The three films included in Arrow Video’s George A. Romero Between Night and Dawn box set represent the journey of an artist finding his footing after an unexpected success. Romero wasn’t sure exactly how he wanted to follow up his massively popular (though not financially successful) Night of the Living Dead, though he was sure he didn’t want to be known only as a horror director. This box set also represents his moving away from the group of filmmakers who made Night, The Latent Image, a commercial filmmaking outfit he founded with friends in 1961. Taken together, the three films are interesting as a document of an artist on a journey to find himself.
There’s Always Vanilla (1971)
There’s Always Vanilla, released four years after Dead, was about as far away from horror as you can get. It’s a counterculture flick in the vein of Roger Corman’s hippie stuff like The Trip, though it aspires to be much more, something like Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance. But it ends up being more camp than arthouse. It has a documentary, almost cinema verite feel, especially since the hippie/Beatnik main character Chris Bradley (Raymond Laine) talks to a camera at various points in the movie as if he’s being interviewed or recording a filmed diary of some sort. Incidentally, these interview scenes were shot after the film was completed to pad out the runtime. There’s Always Vanilla began as a short film directed by screenwriter Rudy Ricci as an actor’s reel for Laine.
It’s supposed to be a romantic comedy, but it’s not very funny, or at least the jokes haven’t aged very well. The generation gap theme is there, of course. Bradley is supposed to be the freethinking freewheeling guy who won’t sell out to the man, but he’s the biggest asshole in the film. He constantly condescends to his girlfriend Lynn (Judith Ridley, best known for her role as Judy in Night of the Living Dead), a sweet and charming working actress and model who does what needs to be done to put food on the table and pay the rent, including acting in beer commercials, something that Bradley uses against her, though he has no problem crashing at her apartment and eating all the food her ad work money buys without contributing a penny. And, oh yeah, he also has a kid by another woman that he refuses to acknowledge as his own, or even think of taking care of. If this is what it’s like remain independent and not sell out, then it isn’t very heroic. Hopefully he’s a good lay, at least.
There’s Always Vanilla has a certain charm, though it’s definitely disjointed tonally. It paints a very dark picture of the counterculture, especially the behavior of the men. And it’s interesting that advertising isn’t set up as the enemy. After all Romero’s Latent Image production company was mostly shooting commercials for money at the time. Ricci and Romero were just setting a story in the world that they knew. The advertising game certainly comes off looking better than the movie’s main counterculture representative. Bradley’s establishment dad, though a misogynist and backward in his social views, is at least sincerely concerned with his son. It’s not much, but it’s more than Bradley can muster for his own son.
It’s not a very good film, and it’s one that Romero doesn’t seem to like much either. It took the Latent Image group a year to shoot the thing between commercials and other projects that actually made them money. There was a lot of conflict on set, especially between Romero and Ricci, who were formerly best friends and founders of the company. This was the beginning of the end for the Living Dead group, but also the beginning of Romero’s independence. In an archive interview included on the Vanilla disc, Romero says, “It wasn’t a real fun experience, but it was a learning experience.” Indeed.
Season of the Witch (1973)
Romero’s follow-up, Season of the Witch, isn’t horror, though the movie begins edging him closer to it with tension and a darker psychology. Again, this film is hard to classify exactly, though it’s somewhere between arthouse and straight drama, sometimes almost ventures into thriller territory. The most interesting parts are when the movie gets a little experimental, specifically the dream sequences. The opening dream sequence is quite surreal and psychedelic, and later dream sequences of a masked man breaking and entering a suburban house create a sense of terror.
The movie is about Joan Mitchell (Jan White), a woman in her 50’s who’s psychologically adrift and looking for independence from her abusive husband now that her daughter is growing up and about to leave the home. Here we have much more of a critique of suburban middle class life than we do in There’s Always Vanilla. As you might imagine, the movie deals with the existential fear of getting old in a society where women were, and I suppose still are, only seen as attractive in their youth.
Joan is a profoundly restless woman, but she has a stiff exterior. Her husband beats her and her daughter is leaving home. Where does she go from here? Witchcraft has long served as a metaphor for women taking control of their lives, gaining a measure of power and control in a patriarchal society, and that’s no less true here.
Romero, who edited all three of these films, continues to evolve here, with frenetic cuts that mirror Joan’s confusion and terror as she goes about her daily routine. In a lot of ways, the editing is the best thing about this film.
There’s not a lot of nudity, and certainly no sex to speak of, but the film’s distributor titled it Hungry Wives in an attempt to market the movie as sexploitation, but if you went into it expecting something erotic, you’d be profoundly disappointed. In fact, as film critic Travis Crawford says in the commentary track for Season of the Witch, this is “the most unclassifiable” Romero film. Indeed, no matter how the film was marketed, it would no doubt have had trouble finding its audience. It’s not horror, it’s not very erotic, it’s a bit too twisted to be a straight drama. Whatever the case, the film is certainly a vast improvement over There’s Always Vanilla. The characters are far more compelling and the story is quite gripping.
In an archival conversation between Guillermo del Toro and Romero included on the Season of the Witch disc, Del Toro gushes about the next film in this box set, 1973’s The Crazies, saying that it had a profound impact on him and “may be the real root of The Strain,” Del Toro’s book and TV series. One assumes that the film influenced countless other filmmakers, too. Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later is just the first movie that comes to mind. The Crazies is by far the most well known film in this collection of unknown Romero films. It’s the only one I’d ever heard of, let alone already seen and enjoyed.
The Crazies (1973)
The Crazies continues Romero’s flirtation with the horror genre before he dove head first back into the genre with the 1978 vampire film Martin. This is also where he dips a toe back into the zombie waters, even though the victims of a weaponized virus in a small Pennsylvania town aren’t zombies in the strictest sense. They don’t slog around for one thing. They attack fast and kill quickly. In fact, it could be easily argued that the soldiers who occupy the town are the real zombies. They’re covered in the same hazmat suits and gas masks, and they think as a unit as they mow down infected and uninfected alike.
This is a very good film. As much as Romero might have wanted to move into art house flicks, it seems like he was pretty much born to be a genre filmmaker, which is great. Romero’s editing is absolute perfection here, frenetic and fast-paced, filling the mind with nervous paranoia. The dialogue, which flirts with Altman-esque overlapping only adds to the tension. The minimalist soundtrack, which often consists of not much more than marching band drums, adds a lot to a film where all the aesthetic choices are made in service to making the viewer feel uncomfortable. And in this regard, it’s a total success.
With The Crazies, we finally have a film that rises above a mere curiosity. It’s a study in futility, power, conformity, and the idea that we are not in control of our own destinies. And for all practical purposes, it’s the final Latent Image film, though even here it barely qualifies as such. Nearly everyone but Romero had left the group at this point. This was the starting point of his artistic independence. The Crazies is the film that anticipates Romero’s later work, especially his Living Dead sequels. In a lot of ways, it’s the first George Romero film.