George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn - Limited Edition Review

When George Romero sadly passed away in July of this year, it is fair to say the news left film fans in mourning and specifically horror fiends. Famous for his flesh-eating and satirical Dead trilogy - which would eventually become a six-film anthology by 2009, he was a filmmaker who refused to be pigeon-holed (as the films in this set will attest). Before Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Martin (1978) he completed three other features. It is these  - There's Always Vanilla (1971), Season of the Witch (1972) and The Crazies (1973) which have been lovingly restored and presented in a box set by those wonderful folks at Arrow Films and their Video label.



There's Always Vanilla AKA The Affair was the first film made by the production team behind Night of the Living Dead (1968) and was fraught with problems from the start of its troubled production. It is not so much a film directed by Romero - his style is barely recognisable - than superbly edited making the most of a flimsy plot. The film centres around a love story during the 70s in which sexuality was liberated and countercultural, clearly inspired by Mike Nichol's The Graduate (1968) and Larry Peerce’s Goodbye, Columbus (1969) which had been released a few years before. Chris (Raymond Laine) loves Lynn (Judith Ridley) and she loves him until they don't, she's a commercial actress and he's struggling to find a niche following time served in the army.

The film was carved from a short showreel meant for Laine (a dead-ringer for a young Russell Crowe) and while the crosscutting and juxtapositions are rather heavy-handed, - and the first half feels somewhat aimless and laboured - ...Vanilla's an interesting look at the experimental cinematic mood - it captures an essence of the era. Granted, with some horrendously dated gender labels and stereotypes. There is a hint of the director during the sinister and sleazy abortion scenes in which canted camera angles and filters are employed and an ominous soundtrack plays.

There's Always Vanilla, so named for the lead character's father's analogy for life - the more exotic flavours tend to be discontinued or hard to locate, you see but there's always... well, you get the drift. The pretty metaphor within the ending which we also see at the film's opening brings it full circle and attempts to convey the alleged freedom and liberty of the decade, or perhaps it's also a state of mind; you're only free if you believe you are - pretty philosophical questions for a film that started life as a showreel. While the film is dated and technically flawed, it really captures a mood and authenticity of a period and the beginnings of a filmmaker and his team at the genesis of their craft.



Season of the Witch AKA Hungry Wives (awful) or Jack's Wife (working title) fares better. Made in 1972 and revolving around housewife Joan Mitchell (Jan White) and her eventual dabbling in the occult via the introduction of a few tarot card readings before accepting her place in a coven. What strikes most with this film is the sophistication in comparison to ...Vanilla. Still prevalent are some technical flaws however, from the Buñuelian and atmospheric opening to the depiction of female disillusionment within the narrative, this film is fascinating.

It isn't necessarily about magic but how a woman who wants more beyond marriage and motherhood wishes to embrace her independence and sexual prime, and take back some power through witchcraft, almost depicted here as a completion of womanhood. One can still its distinct influence on Anna Biller's fabulously feminist The Love Witch (2016). Using themes of oppression and transgression, it is no accident that this film's existence stems from the period of women's lib - patriarchy manifested as a demon-masked man on the prowl, personifying Joan's fears, albeit within a recurring dream sequence - while fragile and toxic masculinity can be read through the characters of Jack Mitchell (Bill Thunhurst) and Greg (Raymond Laine).

Season of the Witch is a gem of a film, from its avant-garde opening to the interesting depiction of gender roles coupled with the enigmatic and nuanced performance of Jan White. It feels like a primer for Martin with its political progression, religious motifs and the use of the colour red (although to differing effects).



This use of chromatic is also prominently used in The Crazies, a science-fiction-horror-thriller in which a small American town is quarantined following the accidental release of a biological weapon. The Army have "everything under control", at least they certainly want everyone to believe they do - reinforced by a non-diegetic military drumroll punctuated sporadically throughout. We, along with the townspeople are on a need-to-know basis as all hell breaks loose and national security becomes a real concern.

We're subjected to horrifying images as people are dragged from their sanctuary of Church or a small group of individuals are backed into a stand-off, threatened by gunfire. Then, there's the scientist who makes a breakthrough with an antidote (the soldiers have all been inoculated first with what little antibiotics they have) only to be murdered, his vials of life-saving serum (red again) smashed around him. David (W.G. McMillan) and Judy's (Lane Carroll) arc pulls at the heartstrings and, a few pacing issues aside, it is them we root for.

Watching the films in this boxset in chronological order shows a distinct progression in the New York native/Carnegie Mellon alum's filmmaking. The man who made films (whether writing, directing or editing or a combination of all three) instinctively, was politically progressive, possessed a sense of humour and rarely wrote characters that weren't multi-faceted. He depicted a rare equality within male and female characterisations and did not exploit or resort to sex.

Mr. Romero, George, you are sorely missed.

This box set of his early works between Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead - see what they did there? is replete with extras and special features and is a must-buy for any fan. He was still developing his style and craft and the films may not strike as much of a chord as the ones that followed*, however, there's still much to enjoy and appreciate. Season of the Witch, and the Guillermo del Toro interview with George - which is a wonderful and joyous watch - are worth the purchase alone.

*"My stuff is my stuff. Sometimes, it's not as successful as my other stuff but it's my stuff." (G.A.R, 2011)

Special Features




Limited edition 60-page booklet featuring new writing on the films by Kat Ellinger, Kier-La Janisse and Heather Drain (unavailable for review).

Disc 1: There's Always Vanilla

Brand new 2K restoration from original film elements

Audio Commentary with Travis Crawford

Affair of the Heart: The Making of There's Always Vanilla (2017, 29 mins) - a new documentary with producers Russell Streiner and John Russo, sound recordist Gary Streiner and actors Judith Streiner (neé Ridley) and Richard Ricci. In this they discuss the film and the constant conflict and challenges faced during pre and post production, how it started, and the problems upon distribution. This is integral viewing after the film, it's a wonder it exists at all when considering the issues they had, not least with writer, riddle, enigma, conundrum Rudy Ricci.

Digging up the Dead: The Lost Films of George A. Romero (2005, 15 mins) - Archival interview with Romero who discusses ...Vanilla and Season of the Witch. He describes the experience of the TAV as "an awful experience" and a film he cares very little about. In contrast, SOTW was a turning point for him and the set on which he learnt the most - it's a film he loves not least because it was responsible for bringing his second wife Christine into his life (her parents owned the house - which doubled for Joan's - and those delightfully sinister-looking lamps depicted).

Image Galleries - A photo tour of the filming locations used in the film with audio commentary from Romero historian Lawrence DeVincentz.

Collectible Scans - Film stills, posters, publicity photos and candid images.

Trailer

Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly-commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx



Disc 2: Season of the Witch

Brand new 4K restoration of the original theatrical version from the camera negative

Audio Commentary with Travis Crawford

When Romero Met del Toro (2017, 55 mins) - Filmed on 8th February 2016, this is George in conversation with mega-fan Guillermo. They discuss George's film career and touch upon NOTLD, There's Always Vanilla, Martin, Knightriders, and Dawn of the Dead. In addition there's general meditations on politics, sex, religion and faith, filmmaking, distribution and artistic integrity. It's a wonderfully natural discussion, two men sat on a sofa in Toronto talking about film, occasionally being interrupted by a chirping canary.

The Secret Life of Jack's Wife (2005, 16 mins) - Archive interview with the SOTW star Jan White who discusses how she got the part, working with Romero, her favourite scene, her body-double and her sorrow at the lack of promotion and incorrect marketing of the film. She never acted again but holds a very deep love for the film and her affection and admiration for George is evident.

Alternate and Extended Scenes (15 mins) - There are nine scenes in all and incredibly old footage. It's understandable why it was mistaken for porn looking at these rough cuts.

Alternate Opening Credits - There are three of these owing to the trio of names the film had: Jack's Wife (working title), Hungry Wives (title on release) and the name it should have had from the start - George A. Romero's Season of the Witch.

Image Galleries - A photo tour of the filming locations used in the film with audio commentary from Romero historian Lawrence DeVincentz.

Collectible Scans - Film stills, posters, publicity photos and candid images.

Trailers - Two trailers with the differing film titles.

Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly-commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx



Disc 3: The Crazies

Brand new 4K restoration from the original camera negative

Audio Commentary with Travis Crawford

Romero Was Here: Locating The Crazies (2017, 12 mins) - Lawrence DeVincentz (we're well acquainted now following disc 1 and 2) takes us on a guided tour of Evans City, PA and other locations used in the film and a couple of others of George's including NOTLD. It is a really interesting short documentary which makes the most of aerial shots, archive photos and film clips. The split-screen is helpful showing us the differences between 1973 and 2017, host Larry is very knowledgable and pleasant enough, and it is well-made.

Crazy for Lynn Lowry (2017, 15 mins) - A new interview with Lowry in which she discusses her early career and the circumstances which led to her casting in I Drink Your Blood (1970), The Crazies, and, of course, Shivers (1975).

Q&A with Lynn Lowry (2016, 35 mins) - Conducted at the 2016 Abertoir Film Festival in Aberystwyth. A surprising even unnecessary addition to the disc, especially given the previous interview and the fact that Lowry isn't even a leading role in the film. A shame it wasn't with Romero instead.

Audio Interview (2014, 4 mins) - An audio recording of The Crazies' late producer Lee Hessel conducted by his son Brandon, and played over images of the film. During it, Hessel talks briefly about the film's change of name and how much money he lost on the production.

Rare Unseen Footage (6 mins) - Rare 8mm behind-the-scenes footage with optional audio commentary by Romero historian Lawrence DeVincentz. It's a delightful few moments which I would recommend you watch while listening to the narration.

Alternate Opening Credits - The original title is emblazoned on the screen in this alternate credit title: Code Name Trixie (cue laughter). Thank the Lord, George stuck to his guns and had it changed.

Image Galleries - A photo tour of the filming locations used in the film with audio commentary from Romero historian Lawrence DeVincentz.

Collectible Scans - Film stills, posters, publicity photos and candid images.

Trailers - Two trailers with the differing film titles.

Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly-commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx

Film
9 out of 10
Video
8 out of 10
Audio
8 out of 10
Extras
8 out of 10
Overall

A fitting epitaph to a great and beloved filmmaker.

9

out of 10

Last updated: 12/11/2017 21:17:08

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