JULY 2, 2009
I hate it when someone gets to coast forever based on their involvement with one great movie. John Russo is one such person. Because he co-wrote Night Of The Living Dead (respect), you can’t just flat out dismiss him as worthless like you would any other hack. But let’s put it this way: Without Russo, Romero made Dawn of the Dead, Creepshow, Day of the Dead, and Martin. Without Romero, Russo made NOTLD 30th Anniversary, which is legendarily awful, and Midnight (based on his own novel - anyone read it?), which is less a film than a series of loosely connected scenes that ends when a 90 minute mark is reached as opposed to when all plotlines are wrapped up.
There is nothing in this movie that would lead me to believe that the filmmaker had any grasp on things such as pace, storytelling, character development, dialogue, or scares. For a movie about a cult, there sure is a lot of scenes where our heroine and two would-be heroes are driving around Pennsylvania (they are allegedly going to Florida, but after what seems like at least a full day’s drive they appear to be in the same backwoods PA town). The cult is in the first scene, and they don’t show up again until about an hour into the film, by which time you’ve probably forgotten all about them. Also, top-billed Lawrence Tierney appears to be a different character in every scene. In his first, he’s a drunken lecherous man who tries to rape his stepdaughter, only to be subdued when she lightly taps a conveniently placed alarm clock (on the bed?) against his temple. Then later he’s a conniver, convincing his wife that she came on to him and then ran away. By the end of the movie he’s a full blown hero, going to great lengths to try to save her. Of course, if he was the actual star of the film, this could be construed as an arc as we would see him naturally progress toward this point, but the scenes in which those three things occur are pretty much the entirety of his role.
And the dialogue! Everyone says exactly what is going on. Like early on, when the girl is talking to her friend on the phone. Tierney for some reason rings the doorbell to his own home, so she puts the phone down to open the (unlocked) door for him. When he tries to kiss her, she says “I need to get back to the phone; I put it down to come get the door for you”. Like he fucking cares! Most of the dialogue is of a similar nature, or just completely inane, like when the cult members go out of their way to say the names of the girls that they are holding captive, just so Tierney (hero mode scene) knows he has the right place. Cause, you know, evil cults are just helpful like that.
Oh, and another guy is described as “being real mean when he gets stoned”. Who the hell gets angry when they smoke a joint? It’s the complete opposite reaction one would have! Maybe he should snort some coke, his dick might get bigger.
Also it just looks like crap. The budget (according to Russo in his self-congratulating book “Making Movies”) was under 80,000 dollars, so I can forgive some blemishes, but not the fact that even daytime scenes are often murky. The one saving grace of the film is that Tom Savini did the effects, and this was when he was in his prime (1981), so every attempt should have been made to ensure that the gore shots were filmed properly, but even that’s a wash. Apart from a throat slitting, none of them are memorable and most are so dark you can’t really see them anyway.
The ending has some entertainment value. Not from the storytelling or technical qualities, but from the fact that the rather man-ish looking female lead is dressed in a white shirt, dark pants, and black vest, a la one Han Solo. So when it’s dark, you can understandably think you’re suddenly watching some really shitty deleted scene from New Hope.
Now to be fair, maybe even Russo doesn’t care much for this one. He barely discusses it in his book (The Majorettes gets its fair share though), and when he does it’s mostly to provide examples (i.e. the budget) for something else he’s talking about as he tries to teach you how to be a hack just like him. But it was a completely independent production, made at a time when he already had made a name for himself, so he is not allowed to use the low budget as an excuse for the film’s failure. Besides, the film’s biggest failing is Russo’s muddled script, and, as I’ve said a million times, a good, coherent script is free to write.
One last note on his book, for those of you who may be interested. I can save you the time it takes to read it and sum it up: it’s best to get your name on one good movie, and then use it as a calling card for the next forty years to try to hide the fact that you used up all of your creativity on it. Russo finds a way to mention Night every other page, boasting about how he co-wrote it and played the zombie that gets lit on fire, all the while going into detail of how to cut corners by, for one example, hiring friends and family instead of actual actors or trained crew people. And the book was published in the 80s, so unfortunately it doesn’t contain a chapter on how to bastardize your one good creation by re-editing it with new footage that you shot without the real director’s involvement (or permission, for that matter) 30 years later and rightfully earn the permanent scorn of every horror fan that ever existed. It also won’t tell you how to publish a series of awful comics bearing that film’s name. Maybe he should update it for the hacks of today; I’m sure Mike Feifer would get some use out of it.
What say you?
P.S. Funny sidenote - I saw the box art on Netflix and somehow knew it was a Lionsgate (re)release.