Midnight Madness

Theatrical Release: February 8, 1980 / Running Time: 110 Minutes / Rating: PG

Directors: Michael Nankin, David Wechter

Cast: David Naughton (Adam), Debra Clinger (Laura), Eddie Deezen (Wesley), Brad Wilkin (Lavitas), David Damis (Marvin), Stephen Furst (Harold), Michael J. Fox (Eddie)

Movie: In 1980, Disney was trying to find a new way to connect with audiences with their live-action fare. Past their animal-and-kid films that dominated the '70s, Disney wanted their offerings to stay fresh in the face of changing markets. That explains Midnight Madness, their first release of the 1980s, which definitively and appropriately marks the start of a new generation of live-action films. Essentially, as I've broken down the Live Action films sections, Midnight Madness is the first "Recent Live Action" film, although the film is so firmly implanted in the early '80s that it might very well seem eons ago to young ones.

The world of Midnight Madness is the college scene, one which has very rarely been the primary focus of Disney films. The clever screenplay, co-written by co-directors Michael Nankin and David Wechter, follows five teams, each assigned a color, on a scavenger hunt game of sorts, devised by the quirky, cunning Leon (Alan Solomon). The film can be viewed as a tame Animal House of sorts - that appears to be what Disney was going for. While tame by cinematic standards, this is still kind of raunchy for Disney standards (what with all the talk of "giant melons"), and Midnight Madness was one of the studio's first PG-rated features.

The five teams, of course, each represent a clearly-defined 'clique' among school classes; there are the nerds (White), jocks (Green), sorority sisters (Red), slackers (Blue), and the one we're supposed to root for, the good guys in Yellow. The most recognizable face of the time was Stephen Furst, who essentially reprises his Animal House role as the boorish-but-likable eating machine of the Blue team. David Naughton, whose previous work was in a successful line of TV commercials for "Dr. Pepper", has what could be considered the largest role of the film, as the big shot of the Yellow team. Naughton would follow this up with the starring role of John Landis' cult classic An American Werewolf in London a year later. He is joined by Debra Clinger (not to be confused with Debra Winger), as the moral fiber and voice of reason for Yellow.

In supporting roles are Eddie Deezen as the most prominent nerd (reprising his Grease persona, with which he steals a scene in 1983's WarGames essentially doing the same thing), Paul "Pee Wee Herman" Reubens in a bit part as the owner of the pinball joint, and Disney veteran and the voice of Piglet for 35 years now, John Fiedler. And then there is the young man who is so prominently featured on the cover of Anchor Bay's DVD - Michael J. Fox in his first film role. Fox has a supporting part as Naughton's punk kid brother who's awesome at the arcade.

If the film is sounding overwhelmingly like a product of its time, it is. There is arcades and pinball, rollerskating blondes in tube tops, and just the general good-spirited mischief that so many of the decade's cinematic teen protagonists grappled with. It's not a particularly excellent film, but it is a lot of fun and back in 1980, would have been a lot more fun than it may seem today.

So how did this campus comedy, which hardly made a dent at the box offices, become the cult classic it is today? HBO. In the relatively youthful days of the cable network, Midnight Madness was a staple and repeat viewings were embraced by a variety of young folks. While the product might not have been what Disney hoped for, and they'd never again try their hand at a semi-raunchy university comedy, it did help launch a few careers (though Fox's has been the only one with legs) and supposedly even was the inspiration for the game in David Fincher's The Game. At the very least, Michael J. Fox's unrivaled success in the decade might not have been without this film, and "Family Ties", Back to the Future, and Teen Wolf just wouldn't have been the same. On the other hand, maybe this had little effect on Fox's career - as it seems to have ultimately have had on the rest of the cast.

Nonetheless, it is a quirky, fun-spirited alternative to the traditional live-action Disney film of any age. Certainly, fans of the '80s will enjoy it and those who haven't seen it in a while can wax nostalgic about "FAGABEEFE."

DVD Details

1.33:1 Pan & Scan
Dolby Digital 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: None
Release Date: May 15, 2001
Single-sided, single-layered disc (DVD-5)
Suggested Retail Price: $14.99

Unfortunately, unlike most Anchor Bay DVD releases of Disney films, Midnight Madness is only presented in 1.33:1 pan & scan. Well, actually pan & scan probably isn't entirely accurate, as it mostly looks like mattes would be opened from its 1.85:1 widescreen ratio.

Ratio issue aside, there's no nice way to describe the video quality, because it's simply awful. No doubt about it, this was a low-budget production and one can't expect it to look like Airplane! or Raging Bull. But you'd have to look long and hard to find a movie from the same year that looks as terrible on DVD. The print is filled with a combination of dust, hair, scratches, even the marks to notify a reel change. This is in rather sharp contrast to some of Anchor Bay's other output, which is quite impressive. Presented in the wrong ratio, and just an seriously disappointing transfer, this DVD's video presentation is a letdown in all regards.

The Dolby 2.0 audio track fares slightly better, but volume and clarity is inconsistent. Still, you do get to hear the "Midnight Madness" theme song in all its glory (try getting that out of your head!). A 5.1 remix is uncalled for, but I have no doubts that the film could sound better if more effort was put into remastering. As is, though, it's not as bad as the video.

Not a thing in the way of extras, which isn't surprising considering Anchor Bay was rarely allowed to provide supplements for Disney films under the terms of their agreement. In addition, judging from the quality of this DVD, one can imagine that effort wasn't going to be given to putting together bonus features.

Closing Thoughts: It's a shame that such poor DVD treatment was given to this pleasing film. Midnight Madness is an interesting chapter in the history of live action Disney fare, and it's an unusual production to bear the Disney name. Had this DVD beared Disney's name, rather than Anchor Bay, would it have been any different? I doubt it. No way if Disney were to re-release this, they'd treat it any better and I think it's probably a dream to think that Disney (or MGM for Disney) would reissue this film on the DVD format. If you're a fan of the movie, you'll want to buy this then, in spite of the poor presentation. If you're not, a rental would be encouraged, but it can be found for so cheap (under $6 in certain bargain bins if you're lucky), that it wouldn't make financial sense.

To sum up, I recommend the movie, provided you understand what it is going in and appreciate '80s comedy films (which, let's be honest, are about as good as teen comedy films get). But the DVD is less-than-satisfying. At least it's available on DVD.

Buy Midnight Madness on DVD
New Midnight Madness DVD released by Disney in February 2004

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