Written and Directed by: John Russo
Starring: Melanie Verlin, Lawrence Tierney, and John Hall
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
If you have a weak stomach, don't come!
John Russo’s legacy will forever be intertwined with Night of the Living Dead—for better and for worse, it turns out. While he had a hand in co-writing the seminal, groundbreaking midnight movie, he also infamously butchered it with a colorized 30th anniversary edition, his much maligned attempt to cling to relevance after spending years chasing that undead dragon. Even though his late-70s novel, Return of the Living Dead, did inspire Dan O’Bannon’s rad (if not quite loose) adaptation, Russo never quite gained traction following his split from creative partner George Romero. As such, those infamous, desperate efforts to keep cashing in on his greatest success tend to overshadow his other contributions to the genre, including over a dozen novels and a handful of other films that have been lost to time. Midnight is one such effort; adapted from Russo’s own novel, it, too, represents a desperate stab at relevance, this time within the burgeoning, early-80s slasher genre. Countless films sent legions of doomed teenagers to be dispatched by maniacs during this era, and this is a fairly nondescript addition to that pile, one that separates itself only in its peculiar strain of ineptness.
To be fair, it’s somewhat different than most slashers of the age, at least in the sense that there’s an entire brood of psychos out to terrorize oblivious interlopers. We actually meet them as children during a prologue, where they happen upon a young girl in a bear trap. Rather than help the poor kid out, they insist—at the behest of their deranged mother—that she’s a demon that must be sacrificed in order to appease Satan himself. Don’t ask me how that works—I’m just the messenger here. Anyway, the opening credits introduce us to our protagonist Nancy Johnson (Melanie Verlin), an apparently devout Catholic girl if her monotone prayers and confession are any indication.
She’s facing trouble at home in the form of her stepfather (Lawrence Tierney), a lecherous crooked cop who attempts to rape her. After literally clocking him in the head with her bedside alarm clock, she flees her Pennsylvania home and vows to head to California to stay with her sister. Slim pickings on the hitchhiking trail force her to settle for much less when she snags a ride with a couple of guys headed down to Florida. Despite driving around for at least one day, they only make it as far as the rural outskirts of Pennsylvania, where they encounter both the usual racist yokels and the bloodthirsty brood from the prologue, now all grown up and looking to appease Satan once more.
Most of those juicy, gory bits are confined to the film’s final 30 minutes or so. Sure, Russo goes out of his way to introduce another pair of hitchhikers (a father-daughter duo just looking to make it home) only to gruesomely dispatch them and add to the body count about halfway through, but don’t expect wall-to-wall carnage here. Instead, brace yourself for an almost interminably paced slog through these rusty, dusty Pittsburgh locations, as Nancy and her new pals score beer from scuzzy bars, steal from grocery stores, smoke weed, and encounter racists—all of it urged on by a bopping, lite-FM soft rock anthem that recurs throughout. “You’re on your own,” the singer endlessly croons over at least a half-dozen scenes, prompting you to realize that Midnight feels like an especially scummy After School Special about the perils of running away from home and smoking dope with strangers.
Russo does almost stumble upon something vital and relevant in the ugly racism the group encounters at every turn: gas stations, bars, and, eventually, even a pair of cops. One of Nancy’s companions, Hank (Charles Jackson), is African-American, and his very existence draws the ire of, well, just about everyone, inspiring an impassioned rant once the gang finally finds time to relax with some reefer. Not content to direct his ire at the racists that have tormented him, he also chastises Nancy for singing a slave spiritual that she doesn’t have the right to appropriate. His ancestors paid for the right with their blood and sweat, he insists, leading you to believe that Russo might actually be going somewhere with all of this, perhaps in an attempt to make the latent racial tension of Night of the Living Dead more explicit this time around. The group’s encounter with the racist cops—which ends with the callous brutes shooting a fleeing, unarmed Hank in the back—feels righteously indignant, if not eerily prescient.
But it turns out just to be something of a fake-out once we learn these are just the psychotic hillbillies masquerading as cops, effectively reducing the racism angle to one of the film’s eccentric flourishes, of which there are a few. Arguably the most notable is Tierney, top-billed here despite only appearing in a handful of scenes, each more jaw-dropping than the last. This is saying a lot since his first appearance has him making drunken, perverse advances on his own stepdaughter. Later on, he gallingly lies to his wife, claiming that Nancy has been slyly coming onto him in an effort to break up their marriage, as if this asshole couldn’t be any more despicable. And yet, there he is towards the end of the film, playing detective in an effort to track Nancy down. Perhaps driven by guilt—or, more likely, Russo’s need to have Tierney do something during the 3rd act—he manages to find the backwoods hillbilly haunt where his stepdaughter has been captured. Luckily for him, two of the yokels hold a very specific conversation within earshot of our boozy sleuth, allowing him to confirm that Nancy is, in fact, being held captive. This impeccable timing and contrived scripting opens the door for Tierney to become the most inexplicable hero this side of Joe Dallesandro in Blood for Dracula.
Positing a pervy stepfather as the film’s hero best encapsulates what type of movie Midnight is: crass, junky, and deeply uninterested in appealing to any sort of human logic or moral compass—and that’s fine. It would perhaps be more fine with a more inventive, imaginative hand at the wheel, though, since Russo’s stodgy, lethargic direction renders the schlocky climax into a bit of a bore. Operating on a budget of $80,000, Russo aims for that same, homespun lo-fi aesthetic that Romero perfected over the years, going so far as to tap Tom Savini to do the effects. But even most the gore maestro’s work here feels a little cruder in Russo’s hands, as Midnight is a terminally stiff piece of work that barely finds a pulse during an outrageous climax that features decapitations, ritual sacrifice, a gnarly decayed corpse, and an unbelievable fire stunt. This grisly business is certainly what one expects from a film that was retitled Backwoods Massacre in some regions, and Russo dutifully delivers it without any sort of panache (though it must be noted that not every movie segues from a man burning alive to a soft rock song playing over the end credits).
Some of the performances bring a spark to life to the lunatic rednecks (Robin Walsh is a hoot as the clan’s sister/new matriarch), but this is an otherwise dull splatter effort that’s most noteworthy for its inanity and tone-deafness. Even those are a dime-a-dozen at this point, though, so Midnight is best left for when you’ve come around to scraping the bottom of the slasher barrel, where you’ll also find a sequel that Russo produced about a decade later. Having now seen and reviewed the original Midnight, I feel compelled to track down Midnight 2: Sex, Death, & Videotape, and you, dear reader, are honor bound to read that review too. Sorry, those are the rules.
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