When the Dead Drink the Blood of the Living!
Teenage Nancy Johnson (Melanie Verlin) grows tired of fending off the advances of her lecherous stepfather Bert and runs away from home. On the road, she befriends a pair of decent young men named Tom and Hank (John Hall and Charles Jackson) who are en route to Fort Lauderdale for Spring Break, and she tags along for the ride. This would-be sexcapade takes a dark detour when the trio stop in a backwoods town to stock up on supplies and run afoul of a family of satanic hillbillies (David Marchick, Greg Besnak, John Amplas, and Robin Walsh) whose ultimate goal is to return their dead mother to life by pouring the blood of innocents down her gullet.
This is down and dirty, low budget horror that would pair perfectly with SATAN’S CHILDREN, and has enough of a sleaze factor that fans of that sort of thing should definitely seek it out. In its best moments, it is exactly what you think of when you hear the term “drive-in horror”, and is simultaneously reminiscent of the original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (backwood murderers target kids in a van) and prescient of the remake (villains assume the role of local lawmen). In its worst moments, though, it is an aimless and wandering mess, unbelievably padded with long shots of our heroes driving down country roads or shopping for groceries. The dialogue is often inane and pointless, sometimes amounting to nothing more than the characters narrating what they’re doing onscreen. And the absurd moments are so absurd, it’s difficult to believe that this wasn’t entirely by design.
One of my favorite examples of this film’s blatant absurdities is the police chase, which occurs after the kids shoplift groceries. Not only is it taking place at what I can only assume is safely below the posted speed limit, but the upbeat pop song on the soundtrack, coupled with the endless monotony of the siren, makes it a completely unnatural sensory experience.
By far the most absurd element, though, is that when it becomes evident that the small and ineffectual local police force isn’t going to be much help in rescuing Nancy from the Satanists’ clutches, it is the drunk and rapey Bert that comes to the rescue. It really is a pretty startling transformation—a semi-incestuous drunken villain turns into the hero (though still a quite drunk one). One would assume that there would be a story behind his complete turnaround, and maybe there is…but if so, it happens entirely off-camera. If, after watching the movie, you want to fill in the gaps of Bert’s story yourself, that’s up to you. Personally, I prefer the completely anarchic changeover, as it fits with the rest of the rather bonkers storyline. It’s as if a grizzled private eye has temporarily stepped into Bert’s body for the final act of the film—David Lynch as filtered through Ed Wood. Which seems even more fitting as the unwieldy Lawrence Tierney, who plays Bert, is typically seen stomping through the scenery like the second coming of Tor Johnson.
Tierney isn’t the only ‘name’ attached to this feature that would, in theory, lend it a bit of credibility. Special effects were supplied by Tom Savini, the guru of grue, who was enjoying his heyday when this movie was made. Unfortunately, there’s really not a lot of blood and gore effects here to allow Savini to shine, and those that do exist are typically cut away from too quickly.
Furthermore, MIDNIGHT was written and directed by John Russo, who made a name for himself by co-writing NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) with George Romero. Unfortunately, Russo was never able to recapture the lightning in a bottle of that film, and earned the ire of many fans by producing a steady stream of less-than-stellar products and returning to the NOTLD well a few times too many. This is understandable in light of the fact that a copyright error caused the movie to land squarely in the public domain, and it makes sense that he would want to recoup some of his losses—but the NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD 30TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION (1999), which replaced portions of old footage with new footage, was viewed as a slap in the face by many. If nothing else, he at least had a hand in the story for the cult favorite RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985)—though even then his original script was thoroughly rewritten by Dan O’Bannon.
Russo also works as an author, having written non-fiction books on movie making, as well as fictional books, some of which were adapted into movies themselves. While his entire catalog would certainly be worthy of evaluation, it is only the source material for this particular film that we are concerned with here.
The novel, first published in 1980 by Pocket Books, hits many of the same key (and not so key) scenes as the film. But what the film is missing which the book has is the connective tissue that makes a story whole. The major differences are few: there is a secondary character in the novel that is not present in the film—an anthropologist that acts, believe it or not, as a potential love interest to Cynthia, high priestess of the Satanic sect; and there are a great deal more cult members in the book, as Satanists from around the country congregate for the proceedings; but the biggest difference is that here, Bert plays no part whatsoever in the “happy ending”. In fact there is no happy ending. Evil triumphs fully, and there isn’t the slightest hint of redemption or retribution.
There is a good deal of backstory on all the characters that help to flesh them out, but much of the dialogue is the same onscreen as it is on the page. It’s almost as if Russo had just cut-and-pasted his favorite scenes into the script, and forgot to fill in what came between them.
Although there were certainly no throngs of people clamoring for a sequel, Russo did return to the studio to film MIDNIGHT 2 in 1992, which, by all accounts, is even worse than the first and only minutely connected to the original. Not being overly familiar with the whole of Russo’s oeuvre (and being unsure on the amount of contribution he truly made to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD), I’ll base my evaluation solely on his two Midnights, and will go on record to say that he is a much better author than he is a filmmaker. Though his book was no great shakes, and there was little to no suspense, it was trashily entertaining enough to keep me reading and served to demonstrate what the movie could have (and rightly should have) been.
Feeling as if a third pass was needed, Russo launched a (failed) Kickstarter campaign in 2013 to fund a remake of MIDNIGHT, which is currently listed as “in development”. Although there doesn’t seem to have been a lot of movement since, I would be willing to give him one final shot to tell his story.
If for no other reason than to see what the ending will be this time.