For too much of its too-long opening section, Midnight Movie seems like it’s going to be the longest act of self-congratulation to be foisted on readers in years. The main character of the novel’s first third is none other than author Tobe Hooper, the acclaimed horror director behind Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Poltergeist, among other films. Though there’s a sly undercurrent of sardonic humor to Hooper’s tales of his own exploits, it’s still a bit silly to read page after page about how awesome he is, told in his voice and multiple others, including that of a star-struck film critic.
But the book settles down in its middle third and becomes something much more visceral and fascinating, as Hooper and co-writer Alan Goldsher ditch the Hooper character (he mostly works on a script as the nation turns to shit) and deal with the idea of a zombie apocalypse erupting so slowly that most Americans don’t even realize it’s come until it’s fully erupted around them. The book’s central device—a long-lost Hooper film unlocks something in people that causes them to become zombie slaves to their most perverse appetites—is a little too goofy, even for a cheeky horror comedy, but this middle section, which includes several characters blogging or writing journals about gradually becoming zombies, is solid stuff.
It’s too bad, then, that Hooper and Goldsher waste all that momentum on a conclusion that veers wildly in a new direction and relies too heavily on characters the book didn’t bother to introduce previously. The central idea—involving a kind of “getting the band back together before the world ends” storyline—might have been a great spine for a full novel, but it’s too flimsy to hang an abbreviated third act on. Plus, Hooper returns to the center of the story, and the book weakens as a result.
And yet Midnight Movie reads amazingly quickly all the same, and it makes surprisingly good use of the World War Z gambit of telling a story via a variety of sources. It doesn’t just rely on interviews with principal cast members: The authors of the book within the book also scour the Internet for primary sources, and reproduce fake articles from Rolling Stone and other periodicals. Hooper and Goldsher are rarely able to vary their authorial voice enough to make this convincing—the Rolling Stone article in particular sounds like nothing any major magazine would publish, ever—but the fact that something new is always just around the corner keeps things rolling along propulsively for most of the book’s length. And that might have been enough, honestly, if not for that ending. There are two good horror novels and a weird experimental one inside Midnight Movie, but the three don’t mesh together at all.