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Aisle Seat '80s DVD Flashback Part I


A Cult Classic Finds Its Way Back Into Circulation

By Andy Dursin

It seems as if a lot of people -- not just nostalgic young adults -- are "flashing back to the '80s" these days. The bubbly pop music of the decade seems to be everywhere; Nick at Nite has revamped their prime-time line-up to include "The Facts of Life" and "Diffr'nt Strokes"; and DVD, not to be left out of the loop, has seen its own succession of '80s flicks arrive in the format.

One of these is a title beloved by many, though seen by few in its day. A movie that welcomed talents as diverse as Michael J. Fox and Paul "Pee-Wee" Reubens in their big-screen debuts. A comedy so manic, and so unlike its studio's previous pictures, that the company opted to take their name OFF all of the film's credits and advertising. A picture that has become a cult classic for its fast pace, cliched and yet heartwarming script, and loopy comedy -- and we're talking both intended and unintentional laughs here.

The movie, of course, is MIDNIGHT MADNESS (***, $14.98), the 1980 PG-rated Disney college comedy, which Anchor Bay has dusted off on DVD in a no-frills edition that nevertheless will be worth every penny for its fans when it's released on May 15.

The plot, as concocted by screenwriters Michael Nankin and David Wechter, is simple: game mastermind Leon has created a scavenger hunt through the streets of Los Angeles for a motley assortment of college students. We have the "good guys," including David Naughton (singer of the hit single "Makin' It," star of Dr. Pepper ads, and future lead of "An American Werewolf in London") and Debra "Don't Call Me Winger" Clinger; the "nerds," lead by none other than our favorite "1941" co-star, Eddie Deezen; the moronic slobs, top-lined appropriately by "Animal House" alum Stephen Furst; and, of course, two respective teams comprised of beer-guzzling jocks and wacky fraternity sisters.

Leon's game is a tough nut to crack. With only a handful of clues, the teams venture out into the night, where each respective group succumbs to their own failings and temptations. From discos to arcades, the teams stumble through each and every clue on the way to claim their big, unbelievable, priceless prize -- Leon's trophy and, this being a Disney film, the respect and admiration from all their peers.

MIDNIGHT MADNESS was not a box-office hit. Released in February, 1980, the movie marked Disney's second excursion into PG territory (following on the heels of "The Black Hole" by just a few weeks), but was a first for the studio in that they removed their brand name completely from the movie credits and print advertising, all hoping to draw a wider audience outside of the typical family crowd.

Perhaps no film, then, produced during former Disney boss Ron Miller's tenure epitomized Disney's identity crisis in the early '80s as much as MIDNIGHT MADNESS. Think of "Animal House" meets "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" by way of a wholesome Disney live-action comedy, and you could have some idea how completely crazy this movie is. One minute the picture gets laughs out of references to women's breasts, then turns into a sermon on (literally) loving your brother, such as when Naughton decides to forgo the game's prize in order to embrace his angst-ridden younger sibling, played by Michael J. Fox in his film debut. See, that's what happens when you forget your brother's birthday!

However, truth be told, this is a far better comedy than the "BOMB" rating the movie undeservedly receives in Leonard Maltin's guide (did someone even watch it?). It's tough to pull off a 112-minute comedy that moves as fast as MIDNIGHT MADNESS does, and the pure wackiness of the film (it seems as if everybody had a great time making it) prove to be infectious.

After all, who makes movies like this anymore? Certainly not in the realm of pre-fab teen pictures, whose soundtracks are filled with nonstop pop songs (MIDNIGHT MADNESS boasts a quirky, enjoyable orchestral soundtrack by Julius Wechter, with a Donna Fein theme song that's pure disco bliss), and not in today's comedy genre, which barely exists anymore. I'm not going to compare MIDNIGHT MADNESS to the work of the Zucker brothers, or say this film is a comedy classic, but the whole idea of this movie -- a wacky ride whose only goal is to entertain -- is something that nobody really attempts these days.

The Southern California locales will likely provide a nostalgic blast for local residents, but for anyone who grew up in the '80s and was exposed (via HBO or video tape) to the movie, the entire picture will as well -- carefree discos, penny arcades, drive-in fast food establishments, the excitement of marshmallows as a viable snack food option, and the days when a computer could answer any question you wanted it to by simply typing in a sentence.

And how about that cast! True, most of these folks haven't worked since this movie came out (Debra Clinger's credits disappear completely after 1980, and Alan Solomon, as Leon himself, has only three film credits to his name), but not only do you get Pee-Wee and Michael J. in their respective big-screen bows, but also an abundance of supporting players easily recognizable from the media era of the day -- folks like the old woman from the "Fruit of the Loom" commercials, character actor John Fiedler, comedian Charlie Brill (a staple on the godawful, but compulsively watchable, Bert Convy game show "Tattletales"), an early appearance by John Volstad (one of the "Daryl" brothers on "Newhart"), not to mention a truly award- worthy performance by Andy Tennant, future auteur director of "Ever After" and "Anna and the King," as one of Furst's goons! The Internet Movie Database even lists Scott Bakula as an extra in the disco sequence (you'll have to use your remote for still-frame verification).

Like many of Disney's "cast off" live-action films the studio has sub-licensed to Anchor Bay in the past, the DVD has no special features to speak of. The transfer is full-frame, but judging from the film's window- boxed opening credits, it certainly seems as if this flick was shot in the 1.33 TV aspect ratio anyhow. The print has some speckles, but looks surprisingly good, given that the movie has been out-of-circulation for the better part of the last 15 years. (The old, discontinued VHS release was a prized possession for many a fan throughout much of the '90s). And for $15 retail, you'll be able to find this DVD for just over $10 in many locales when it's released in mid-May.

MIDNIGHT MADNESS didn't immediately establish itself as a fan favorite. But the passage of time, as we know, can do funny things to movies. I fondly recall my good friend Ryan Ahern, back in fifth grade, telling me how we had to watch the video -- something I vehemently resisted until I, too, discovered the madcap madness of this film. Seeing that the movie rarely plays on television and was unavailable for many years, this DVD will be the first chance many folks will be able to screen MIDNIGHT MADNESS. It's been a long time coming, but I'm sure Leon at Game Control would approve!


From Steve Lehti:

Hi Andy. Just wanted to tell you how pleased I was to read your approving comments on Timothy Dalton and his first entry as 007. I get so tired of hearing Dalton and his two Bond movies (which, along with OHMSS, rank for me among the top 5 of the whole series) constantly trashed in the media. A lot of these writers are unperceptive hacks who follow the herd mentality (i.e., Dalton's films didn't make as much money, which means they can't be good films, and Dalton was a failure as Bond). I'm glad that you're not one of them. I've always enjoyed your columns for FSM. Keep em coming!

Thanks Steve!

From Eric Aron:

Has Midnight Madness been released? If there is any reason to buy a DVD player, this is it. It's dumb 1980s comedy at its best. Great cameo by Pee Wee "Paul Reubens" Herman. Any word yet on Top Secret? Why was Cooperstown so disappointing?

I'll say this about Cooperstown: it was cold! Of course, early April doesn't mean spring in the northeast, so 38 degrees and pouring rain didn't help any. To be honest, I like baseball just fine -- but any museum whose claim to fame is three levels of text and photographs, plus a few balls and bats in cages, doesn't cut it for me. Where were the interactive exhibits? A display showing the greatest moments in baseball history? After hearing about Cooperstown for years, I was utterly disappointed with a museum that was scholarly but not easily accessible. At least the Basketball Hall of Fame had a better idea of capturing one's imagination.

TOP SECRET! is something I'd love to see on DVD. For me, it's the Zucker Brothers' funniest effort from start to end. Hopefully Paramount will hear our plea and release this in the near future.

From E.P. Paddon:

Peter Staddon of Fox Video addressed the problem of the missing Exit Music from the DVD in the Home Theater Forum. Here's what he said and he does plan on having it fixed: "The DVD was prepared with all the music intact, North's music is an integral part of the production. The screw up happened at the authoring and QC houses. As Jeff Ulmer pointed out not everyone is as familiar with this film as you are and the exit music was left out of the finished disc.Now what are we going to do about it? Well first we are not going to recall the discs that are out there in the marketplace, they are already in the hands of our customers and we cannot pull them back at this stage.This is what we are going to do. Firstly the disc will be re authored to include the exit music, and the production master will be changed before any more discs are made. Secondly, we will be providing replacement discs via our customer service department for consumers who wish to get a replacement disc."

Thanks! If anyone has any information on the replacement discs, be sure to send us an email.

From Luthar D.:

It's funny that American audiences seem to enjoy ENEMY AT THE GATES much more than Europeans. On its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival the critics almost unanimously slaughtered Enemy at the Gates and I can see why. It's a no-brainer that reduces the probably most gruesome battle in the history of mankind to a sappy western duel.

From David Lichty:

Hi Andy. I've just noticed Mark Bagby's letter about Goldsmith's opinions on films he's scored. A friend and I were fortunate enough to speak with him a few times in Detroit last summer after his performances with the Detroit Symphony. While not necessarily in "public", he was nicely candid with us about his thoughts on some of the movies he's scored. He told us that two of his personal favorites were Hoosiers and Rudy. He was unequivocal about those two, clearly he loved the movies. He also mentioned that he thought Capricorn One was the best movie Peter Hyams ever made. On the downside when my friend mentioned Damnation Alley, he winced and said, "Oh! That was terrible. A tv movie."

Oh yes, he also confirmed my friend's suspicion that he was indeed quoting, or at least "referencing" Ilea's Theme in the middle of the Star Trek: Voyager theme.

From Ron Pulliam:

Cue up "The Mirror Crack'd" and pay close attention to the main title music. Then listen to John Barry's main title to "Body Heat." I'd like to know what you think!

John Barry imitating John Cameron? Check it out for yourselves!

TOMORROW: The '80s resurgence continues as we look at MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER, and Paul Verhoeven's Dutch films on DVD! Direct all comments to and we'll catch you then. Excelsior!

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