It is certainly a modest genre film (as action-thrillers are often dismissively labelled), but it is far from being the "dull and soporific" work that David Stratton finds "typical of the early 80s". (1) Watched today with a generous spirit, Midnite Spares seems like a homage to a phantom, subterranean body of Australian exploitation movies.
With its cagey cross-breeding of different genres, its veritable gallery of flamboyant character actors (including Tony Barry, Max Cullen, David Argue and Bruce Spence), its proudly parochial touches of suburban realism, and its spectacularly brutal car-smash set-pieces, the film sets in motion an always lively mix of elements, at moments anticipating the texture of far more highly regarded later films like Nirvana Street Murder (1991) and Death In Brunswick (1991).
In its story of a rugged blond hero (James Laurie as Steve) pushed over the edge into a mission to avenge his dead father, Midnite Spares is clearly in the wake of the first two Mad Max films (1979 & 1981). More broadly, it reworks many elements from a rich cross-genre in Australian cinema: the car movie.
From The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) and The FJ Holden (1977) to Dead End Drive-In (1986) and Running On Empty (1982) – to cite only a few – Australian car movies have delved deeply into the collective phantasms of contemporary, urban, industrialised Australia (2). Midnite Spares conjures that fringe world of savage capitalism, a world of spare parts, auto theft and "repo mongrels" both good and evil, that we know well from the car movie – a fantasy world far from any normal structures of law, family and nine-to-five work.
Yet, for all its feverish, melodramatic car-movie imaginings, Midnite Spares also has a line into certain, very interesting social realities. Before the third Mad Max instalment in 1985, this is one of the first genre movies of the '80s to openly and warmly reflect a new, suburban multi-culturalism, with Greek-Australians (among others) joining the Aussie heroes on their final knightly smash-'em-up quest, and old-style white-Australia racists (such as the sleazy entrepreneur played by TV personality Jonathan Coleman) unambiguously denounced throughout.
Even within the core group of main characters, there is an unusual and endearing diversity at work. Midnite Spares (like BMX Bandits, 1983) joins an international 'democratic-populist' trend in genre cinema (including other car movies of the period like Jonathan Demme's Handle With Care  and Joel Schumacher's D.C. Cab ), celebrating the everyday differences between ordinary people.
So, alongside the conventionally 'good looking' hero and heroine (Gia Carides as Ruth), the film makes room for the garrulous immigrant-loner Tomas (Max Cullen), and even semi-retarded, sexually backward hangers-on like Wimpy (Spence) and Rabbit (Argue), who endlessly equate sexual intercourse with working on (or getting run over by) a car. Even the love interest between Steve and Ruth is presented with wonderfully daggy dramatic understatement, and a sense of the makeshift, mobile nature of contemporary relations.
This is a relatively simple and straightforward film, with everything that it offers completely evident on the surface. If, however, a viewer has learnt not to require from populist-exhibitionist cinema the signs of depth and complexity common to another sort of cinema, then she or he is in a good position to appreciate Midnite Spares for the energetic, engaging film that it is.
© Adrian Martin December 1991
1. David Stratton, The Avocado Plantation (London: Macmillan, 1990), p. 276. back