Midnight (1982) Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: September 28, 2021
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 Stereo
Run Time: 93:56
Director: John A. Russo
Fleeing her pervy alcoholic stepfather (Lawrence Tierney), a hitchhiking teen named Nancy (Melanie Verlin) is abducted by a family of crazed homicidal rednecks for an ordeal of graphic butchery, shag carpet, and devil worship. (From Severin’s official synopsis)
John A. Russo has spent his entire film career as a footnote: co-writer of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). No matter what he achieved, he continued walking around with a little asterisk next to his name and never really made it out from under his friend George’s substantial shadow. Eventually, he embraced the footnote, beginning with story work on Dan O’Bannon’s sublime Return of the Living Dead (1985, based very loosely on Russo’s 1977 book) and culminating in him writing and directing the Night of the Living Dead: 30th Anniversary Edition in 1999 – an event so disastrous that it sullied the names of everyone involved. But time has been exceedingly kind to Romero’s career, even to many films that were initially considered flops and failures (the less said about Bruiser , the better…), so perhaps it’s time to reevaluate Russo’s work, too. And maybe we need to stop comparing him to one of the greatest independent writer/directors to ever work in the horror genre and approach him as a novelist who sometimes dabbled in exploitation movies. Following The Booby Hatch (1976), a sex comedy that he co-directed with fellow Night of the Living Dead alum Rudy Ricci, Russo made his solo directorial debut with a microbudget, rural horror/pseudo slasher called Midnight (aka: Backwoods Massacre, 1982).
Midnight is essentially designed as Pittsburgh's answer to Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and all the other southern-fried and Appalachian-themed hicksploitation movies that followed. The charm here is in Russo and company’s dated attempts to enter the slasher canon without really understanding how the new tradition worked and slathering it in a fresh coat of 1980’s Satanic Panic paint. A lot of the subject matter is disturbing on its face, but it’s hard to imagine that the intended teen audience found Midnight truly shocking in 1982, given Russo’s antiquated, overly wordy dialogue or the overriding community theater weekend project vibe. I would say that it has a more professional sheen than a lot of backwoods body-count horror, but I fear that my personal barometer has been broken by impossibly amateur productions, like James Bryan’s Don’t Go in the Woods...Alone (1981) and Jon McBride & Tom Fisher’s Cannibal Campout (1988).
Russo borrows so liberally from Hooper & Kim Henkel’s screenplay that it seems like his script (and, I assume, book) was a Chain Saw Massacre-themed Mad Lib, but he does manage to strike upon some unique tangents, specifically that the local police are replaced by members of the family cult (the ones that aren’t portrayed as rapist step-dads) – an idea that, likely by coincidence, was revisited by Marcus Nispel’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake in 2003. He tries to challenge expectations in the third act by killing off major characters à la Psycho and re-introducing the Satanic stuff hinted at in the opening scene, but, even as the exploitation elements start to kick off and the gore gets juicy, the pacing remains pretty sluggish. Like a lot of Russo’s movies, Midnight was made with participation from a number of Romero regulars and Image Ten associates, including actors Melanie Verlin, Greg Besnak (who also worked on special effects), Doug Mertz, John Rice, and Martin himself, John Amplas. The Crazies (1973) co-writer Paul McCollough did double-duty as cinematographer and editor, and the special effects that weren’t done by Besnak or Season of the Witch (1972) actor Raymond Laine, were handled by the one and only Tom Savini. It was also technically a Video Nasty in the UK, following the passage of the Video Recordings Act of 1984. It was not included on the Section 1 list of prosecuted films or even the Section 2 list, so owners wouldn’t be thrown in jail for owning it, but authorities could still seize and destroy copies when they found it.
As mentioned, Midnight was pseudo-banned in the UK for a while (Vipco eventually put out a censored tape), but was easy to find on stateside VHS from Trimark subsidiary Vidmark. It was released on DVD twice, once by Lionsgate in the US and once by Arrow in the UK, but neither boasted an impressive transfer (one is interlaced and the other is an NTSC-to-PAL conversion). Severin’s Blu-ray transfer was taken from a 4K scan of the original, uncut/uncensored film negative (Mondo Digital claims that this version is about 10 seconds longer than previous releases) and is presented in 1080p and 1.66:1. Both DVDs were 1.33:1 and imdb.com lists 1.37:1 as the OAR, but the 1.66:1 framing doesn’t look too tight to me. Overall, the only thing holding this transfer back is the fact that McCollough and Russo didn’t have the time or money to make it look better. Details are clean without appearing oversharpened, grain texture is fine and naturalistic, and black levels are velvety and deep. McCollough tries to up the production values with vivid lighting that boosts the color palette to include purples, pinks, blues, and plenty of bloody reds. The transfer’s color quality amplifies the difference between these more stylized sequences and the subdued exterior scenes.
Midnight is presented in its original stereo and a new 5.1 remix, both in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio. The remix has obvious advantages in terms of centering dialogue and incidental effects, but I prefer the original track for its more even volume levels. Either way, the original tracks are inconsistent, because the lack of budget made it difficult to record usable dialogue during exterior sequences. The dips in volume and clarity don’t seem to be Severin’s fault, especially since the inconsistencies more or less match between the 2.0 and 5.1 tracks. Composer Mike Mazzei is credited as sound engineer for music that was “created[,] produced[,] and recorded at The Sound Castle,” while other themes are credited to One Man’s Family and T.E.F. & L. Mazzei, and McCollough sound effects additions are not credited at all (a full description of the soundtrack’s creation is available as part of the alternate score/interview track – see below). The pop songs sound the best and help cover the lack of production sound during a number of sequences.
Isolated score selections featuring a 2021 audio interview with composer Mike Mazzei and actor John Hall – This interview/score track is hosted by Red Shirt Pictures' Michael Felsher and is presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. It lasts for the first 87 minutes of the film. Mazzei answers questions that Felsher had emailed him, discussing his family’s Christian-based group’s participation with the project, and the film’s complicated scoring process. The music sounds fantastic in uncompressed audio and sounds better without awkward editing heard in the actual film. Felsher directly interviews Hall, who boisterously recalls acting on stage and film, working with the Image Ten/New American Films team, and making Midnight.
Making Midnight (22:44, HD) – Writer/director John Russo chats about creating New American Films, developing/producing Midnight on a minuscule budget, casting, MPAA rating issues (he didn’t end up trimming anything), and making the investment back via video distribution.
Producing Midnight (10:25, HD) – Producer Samuel M. Sherman discusses his and his company’s participation in making and distributing the film.
The Midnight Killer (10:37, HD) – Actor John Amplas breaks down his history with the Image Ten people and the group effort behind Midnight, admits to being wasted and sleep-deprived during one of his scenes, and has nice things to say about the rest of the cast.
Small Favors (8:35, HD) – Make-up effects superstar Tom Savini recalls being incredibly busy making slashers and horror movies in the early ‘80s, doing Midnight as a favor to Russo without reading a script, and recycling props/appliances to save time.
Alternate The Backwoods Massacre title card
The Backwoods Massacre radio spot
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.