every time he saw me I was this endless treat machine."

In the "Gremlins" DVD commentary, executive producer Steven Spielberg recognizes Mushroom's performance as the best in the movie entire.