George Romero Between Night and Dawn

| November 21, 2017

George A. Romero will undoubtedly always be best remembered as the director of Night of the Living Dead, one of the most influential horror films of the 20th century. Romero and his collaborators all but created the modern concept of the zombie in horror film, and his continuation of the “Dead” series with Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead rounded out a peerless trilogy of socially conscious horror unmatched in the 1970s and 1980s. But as unquestionably important as Romero’s original “Dead” trilogy has been to the history of genre cinema, Romero directed a number of other influential films that covered interesting thematic territory. While they have not traditionally received nearly as much attention as his most popular work, some of Romero’s other films are arguably superior to his most well-known works. Arrow Video’s new Blu-ray/DVD set George Romero Between Night and Dawn presents the three films Romero made in the early 1970s following the unexpected success of Night of the Living Dead in 1968, charting the evolution of his style and use of genre for social commentary leading up to Dawn of the Dead in 1978.

Romero started off in filmmaking with commercial productions by his company The Latent Image, and was able to put together Night of the Living Dead thanks to the their success. Following the film’s release, Romero went in a much different direction for his second feature as a director. Written by Rudy Ricci–who had played a zombie in Romero’s first film–There’s Always Vanilla is a low-key counterculture drama. Chris Bradley (Raymond Laine) drifts back into Pittsburgh and takes his dad Roger (Roger McGovern) out for a good time with a couple of strippers, and the following morning Chris is run down on a train platform by Lynn Harris (Judith Ridley). She misses her train, but he offers her a ride to the commercial audition she was running to and before they know it the two have struck up a romance. Chris moves into her apartment, but after some time his aimlessness starts to grate on Lynn’s nerves. For his part, Chris is disgusted with life in modern America and tends to look down on Lynn’s work as an actress selling beer and toilet bowl cleaner. Chris narrates the story, which has enough humor that the film is often referred to as a comedy, but its tone is consistently downbeat and it deals with some dark subject matter. Laine and Ridley give solid lead performances, and the directorial style is unmistakeable, but There’s Always Vanilla is ultimately not much more than an interesting footnote in Romero’s oeuvre.

For his next film, Romero returned to the horror genre but in a quite unexpected manner. Season of the Witch (aka Jack’s Wife or Hungry Wives) is the story of Joan (Jan White), a bored housewife who begins to dabble in witchcraft when she becomes irrevocably disillusioned with her life following an uncomfortable evening when her friend Shirley (Ann Muffly) has a near-breakdown when confronted by Gregg (Raymond Laine). Gregg is a young TA who works at the college attended by Joan’s daughter Nikki (Joedda McClain) and they have a “friends with benefits” arrangement; Gregg manipulates Shirley into revealing her deepest insecurities, and Joan realizes she not only feels the same but is also envious of Nikki’s free sexuality. Nikki runs away from home after discovering Joan overheard her and Gregg having sex, and Joan begins having intense nightmares in which a masked assailant breaks into her home and assaults her. When her less than understanding husband Jack (Bill Thunhurst) leaves for a week-long business trip, Joan seizes the opportunity to cast her first real spell: Enticing Gregg to come to her home in order to seduce him. Jan White gives a spectacular performance in the lead role, and the film holds its own against other so-called “psychotic women” films of the 1970s like Robert Altman’s Images, Matt Cimber’s The Witch Who Came from the Sea, and John D. Hancock’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death among many others. Romero sets up the relationship between Joan and Gregg as a direct mirror of the generational divide that followed in the wake of “free love” and the Vietnam war, with witchcraft as a convenient excuse for Joan to indulge in her daughter’s way of life without taking responsibility for her own desires. It’s a phenomenal film, and sees Romero damn near the top of his game very early in his feature filmmaking career.

The Crazies proved to be a worthy follow-up, and pushed Romero’s interest in reflecting American culture completely to the fore. Shot in Evans City, Ohio–the same town where Night of the Living Dead was filmed–The Crazies depicts the rapid deterioration of order in a small town following the release of a deadly virus. David (Will MacMillan) is a volunteer fireman in Evans City, planning to marry his pregnant girlfriend Judy (Lane Carroll). Judy works as a nurse for a local doctor, and one night they’re both called away following the murder of a family and the burning of their house by the father. Judy arrives just in time for the doctor’s office to be overtaken by the military, who are setting up a temporary headquarters to deal with the infection through a strict quarantine. As the minutes tick by, the situation becomes increasingly chaotic and dangerous. Dr. Watts (Richard France), a scientist who worked on the team developing the virus, tries to find a cure while David, Judy, their friend Clank (Harold Wayne Jones), and a father with his possibly infected daughter Kathy (Lynn Lowry) try to escape the quarantine area. The Crazies shares some similarities with Romero’s zombie films, most specifically the opening sequences of Dawn of the Dead. In fact the film is almost like a feature-length version of those harrowing, chaotic scenes of authorities trying desperately to impose order and a society on the verge of losing its collective sanity. The Crazies is almost unbearably intense; most of the dialogue is made up of people screaming at each other in anger, frustration, and panic. Romero excels at depicting situations of total confusion, and he puts that ability to full use here. The action cuts between Evans City and a government office where men in suits debate the possibility of dropping a nuclear weapon on a small Ohio town; meanwhile back in Evans City, a man dowses himself in gasoline and lights himself on fire. This unmistakeable reference to the famous image of Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức burning himself in protest in 1963 helps draw a clear parallel to what The Crazies has to say about the American government, military, and the quagmire of the Vietnam war.

Arrow’s set presents these three films in their absolute best home video release to date. The 4K transfer of the theatrical version of Season of the Witch is an enormous improvement over the previously available DVD, and The Crazies (also in 4K) has never looked better. There’s Always Vanilla is the roughest of the three films, with a somewhat murky 2K transfer due to some deterioration of the film elements. It’s still completely watchable, but it is noticeably less clean than the other two films. The Blu-ray of Season of the Witch includes a composite of the extended version Anchor Bay previously released with the HD transfer intercut with the missing footage from the SD source. It gives the viewer a very clear picture of just how much of an improvement the new restoration really is. Each of the three discs is packed with special features including location tour slideshows, feature-length commentaries on each film with film journalist Travis Crawford, interviews with numerous people who worked on the films in front of and behind the cameras, alternate opening credits sequences for Season of the Witch and The Crazies, and some extras ported from the previous home video releases of the films. The packaging is typically spectacular, with reversible covers for each disc including original art and new art by Gilles Vranckx and a 60-page booklet with new writing by Kat Ellinger, Kier-La Janisse, and Heather Drain. Probably the most exciting single feature in the set other than the films themselves is a nearly hour-long discussion between George Romero and Guillermo del Toro covering Romero’s entire career, shot in February of 2016. Romero sadly passed away from lung cancer shortly after this set was officially announced earlier this year, but like Herschell Gordon Lewis’s passing before the release of Arrow’s Shock and Gore set, it’s good to know that at least Romero was aware these films were finally getting their due. Also like that set, serious fans of genre film history in general and the filmmaker this set focuses on in particular will find this an essential addition to their home video library.

Arrow Video released George Romero Between Night and Dawn on 14 November 2017.

About the Author:

Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He is author of "The Unrepentant Cinephile," and a regular contributor to Daily Grindhouse and Film Monthly as well as a member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. He is co-director of the Chicago Cinema Society and proud owner of 35mm prints of Andy Milligan's "Guru, the Mad Monk." Follow his long-form film writing on Medium: www.medium.com/@rabbitroom
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