THERE'S ALWAYS VANILLA
1971, 92 mins. 29 secs.
Directed by George A. Romero
Starring Raymond Laine, Judith Ridley, Johanna Lawrence, Richard Ricci, Roger McGovern
Arrow Video (Blu-ray & DVD) (US/UK RA/RB HD/NTSC), Anchor Bay (US R0 NTSC/HD)
SEASON OF THE WITCH
Color, 1972, 89 mins. 45 secs. / 104 mins. 20 secs.
Directed by George A. Romero
Starring Jan White, Raymond Laine, Ann Muffly, Joedda McClain, Bill Thunurst
Arrow Video (Blu-ray & DVD) (US/UK RA/RB HD/NTSC), Anchor Bay (US R0 NTSC/HD)
Color, 1973, 103 mins. 2 secs.2
Directed by George A. Romero
Starring Lane Carroll, Will MacMillan, Harold Wayne Jones, Lloyd Hollar, Lynn Lowry, Richard Liberty
Arrow Video (Blu-ray & DVD) (US/UK RA/RB HD/NTSC), Blue Underground (DVD & Blu-Ray, US R0 NTSC/HD) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)
After the success of Night of the Living Dead, director George A. Romero and the gang at Latent Image (both in front of and behind the camera) found themselves looking for new projects to ride the wave of new cinematic freedom arriving at the end of the '60s. Two of the biggest names from Romero's debut, John Russo and Russell Streiner, remained aboard for Romero's second feature, the jagged counterculture comedy There's Always Vanilla, a work Romero often derided as the weakest of his output; from there the Latent Image connection began to diminish with his next film, the feminist suburban occult study Season of the Witch, which he followed with an overt return to horror with a grisly look at societal breakdown, The Crazies. All three films have been available on home video on and off over the years, but they're collected together for the first time with a dual-format 2017 Blu-ray and DVD set from Arrow Video called George Romero: Between Night and Dawn. Therefore, what you get here is basically a crash course in Romero's richly rewarding body of work between his two groundbreaking zombie classics, missing only his vampire masterpiece, Martin (which is owned by producer Richard Rubinstein).
The horror community suffered a major blow when Romero and Tobe Hooper both died to fairly close proximity to each other, and oddly enough, both men have overlooked, oddball counterculture comedies earlyin their careers. For Hooper it was Eggshells, and for Romero it was There's Always Vanilla, which brings back blonde Judith Streiner (a.k.a. Judith Ridley) from Night as an aspiring model named Lynn. However, the real focus of the story is Chris (Laine), a Vietnam vet who comes back to Pittsburgh and chafes at the idea of following his establishment dad's desires to carry on the family food business. He ends up hooking up with Lynn for a romantic relationship that soon turns into something more dysfunctional as they both try to find their place in a rapidly altered society. Mixing in elements like abortion and social discontent, the film (also released by its original distributor as The Affair) barely has a plot and often plays more like an elaborate student film -- not surprising since it originated as a demo film for Laine by screenwriter Rudolph J. Ricci, whose unprofessional behavior is a major factor in Romero's lack of passion for this project over the years. As a time capsule though it's quite fascinating, especially in its vintage views of Pittsburgh and the roles for other Night veterans like Russell "Johnny" Streiner and Bill Hinzman.
Though Romero still wasn't ready to jump back into horror films, his third feature, Season of the Witch, definitely flits around the edges of the genre for a still underrated portrayal of a woman suffocated by the status quo and trying to find her identity. Said protagonist is Joan Mitchell (White), whose daydreams and visions of growing old have been manifesting more strongly as she struggles against the bonds of her constraining marriage to Jack (Thunhurst). When casual sex doesn't cure what ails her, she finds a new realm of possibilities by getting a tarot card reading that turns into a gateway into a hidden world of witchcraft. She takes to the practice of casting spells as a way to find a new identity, but that may not be enough to help her find true happiness. Shot very cheaply and almost defiant in its refusal to fit any neat classification, this film was originally shot as Jack's Wife and ran 130 minutes, a cut that has now been considered lost for decades. The standard theatrical cut of 89 minutes has been the most readily available on actual film for decades (more on that below), with the film first officially released on the sexploitation circuit as Hungry Wives and then again in the wake of Dawn's success as Season of the Witch (due to the inclusion of the famous Donovan song on the soundtrack). A very atypical leading lady, White does a solid job in the lead role and is accompanied by another good leading performance by Laine, who once again provides equal opportunity nudity. Seen today the film has a welcome sense of social consciousness, a common trait in Romero's films but never given as much of a feminist slant as here, and the thick early '70s suburban vibe is so intense you can almost smell the fondue in the kitchen.
After reinventing the zombie film with Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero made his first belated color horror film with The Crazies, another social commentary cloaked in exploitation trappings about a small Pennsylvania town decimated by the accidental release of a dangerous biochemical weapon (Code Name: Trixie, the original title) in the water supply thanks to a crashed truck. The mayhem begins one night when a family gets a fiery surprise in the middle of the night from a decidedly unstable head of the household, and soon the military -- clad in menacing white suits -- descends on the populous to establish a quarantine and deal with a citizenry quickly descending into violent insanity. A local nurse (Carroll), her fireman boyfriend (McMillan), and three more locals must quickly navigate the nearby woods to escape town, but the encroaching insanity and merciless soldiers both threaten to stop them at every turn.
Though not an official part of Romero's ongoing Dead series, The Crazies still fits in just fine thanks to its depictions of normalcy shedding apart from the inside and a ruthless but incompetent military ultimately driven by self-interest, themes which would reach their most crystallized version in his now-classic Day of the Dead. The invocations of Vietnam (particularly a grisly self-immolation scene) might stamp this as a '70s political statement, but on a larger scale it's clear this film is, along with Cronenberg's Rabid, an even more direct influence on today's faux-zombie films like the Dawn of the Dead remake, [REC], 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later which depict a rampaging contagion rather than, you know, anything actually undead. Of course, the extremely low budget hampers the film on occasion; the acting isn't among Romero's best apart from the always fascinating Lynn Lowry (I Drink Your Blood, Radley Metzger's Score) and the colorful Richard Liberty, who went on to horror immortality training Bub in Day of the Dead. Romero's usual affinity for library music is also present here, using folky protest music effectively at times with generic creepy wallpaper melodies filling in the rest.
There's Always Vanilla first popped up on VHS from Something Weird and barely made a ripple, while Season of the Witch made the rounds on VHS from Vista Video in the '80s and then from Anchor Bay. Both of them were united on DVD from Anchor Bay in 2005, featuring non-anamorphic 1.85:1 transfers that looked very tight and left something to be desired (with opening disclaimers admitted as much). The big news on that release was the inclusion of a longer 104-minute version of Season, which had been discovered in the late '90s. Though it doesn't substantially alter the film's story or impact, the scene extensions here are interesting including a longer tarot reading, more domestic strife, and extended looks at our heroine's daily routine. Extras on that disc included a candid Romero interview featurette called "Digging Up the Dead: The Lost Films of George Romero" (15m56s) about the fallout at Latent Image over Vanilla, his distaste for the film, the evolution of his style in each of his early films, and his affection for Season, which he pegs as the one film he'd like to remake. The filmmaking series "The Directors" featured on many DVD labels back in the day is represented here with a one-hour Romero episode, while "The Secret Life of Jack's Wife" (17m17s) covers how White was cast in Season after an extensive audition scouring of Pittsburgh and balked at doing nude scenes, believing she was taking part in a softcore porn film. (The very little bit of nudity in the film wound up being done by a body double.) Needless to say, she was quite happy with the actual working process and final result, even though the meaning of some elements (like the dream baby at the beginning) ended up being lost on the way to the final cut.
Blue Underground's edition of The Crazies appeared first on DVD in 2003 and then as a Blu-ray timed with the release of the 2010 remake (following a VHS-only version from Anchor Bay in 1998). Their transfer is as good as one could have possibly expected for this film, which is colorful and often sharp-looking but always maintains a gritty, harsh veneer appropriate to the budget, shooting conditions, and time period. The experience here is akin to watching a freshly-minted print of a vintage title, which is definitely preferable in this case to any digital waxing and buffing to make it look more modern. It's certainly better than the dismal repertory prints in circulation or awful VHS editions that Romero fans had to endure for years. Only the DVD contains a poster and still gallery, but extras on both editions include a lively, informative Romero commentary track that covers all the bases (location shooting, music tracking, casting, and financial challenges) and a magnificent featurette with Lowry contributing a new video interview about her career, interspersed with clips from her films and footage of her contemporary cabaret act in Los Angeles. Some of her recollections about Score seem slightly questionable, but she's a great listen in a must-see for fans of '70s drive-in queens. Two theatrical trailers and two TV spots round out the disc.
The 2017 George Romero: Between Night and Dawn set compiles all three films together for the first time, each with new transfers from the best surviving elements (the original negatives in the case of The Crazies and the theatrical cut of Season). Each film is segregated to its own disc and given a generous, expert encoding job that retains the original grainy, dense textures. Fortunately both Season and Vanilla have been restored to their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios, making them far easier on the eyes and so vastly superior in quality it's ridiculous. The Crazies looks even better now with more finely modulated white levels that don't look as hot as the BU disc, with more balanced colors and visible detail; both releases are framed at 1.66:1, with the Arrow shifting slightly up but not making much difference either way in terms of composition. English LPCM mono tracks are present for each film, with optional English SDH subtitles. Each film comes with an expert new audio commentary by film journalist Travis Crawford, who does a thorough job on each dissecting the merits and technical limitations at hand, chatting about the Pittsburgh locations, and laying each film out in the context of Romero's career. Particularly impressive is his take on Season, a complicated, challenging film; right off the bat he cites filmmakers like Maya Deren and John Cassavetes before dissecting the value of what Romero regarded as his first truly personal project. His appreciation for this most female-driven entry in Romero's filmography extends to the film's dialogue sequences, which are especially striking as the work of a young man behind the camera. Each film also has a traditional gallery of posters and stills as well as a separate filming locations gallery with commentary by Romero historian Lawrence DeVincentz. His one for The Crazies is especially epic (26m56s!) as he uncovers a wealth of precise locations and recreates the exact camera angles, sometimes slipping himself into the frame and explaining at length about the backgrounds of the various locales.
The Vanilla disc contains the DVD's "Digging Up the Dead" featurette and theatrical trailer as well as a gallery of stills and promotional art as well as a new featurette, "Affair of the Heart: The Making of There's Always Vanilla" (29m43s) with producers John Russo and Russell Streiner, Judith Streiner, Richard Ricci, and sound recordist Gary Streiner going into even more detail about the state of Latent Image at the time, the artistic intentions that didn't quite come off in their opinion, the insufficient original distribution, and the great star potential of Laine, who elected to stay in Pittsburgh and teach acting before his untimely death.
The main feature version of Season and the option for Crawford's commentary is the standard 89-minute cut (bearing the Hungry Wives title card, though all three title sequences are included as extras), and it looks excellent with a careful encoding handling the heavy amount of grain and textural detail quite well. Also included is the longer version, with the extra footage from the SD source slugged into the HD transfer for a fairly smooth viewing experience under the circumstances. "When Romero Met Del Toro" (55m40s) contains an entire 2016 discussion between the two filmmakers in Toronto at Romero's apartment; it's quite fun as they start off with Night of the Living Dead (of course) and its ties to Richard Matheson and then work their way through most of his catalog (including a cool bit on Knightriders) and the ups and downs of the genre. Also included are the DVD's "The Secret Life of Jack's Wife" featurette, the ridiculous, sex-oriented Hungry Wives trailer and the more horror-targeted Season of the Witch reissue one.
The Crazies dispenses with the prior Romero commentary (the new Crawford one instead is featured) and adds what amounts to a new slate of video extras, not counting the two theatrical trailers and two TV spots. A new "Crazy for Lynn Lowry" (15m54s) interview charts her career path up to and including this film with notes along the way about some earlier projects (including I Drink Your Blood, of course, and her one-shot dabbling with acid during production), while a Lowry Q&A from 2016's Abertoir Film Festival (35m52s) focuses on her '70s "infection trilogy" (which also includes Shivers) and covers some of her other fantastic cinema work as well, including a wild bit about her bra-popping role in Paul Schrader's Cat People. A 2014 interview with late producer Lee Hessel (4m32s) by his son about his working relationship with Romero, the role his wife had in the film, and the film's disastrous original title. DiVincentz also pops up for a rare selection of 8mm behind-the-scenes footage (6m26s) from the collection of Sam Nicotero, including a look at Romero in action and the shooting of the burning house from the beginning of the film. In a nice gesture, the original Code Name: Trixie opening titles are also included, and extra points for using Beverly Bremers' great end title theme song, "Heaven Help Us," over the menus. The reversible sleeves for all of the titles feature options of poster art or new designs by Gilles Vranckx, while the box also comes with a limited edition 60-page booklet including new essays by Kat Ellinger, Kier-La Janisse and Heather Drain.
THERE'S ALWAYS VANILLA (Anchor Bay DVD)
SEASON OF THE WITCH (Anchor Bay DVD)
THE CRAZIES (Blue Underground Blu-ray)
Reviewed on October 22, 2017.