Midnight Madness (1980) – A Review
For centuries man has improved and perfected countless varieties of games. But there has not been a major breakthrough – until tonight.
You have been invited to participate in this glorious event.”
It’s a competition of epic proportions. Five diverse college students are given the special challenge to participate in ‘The Great All-Nighter’, a city-wide game created by a game-obsessed geek.
Each must lead a team to find a series of clues hidden around Los Angeles, attempt to solve them, whereupon the answer will reveal the next location they must get to, until ultimately making it to the finish line first and being crowned the winning team!
Sunset arrives and the five teams gather to start the game – The White Team (The nerds), The Red Team (the sorority girls), The Green Team (the football players) The Yellow Team (led by the fair playing Adam played by David Naughton) and the villainous Blue Team led by spoiled rich overeater Stephen Furst, who is willing to cheat every chance he can to ensure a victory.
This Midnight Madness adventure will have you asking so many questions:
Can you really watch girls undress from the Griffith Observatory? Doesn’t that Star Fire video game vaguely resemble a Star Wars one? Can a retainer really be used to fix an elevator? How did game master Leon manage to get two unbelievably hot chicks to hang out with him all the time and work at Game Control? Was it from that ‘confidence’ thing Adam keeps talking about?
Could a computer from 1980 really crack Leon’s intricate clues? Is Michael J. Fox really that embarrassed that this was his first film appearance? Did this game really take a year to be planned out with a vital clue being a stacked waitress??? Is this really a Disney film? Did this cult film really inspire real life all-nighter games across the country? And what does ‘Faga Beefe’ mean?
And of course the biggest question of all – who out of primary color sweater-wearing cast will win the Great All-Nighter??? You’ll be on the edge of your seat to find out!
At least plenty of kids were when they watched this multiple times on cable back in the early 80’s.
Midnight Madness is something of an oddity by the Mouse House. By the 1970’s Disney was was on a downward slope. Their animated films were becoming costly to make and weren’t being beloved hits and their live-action films had become viewed as juvenile, antiquated junk.
Feeling the need to do something radical, Disney decided to dip its foot into the more adult arena and shake off their kid friendly image. By adult we’re talking about PG-rated movies! The results ended up being just as disappointing as everything else they were doing during this period.
Disney would find much more success a few years later with their Touchstone Pictures label that featured much more adult-oriented offerings starting in 1984 with the smash hit Splash. That was the start of a streak of several hit grown-up hit movies with stars like Bette Midler and Richard Dreyfuss who enjoyed a bump in popularity during the rest of the decade thanks to their films with Touchstone.
But we’re talking about 1980 and Mickey had just ventured into PG-rated territory with The Black Hole in 1979. This was a real big deal at the time. This was not what Uncle Walt would have approved of. Midnight Madness would be the second time Disney would release a PG rated film. It would also be Disney’s first film released in the new decade of the 1980s.
Disney’s first PG-rated experiment would eventually be a bust. The only real impact those early handful of more adult Disney movies left was towards the now grown kids who saw them during the late ’70’s and early ’80’s and fondly remember them thanks in part to the nostalgic mists of time.
Midnight Madness is one of them. Ironically, Disney at the time really downplayed its association with the movie, fearing the sparkly Disney name would put off the potential audience for this madcap, college adventure.
Midnight Madness’ lasting legacy has been helped by its unique story and the repetitive viewing millions of early 80’s kids devoted to it when it became a fixture on the totally awesome new thing known as cable television!
Which is how I decided to include Midnight Madness in my 1980’s-Teen-Sex-Comedy category of movies. It’s got teens in it. It’s a comedy. It was released in 1980. As for the ‘sex’ part’ – well, that’s kind of missing. It’s really quite an innocuous comedy. I think a seven-year-old could watch it and no mental harm would come to him. The most risqué it gets is seeing a woman in a bra and people getting drunk.
Thanks to the growing trend of popular teen comedies, notably Animal House, writers/directors Michael Nankin and David Wechter would combine the genre with the all-star comedy epic It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World – along with the popular fad of scavenger hunts – to create Midnight Madness.
It would be the closest Disney would come to releasing a raunchy teen comedy. It would also infiltrate the memory banks of kids who watched it countless times on cable back in the day and would still remember it decades later.
Within the opening minute you’ll know what time period we’re in. The silly theme song, the roller skates, the clothes – this must be the late 70’s/early 80s! It’s obviously dated in a lot of ways.
One of the few things (very few things) that helps make the movie somewhat timeless are those solid colored sweaters the teams must wear throughout the game play. At least that covers up the more gaudy wardrobe most of the actors probably would have worn if they weren’t forced to don their ‘game playing sweaters’. They couldn’t hide the hairstyles though. Too bad they didn’t have game hats too.
So Game Master Leon invites five college kids to join in the game. Apparently he took great care choosing the contestants, although I’m not sure how they eventually were selected. We don’t get too much insight into all the planning Leon put into making his game. I’m not even sure why he does it. I think the guy just likes to play games. I know he has Connect Four and a dartboard in his apartment.
We meet Freshman counselor Adam (David Naughton) whose go-getting, positive, optimistic attitude has endeared him to students. He also has caught the eye of fellow counselor Laura (Debra Clinger). Rich, spoiled, fat, slob Harold (Stephen Furst), who ends up being forced into the game by his father who has had enough of his sons loafing. Donna (Maggie Roswell) a wannabe popular sorority gal, who just can’t seem to recruit more than four members to her sorority house. Lavitas (Brad Wilkin) a football jock who leads his beer-loving team known as the ‘Meat Machine’ to school victories. And lastly the geeky Wesley played by famed Eddie Deezen, who had a lock on playing nerds throughout much of the late 70’s and early 80’s.
At first, the five dismiss Leon’s game, but quickly they all decide to show up at sunset on Friday night to win the game trophy and get the bragging rights.
That’s another plus in the movie – it doesn’t waste much time getting to the game. The premise is set-up, the characters are introduced, they get quickly established, they all hop into their signature vehicles and are off and running. The Great All-Nighter starts up around twenty minutes in.
Leon’s game has the teams travel to bunch of fun places like an observatory, a hamburger joint, a miniature golf course, a pinball arcade. It’s no wonder 1980’s era kids would dig watching this. It’s like a fun night out on the town!
There’s a lot of cartoony comedy here. The Green Team is mesmerized by the beauty of the Pabsts Blue Ribbon Brewery. The Red Team’s heavy set twins offer up silly sight gags. The White Team are such complete squares you won’t be surprised seeing them traversing the streets on little mopeds.
A lot of laughs come from Furst and his Blue Team. Furst seems as if he’s almost trying to channel his Animal House co-star John Belushi’s performance as Bluto. He’s a complete slob and is stuffing his face in such absurd ways it might make you retch. He is the villain and he makes a good one. It seems like he’s really relishing laughing maniacally, shoving people around, doing anything he can to win the game. He’s much more fun to watch than the friendlier Yellow Team, with Naughton’s little love story and trying to patch up things with his kid brother story.
Packed in Furst’s van is where I think most of the comedy lays in Midnight Madness.
Along with Furst’s arrogant, scheming Harold he’s supported by his pestering girlfriend Lucille, his treacherous friend Milo, who seems more interested in just relishing the night watching Harold get frustrated and ratting him out to Lucille any chance he can get. The large, hilarious buffoon Barf who is so dimwitted with his goofy laugh it’s doubtful he has any idea of what’s going on. And Blade, a silent Mexican comrade who stereotypically carries a switchblade and looks like one mean customer – although he seems way too cool to be hanging out with this lot.
As dopey and silly as the movie is I do find it fun. Admittedly the comedy here is not exactly highbrow. Leon’s game is not that complex or as challenging as I think Leon is boasting. While watching this his declaration of spending ‘a year to design it’ kept making me shake my head. Unscrambling the word ‘Hug Me’? Yeah, ok. The whole excursion to LA Airport wasn’t much of a puzzle either.
The cast ranges the full spectrum. There’s actors that were soon-to-be stars, like Naughton and Fox. Paul Reubens also shows up as the manager of the arcade.
There’s some old school familiar-faced character actors – Marvin Kaplan, John Fielder, Irene Tedrow. You might not know their names, but movie fans will recognize them instantly. Then there’s mostly actors who you’ll see them here – and never again folks.
The biggest name attached to Midnight Madness is indeed Michael J. Fox. He was just an eighteen year old kid playing the bratty younger brother of Naughton. When Disney finally decided to release the movie on dvd – and put their name on it and not tried to hide it – they prominently featured Fox’s face on the dvd cover.
Don’t be fooled. It’s not like he’s a lead and really the whole ‘kid brother’ storyline slows the movie down from the more fun frantic racing around and finding clues.
In corny clichéd fashion, we know Naughton and Fox’s relationship gets fixed when he gives Fox a yellow team sweater to wear. See, that’s symbolic that they’ve forgiven each other and can now move on with a stronger brotherly bond that can never be broken and birthdays will never be forgotten – or something sappy like that.
The other weak part of the movie is the ‘love story’ between Naughton and fellow Yellow Team member Laura played by Debra Clinger. She’s one of the ‘I have never seen again actors’ in this. That whole subplot is very hammy. Naughton has to summon up enough confidence to pull the trigger with kissing her kind of thing, even though she obviously digs him from the get-go. The movie does that real hokey thing with sweet music coming up when they stare at each other. It’s pretty eye-rolling.
You won’t remember any of that stuff, but the game stuff will stick in your head. It always has to me since watching it back in the day. No it’s not a great movie. There’s not a lot of sophisticated humor happening here. It was a perfect comedy for kids in 1980 – that’s probably why it’s so well remembered by them. You know, foggy nostalgic glasses can make you much more forgiving.
An audience today might be shaking their heads at this. Although I showed it to my nephews who are seven and nine and they loved it. They weren’t thrown by the incredibly dated theme song or any of the stuff that screamed ‘cheesy 80’s!’.
The whole game story looked like such a cool thing to do. Heck, it still looks like it would be fun to do today! In fact, real life versions of Leon’s Great All-Nighter began thanks in large part to devoted fans of Midnight Madness.
Disney probably would have preferred Midnight Madness to have been a popular hit movie that made them some money, rather than disappearing from theaters, getting constant rotation on cable and inspiring real life versions of the movie game decades later. But being a small goofy cult movie is something of an accomplishment. It’s much more remembered than a lot of other teen comedies from back then.
No word on any kind of upcoming remake of Midnight Madness. I wouldn’t mind it. Hey, Disney remade Pete’s Dragon, maybe it’s time Midnight Madness is re-introduced into this century!
This is not a trailer, just a scene. It’s the setup scene of Leon’s invitation to the five team captains.
Here’s a short commercial for the film that was broadcast on television