Look at the script of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and you’ll notice it’s credited to two people: George A. Romero, and John Russo. Read Russo’s scrapbook on the making of the film, or watch Chris Roe’s excellent documentary ONE FOR THE FIRE, and both men tell it that Romero started the script in short story form, came back one weekend with half of it written, and Russo picked it up and finished writing it. Sure, everyone at The Latent Image contributed story ideas and dialogue, but everyone’s stories jibe that Romero and Russo are the two responsible for writing an iconic film. Once they parted ways, both men became auteurs, writing and directing their own visions. Their output could not be more drastically different. Romero went on to make THE CRAZIES, MARTIN and DAWN OF THE DEAD, to name a view, films loaded with social commentaries and dark views of the human condition. Russo followed a classic film with THE BOOBY HATCH, THE MAJORETTES and SANTA CLAWS, which starred Debbie Rochon and a killer Santa. Romero is a legendary figure in the horror genre, while Russo… well, not so much. Having seen the films I just mentioned, I still cannot believe I found myself compelled to watch MIDNIGHT, which is another gaudy, amateurish example that proves that Romero is a god, and Russo barely qualifies as a filmmaker.
In all honesty, I probably never would have seen MIDNIGHT had it not been for John Amplas. I had just met him again at Monster-Mania and punched his name into Netflix to find out what I hadn’t seen of his films. When I saw Russo’s name as director, nostalgia got the better of me. Russo and Amplas both had that strong Romero connection, and as Romero is my favorite horror director, I figured it couldn’t be all that bad, right? Right? Well, nostalgia hit me like a 2×4 right between the eyes, as MIDNIGHT lacks the talented writing, direction and editing of Romero, and even worse, offers Amplas very little to do.
MIDNIGHT’s plot is a jumbled mess. It starts off with a family offing a young woman in some pagan ceremony. It then jumps to young Nancy, whose stepfather the cop tries to molest her. She decides to run away, and as many a runaway will do, she ends up in a van with two guys on a road trip.
For a while, the film wants to be EASY RIDER WITH A VAN, as Nancy and her two new buddies steal food and hit the open road to freedom. Along the way, the film introduces a preacher and his daughter, both of whom are ripe for the slaughter. Here is one of the many examples of Russo’s weak storytelling. The plot follows these two new characters, abandoning the leads, stopping the story’s forward progress dead in its tracks. When it returns to the protagonists, about ½ way through the running time, it introduces Amplas and another character, two cops who pull over the van. There’s a running theme here, as these two cops are even more morally reprehensible than the stepdad. In an unexpected turn, they dispatch two of the protagonists.
Should I be discussing so much of the plot? No, I should not. But I’m advising you not to see this film, and let’s face it, those two hippies dying isn’t exactly Marion Crane taking a shower in PSYCHO. As it heads into its second half, the stepdad then becomes the main protagonist, as he’s out to save his daughter. So he can bang her? Probably. But Russo now casts him as the savior. An odd choice, to say the least. But I would have bought it, had Russo only made Nancy worth saving. Trust me, she’s not. In fact, the acting in this film is so putrid, I was the one who needed saving. Melanie Verlin does nothing to make Nancy likeable, although she does a good imitation of cardboard. Lawrence Tierney, who had been acting for some 40 years when he made MIDNIGHT, probably spent half the movie’s budget in change, phoning in his performance. Nobody distinguishes himself in this cast, as is always the case in Russo’s movies, which empirically leads me to the understanding that Russo can’t coax good performances out of actors.
The worst sin of the movie, in fact, is the misuse of John Amplas. This is the guy who brought such a nuanced performance to MARTIN. Here, he’s competent, but Russo’s script doesn’t give him much to do. Every other performance I’ve seen him give, he’s proved what a talented actor he is. Every one except for this. Russo had a gem here, and instead of letting Amplas shine, he tarnishes an underrated actor.
And he does so like an amateur. Russo’s films are all earmarked by cheap production, sloppy editing and pacing, atrocious sound design and a direct-to-video feel. It often comes across as if he doesn’t care about his craft, and his product suffers from a laziness. Just look at what he did with his 30th anniversary edition of NIGHT OF—no wait a second. Don’t look at that at all. The guy who did NIGHT OF THE LIVING BREAD did a more professional job.
MIDNIGHT comes with six commentaries, a three-hour making of documentary, and is soon to be released as a Criterion three-disc set. Okay, none of that is true. The disc doesn’t even sport a trailer. If it did have special features, I don’t think I could have invested any more of my time to review them for you anyway. Yes, this film is that bad.
When Russo and Romero went their separate ways, Romero took every promising aspect of his work on NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and built on it. His career is a testament to his personal vision as a filmmaker. Russo took John Amplas and didn’t do anything interesting with him. Romero and the rest of the NIGHT crew can say what they want, but I’m putting my money on a single visionary behind that classic film. And his first name isn’t John.