At the Bachman cotton mill the employees are under the thumb of the taskmaster of a boss, Mr Warwick (Stephen Macht), who cares little for the poor conditions they toil under as long as he makes a profit. In the lower level there is machinery which only needs one operator, so they sit there alone while the temperature rises and the rats scurry around, only today there seem to be more than usual. The worker accidentally cuts his hand and dabs the wound clean with a cotton pad which he discards, then is disgusted to see a rat pick it up and feast on it, which prompts him to grab it by the tail and lower it into the teeth of the machine as an example to the others. But there's something bigger than that down there...
Graveyard Shift started life as a Stephen King short story from the nineteen-seventies, a briefer American cousin to its contemporary, the James Herbert novel The Rats which had been filmed in Canada to very little effect in the eighties. King's deal with his short stories was he would sell the rights for one dollar, because let's face it he didn't need the money, and also it offered the chance for filmmakers starting out in the industry a chance to make something with a higher profile than they might otherwise have done, though the bigger studios got in on the act too, hence many works where his text was stretched out to feature length, way past the point where the snappier source was effective.
Such was the case here, as a tale of rat exterminators in a factory getting more than they bargained for, sort of a companion piece to The Mangler (also filmed in the nineties), was padded out with various character bits when most audiences would want them to get to the monster attacks sooner rather than later. There was a good half of the movie over before the excursion into the basement actually began, whereas the King story had wasted little time, and you did feel the extraneous material was contributing to the listless feeling, although there were minor compensations, Stephen Macht's bizarre attempt at a thick Maine accent being one of them, King's plots often taking place in his home state though few actors would give the local intonation a try.
So you could enjoy Macht's enthusiastic voice talents, or you could opt for a no less over the top Brad Dourif as the head exterminator who sets about the job of massacring the small furry creatures with ill-disguised glee; naturally we can tell he will meet a sticky end for the crime of exaggerated hubris, though it might not be the one you expect and relies on him behaving foolishly to get him into the position where he meets his demise. They could have made a lot more of Dourif's eye-rolling, lip-smacking performance, but evidently they only secured his services for a short time, so he was relegated to a glorified supporting part. Our actual leading man was David Andrews as John Hall, a drifter who has wound up at the mill seeking a wage.
An outsider, he gets short shrift from his co-workers, although token nice girl Jane (Kelly Wolf) is friendly, earmarking them for the onerous task of cleaning out the basement along with a selection of other not too well known but perfectly capable character actors. Finally, we are down among the rats when they discover the whole building has been built on (or near) an old graveyard, and has more levels than the Oak Island Money Pit, leading to a huge cavern piled high with bones and running with vermin. In Aliens fashion (taken from the story, to be fair) there is a huge version of the rats hanging around below - literally, as it's really more of a giant bat for some reason. We don't see it fly, but it chomps a few of the cast as its comrades mop up the leftovers, and is one of those big, rubber, grotty creatures you would get before CGI arrived on the scene and spoiled it all. With a faith in the working man and a mistrust of the bosses (Warwick even turns inexplicably homicidal at one stage) mixed with clunky corporate product placement, that's about all the depth you get in a very basic monster flick.