The Night Shift (2011)


What independent film does so well is the singular presentation of unbridled imagination and ingenuity. Uninhibited by preponderance mandate and for-the-majority edicts, indie filmmakers can let their innovative stories shine. Sure there is a lack of budget, sometimes wooded acting and the technical work can swing in wild directions within the confines of a single film often diluting the intended scope. Yet indie fans know this and are quite willing to cull the gems from something presented with passion and heart. Thomas Smith’s THE NIGHT SHIFT is one of these special films with a great concept and a love of fun accessible entertainment.

Rue, Claire and Herb face off against Zombie in The Night Shift.

Rue (Khristian Fulmer) & Claire (Erin Lilley) are confronted by a resident.

Smith’s core concept with The Night Shift is pure gold – an undead night watchman Rue Morgan (Khristian Fulmer) must look over a graveyard of “residents” (read zombies, demons and their like) to ensure they all stay within the gated walls. Smith sets up this concept quickly in the opening scene; a girl walking at night stumbles upon the graveyard just as a ball rolls out from inside. Curious she wanders in only to bump into Curly (Jordan Woodall) a resident zombie who just wants to get his ball back. Faced with an undead the girl quickly runs away, but not before dropping the ball to which Curly quaintly grunts a thank you for and returns to his game among the other residents. Though the girl is quite stilted and unconvincing, much like the numerous extras playing the students or kids who wander into the graveyard at night, the setup is great especially when following Curly through the grounds. Here Smith layers his universe with a collection of fun archetypes and Romero-inspired characters (including a baseball player with a ball imbedded in his left eye). It’s all meant to be fun of course, so each of the characters are approachable and designed in a way to play up the cheese factor, including the use of green and blue colouring, something any modern zombie aficionado will know isn’t how corpses decompose.  There is little in the way of gore or blood in the design of the undead, and honestly you never miss it. It’s a great campy premise on which to build a rich and textured world.

When introduced to Morgan he’s in banter with his skeletal sidekick Herb (voiced by Soren Odom) who accompanies him on his rounds each night between games of cards and checkers. The interplay between Morgan and Herb is one of the best things about the film and the most realized of the relationships. With Herb cracking wise and Morgan playing the straight man for the most part, it’s classic Laurel and Hardy interplay and gives the film an immediate nostalgia for those bygone days of cinema. Truly most of the film plays like it’s lost in another time with references to antiquated technologies and the dress of the modern characters (as everyone in the graveyard wears what they were buried in). The core of Smith’s story revolves around the dynamic between Morgan’s romantic interest Claire Rennfield (Erin Lilley) who is his very mortal boss and conduit to his employers Management, his nemesis Roderick Blake (Jonathan Pruitt) a revolution-era southerner, and the tenuous nature of his position as night watchman brought about by his blundering tendencies. Blake covets Morgan’s job and uses his sad-sack interest in Rennfield to manipulate him into constantly making a fool out of himself.

Rue Morgan (Khristian Fulmer) just wants to be loved.

Yet there is more afoot at the cemetery as Morgan soon discovers with a series of supernatural events. He’s forced to contend with an Adramelech (read: nasty demon) with a affinity for western garb, a corpse-turned-werewolf who’s noshing on pedestrians, and a hostile takeover from a rival cemetery Weeping Willows who want the grounds for reasons unknown. In creation and execution the key adversaries had a definite inspiration from the quirky films of Don Coscarelli (Phantasm, Bubba Ho-Tep) who also knew well the power of having tongue firmly planted in cheek when working with a low budget. If Coscarelli couldn’t afford the best costume in the world, he’d make the most fun and entertain you that way. This wisely skews a liability into an asset, something Smith does deftly throughout the film.

Claire battles a werewolf in The Night Shift (2011)

Claire (Erin Lilley) fights off the advances of a real dog.

That being said there are a number of things that prevent the film from rising to its full potential, namely the pacing and running time. At just over two hours in length, the film takes far too long to play out its story. This isn’t due to the script per se, but more the pacing of the dialogue scenes, which are drawn out. What Smith needed here was to play up the nostalgic elements he’d already imbued his leads with. Having the exposition heavy dialogue rattled off rapid fire as in the classic films of the 40’s and 50’s, such as His Girl Friday (1940), or Scared Stiff (1953), would have added a needed dynamic between Morgan and Rennfield and certainly would have cut the running time down considerably. There’s also a few technical problems throughout the film: the sound is a grab-bag with dialogue heard for the most part but buried under the music from time to time; the picture quality also varies, suffering from heavy post filtering which ultimately blurs the image here and there; and there are some blatantly obvious gaffes that happen which tore me right out of the movie due to how obvious they were. Finally there is the way Smith chooses to handle his ending; he sets up and foreshadows a very clear cut and, if it had been allowed to play out that way, quite satisfyingly sweet ending but instead abandons it in the eleventh hours to deliver something quite mediocre given the logic and nature of everything he’s worked to establish in his world.

Rue Morgan (Khristian Fulmer) in The Night Shift (2011)

Rue Morgan (Khristian Fulmer) shows em' who they're messing with.

Yet given these flaws the film is still quite fun and engaging. Smith is self aware enough to both parody his material and allow the characters to comment on such. This is most evident during a great moment in the climax where Morgan and Blake send their entourages out to fight each other and are both underwhelmed with the sluggish grunting results. Morgan voices his shock to which his boon companion Herb exclaims: “Well what did you expect from a bunch of dead guys?” Smith’s influences are quite obvious throughout, from Romero to Coscarelli and the last great Italian zombie film Dellamorte Dellamore (1994), but here he does what all great next-generation filmmakers do by distilling them down into something uniquely his own.

Ultimately The Night Shift is a fun and engaging Sunday afternoon diversion that is more than suitable for family viewing. It’s sweet 80’s fare with a sly nod to the absurd, nostalgic heart and ample breadth of imagination.

-Vance Garrett

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Official poster art for The Night Shift (2011)

Poster for The Night Shift (2011)