Made on a minuscule budget and featuring no-name local Pittsburgh actors George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead became a huge worldwide success, essentially invented the modern zombie craze, influenced countless horror films, and is now in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. Not wanting to be pigeonholed as just a horror/zombie director, Romero branched out making a variety of films before returning to the zombie well in 1978 with Dawn of the Dead. Three of those films (There’s Always Vanilla, Season of the Witch, and The Crazies) are included in a new boxed set from Arrow Video (a fourth film, Martin, was also made during this period but is not included in this set).
These films range from the really quite good to the really rather dreadful which you can chart from bad to best in chronological order. Despite Night of the Living Dead’s success, Romero’s subsequent films were still very low-budget affairs and you can see him still experimenting, still trying to find his voice.
There’s Always Vanilla
George A. Romero makes a romantic comedy. It’s as bad as you think, probably even worse. Made two years after Night, it's the first of only two films directed by Romero that he didn’t write (the other, Creepshow, was written by Stephen King). It started out as a short 30-minute film that was designed to showcase Raymond Laine as an actor. When they decided to make it a full-length feature, writer Rudolph J. Ricci had trouble filling it out and they wound up adding in several scenes in which Lane looks directly at the camera and talks about what’s just happened on screen.
Laine plays Chris Bradley, a former soldier turned bohemian who is drifting through life. His father wants him to come back home and work at his factory, but Chris feels that’s too boring and normal. In one of the film’s best bits, the father tries to convince Chris he’s hip by repeatedly saying he can still “cut the mustard” and then proves how square he really is when he tries to figure out how much to pay the go-go dancer he’s just slept with because he assumes she must be a prostitute.
Later, Chris meets Lynn (Judith Ridley), a model and aspiring actress. They move in together but she struggles to get him to put his life together and eventually leaves him as he has no purpose in his life. Chris eventually settles for a “vanilla” life (the title comes from his father’s explanation that while the ice-cream shops have many exotic flavors sometimes you simply want good, old-fashioned vanilla). The film drifts just like Chris’s life - listlessly and without purpose. There’s a few good jokes and a couple of interestingly edited montages, but for the most part, There’s Always Vanilla is a slog. Romero himself pretty much disowned it and says as much in an interview included with the film.
Season of the Witch
Originally titled Jack’s Wife but changed to Hungry Wives by the distributor on its initial release (it was also edited and pitched as a softcore porn - though there only enough skin to make that a really short film), they switched the title to Season of the Witch on re-release when they gained the rights to the popular Donovan song of the same name.
It stars Jan White as a bored middle-class housewife whose husband ignores her and whose teenage daughter no longer needs her. When she learns a neighbor is the leader of a witch’s coven, she takes up the craft more out of something to do than any real interest in the occult. Soon after, she begins having an affair with a younger man and having nightmares about an intruder breaking into her house and committing violence against her. It takes up certain feminist ideals fairly well - mainly women need more in their life than housework - and the dream sequences have a real horrific nightmarish quality to them, but the long passages between them are not in the least bit interesting.
Unsurprisingly, the best film of the batch finds Romero returning to horror. Just outside a small New England town, a military plane crashes releasing a deadly virus into the water supply. Over the course of one evening, many of the townsfolk start acting bizarrely, some of them turning violent. A military convoy arrives, quarantines the town, and tries to get everybody that lives within a certain zone into the local school.
Meanwhile, two local fireman who fought in Vietnam together, along with girlfriend Judy and another man and his infected daughter try desperately to understand what is happening and escape the increasingly erratic and violent military men.
There are some familiar beats from Night of the Living Dead with a mysterious virus causing locals to behave in a bizarre manner and a small band of disparate folks arguing over what to do next. But whereas Night becomes increasingly claustrophobic, staying with a small group of people in a very small space, The Crazies opens up. It follows both a group of regular townsfolk as they wander across the countryside and the military men as they try to contain the infected and find a cure. Opening it up allows for a more diverse bit of storytelling and for Romero to follow his themes in a more robust way.
Much like Night (and most of Romero’s filmography), The Crazies is a horror movie with a message. It is telling that two of our protagonists are Vietnam veterans and even more so that when one of them starts to act a little crazy, it's hard to tell if its cause is the virus or post traumatic stress brought on by the war-like conditions going on around him.
Romero's negative feelings towards the military are ever present. Though they expected the virus might infect the town and had days to prepare, they are nowhere near ready to handle the crisis once it begins. They are understaffed and undersupplied. The two men who seem to have some semblance of a clue are often thwarted by unnecessary red tape and incompetence. The soldiers are gun happy and wind up killing a large chunk of the populace before they can get them quarantined.
The Crazies is good. Not good in a low-budget horror movie kind of way, but an honest-to-god actual good film. Romero’s hand as a director has grown more steady, his vision more clear. The small budget certainly shows in places but the story is tightly scripted, the acting is solid, and the editing keeps the film moving at a steady pace. It's got some genuine chills and he keeps the tension steadily on the rise.
Audio and Video quality on these three films unsurprisingly vary greatly. Again the quality can be charted chronologically. There’s Always Vanilla is the worst of the lot with large amounts of grain, numerous instances of print damage, and some horrible blotchiness in the darker scenes. In its liner notes, Arrow admits as much, noting that the Kodak film stock used on this film is known to deteriorate pretty quickly so the fact that they cleaned it up this much is pretty remarkable.
Both Season of the Witch and The Crazies look quite good with the general caveat of age and budget placed upon them. I didn’t notice any real damage on either film and the colors and blacks all looked good.
As per usual, the extras on this Arrow Video release are robust, with, once again, There’s Always Vanilla getting the shorter end of that stick. Each film gets an audio commentary from Travis Crawford. In addition, there are vintage and new interviews with cast, crew, and Romero himself. Plus various features on the films, image galleries, and deleted scenes. It also comes with a large book full of photos and essays. I was not given access to this with my review copy.
George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn is a bit of a mixed bag. There’s Always Vanilla is a pretty terrible film and while Season of the Witch approves upon it greatly, it's still a pretty tough slog to get through. The Crazies on the other hand is classic Romero and makes this set well worth it on its own. For fans, the other two films are well worth watching to see the growth of an iconic horror filmmaker still figuring out what he wants to be.