Tuesday, November 7, 2017

GEORGE A. ROMERO'S BETWEEN NIGHT AND DAWN (1971-1973)



GEORGE A. ROMERO'S BETWEEN NIGHT AND DAWN (1971-1973) 

George Romero's name may be synonymous with the living dead subgenre, but his filmography is far richer and more varied than his reputation as "the zombie guy" would suggest. Following the breakout success of his debut feature Night of the Living Dead, the director would embark upon a series of projects which demonstrate a master filmmaker with more than mere gut-munching on his mind.

In There's Always Vanilla, young drifter Chris and beautiful model Lynn embark upon a tumultuous relationship which seems doomed from the outset. Season of the Witch (released theatrically as Hungry Wives) follows the exploits of Joan Mitchell - a housewife who seeks to escape the confines of her humdrum suburban existence through a flirtation with witchcraft. Lastly, The Crazies sees Romero returning to firmer horror territory as a small rural town finds itself in the grip of an infection which send its hosts into a violent, homicidal frenzy.

Taken together, these three films, made in the period between Romero's celebrated living dead outings Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, serve to shine a light on the broader thematic concerns and auteurist leanings of a skilled craftsman too often pigeonholed within the genre.


THERE'S ALWAYS VANILLA (1971) 

Rating: R
Duration: 92 Minutes 
Audio: English LPCM 1.0 Mono with Optional English Subtitles
Video: 1080p HD Full Frame (1.33:1)
Director: George A. Romero 
Cast: Raymond Laine, Judith Ridley, Roger McGovern, Johanna Lawrence


In Romero's decidedly non-horror follow-up to the seminal Night of the Living Dead (1968) we have Vietnam-vet Chris Bradley (Raymond Laine, Season of the Witch), a wandering spirit of the 70's, who returns home to Pittsburgh following a string of aimless part-time jobs. His father owns a baby food factory and wants him to stay on as part of the management team, but Chris is not too keen to be spoon fed a corporate gig. At the train station he meets a pretty TV commercial model named Lynn (Judith Ridley, Night of the Living Dead) and the two strike-up a relationship, leading to some baby/abortion drama, this weird relic from the 70's is certainly an oddball Romero entry, a counter culture comedy of sorts, which I must say I have never been a huge fan of, initially viewing it during my first deep-dive into Romero's early career. There are some scenes I found interesting, such as Lynn's experience with a pervy commercial director, and a drunken night of fun with his father, including a frisky bar maid, with the father inquiring from his son how much he should pay the bar maid her for the kindness in the morning. There's also a cool scene with Chris applying for an ad exec position, touting his former career as a pimp as one of the skills that make him the perfect candidate for the job, and it works! 

The film is pacey and talky for long spots, and scenes of the fourth wall being broken as Chris speaks directly to the audience didn't work for me, it felt like this was a device to try and eliminate some storytelling shortcomings. It a rough watch for the un-inclined who maybe aren't prepared to dive deep into Romero's early 70's output of the non-horror variety, but it's certainly a notable detour into he realm of 70s romantic comedies. I do like the  poetic ending that involves a box of helium filled balloons drifting into the air and a note to a lover, it was very 70's arthouse.  

Audio/Video: There's Always Vanilla (1971) debuts on Blu-ray from Arrow Video with a brand new 2K restoration from original film elements, framed in the original full frame aspect ratio. Originally shot on 16mm film the movie is very grainy and the image seems weirdly colored, as if it's been artificially saturated with color during the color grading process. It's not hideous but at times it draws attention to itself like a colorized black and white photo. The English PCM Mono 1.0 audio sounds good if not exactly hi-fidelity, optional English subtitles are provided. 


Onto the extras we get a new audio commentary from Travis Crawford - who does commentaries for all three films on this set, he can sound dully professorial at times but I found all three commentaries info-packed and very entertaining. We also get a new half-hour making of doc featuring  producers John Russo and Russell Streiner, stars Judith Streiner and Richard J. Ricci, and sound recordist Gary Streiner, who look back at the film, noting Romero's unhappiness with the film, and framing the financial backers lack enthusiasm of enthusiasm for the film, with Streiner going into how the project came about. Arrow carry-over the 15-min Digging Up the Dead interview from the Anchor Bay disc, with Romero more or less saying he loathes the film. Extras are finished up with a trailer for the film, a memorabilia gallery, and a gallery of locations with commentary by Romero historian Lawrence DeVincentz. 

Special Features: 
- Brand new 2K restoration from original film elements 
- Brand new audio commentary by Travis Crawford
- Affair of the Heart: The Making of There's Always Vanilla - brand new documentary featuring interviews with producers John Russo and Russell Streiner, stars Judith Streiner and Richard - Ricci, and sound recordist Gary Streiner (30 min) HD 
- Digging Up the Dead - The Lost Films of George A. Romero - archive interview with Romero discussing his early films There's Always Vanilla and Season of the Witch (16 min) 
- Location Gallery with audio commentary by Romero historian Lawrence DeVincentz (12 min) 

- Memorabilia Gallery (1 min) HD 
- Trailer (2 min) 
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly-commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx


SEASON OF THE WITCH (1972)

Rating: R
Duration: 89 Minutes 
Audio: English LPCM 1.0 Mono with Optional English Subtitles
Video: 1080p HD Full Frame (1.33:1)
Director: George Romero 
Cast: Jan White, Raymond Laine, Ann Muffly, Joedda McClain, Bill Thunurst 

Like There's Always Vanilla (1971) I remember first watching this during my initial deep dive into Romero's early career and not walking away with any great love for it, however the feminist parable of a deeply unsatisfied 70's suburban housewife dabbling in the occult has gained more traction as I've aged. The film opens with an arty nightmare sequence, we see affluent housewife Joan Mitchell (Janina White) walking subserviently behind her husband through a wooded area, the branches of the trees her husband pushes aside snap back and strike her in the face, and she's left in a kennel like a dog while her husband leaves for a business trip. This puts you in the mindset of where she's at in life, her husband Jack (Bill Thunhurst) is often away on business trips, while he's home he's uncaring, and abusive both verbally and physically. When her teenage daughter Nikki (Joella McClain)runs off to places unknown Joan is left alone. One night while out with her lushy-friend Shirley (Ann Muffly) they visit the home of a tarot card reader and Joan's mind is opened up to the idea of witchcraft, which she begins practicing, beginning by casting a spell to ensnare the libido of her daughter's college professor (Raymond Laine, There's Always Vanilla)and a brief and also unsatisfying physical relationship ensues. 


Joan becomes more and more involved in witchcraft, joining a local coven, leading to some dramatic changes in her lifestyle. Romero packs in some social commentary and lefty politics, but the movie is hampered by some poor performances, though I thought White was quite good in the role, she's understated, but she taps into that deeply unsatisfied 70's housewife theme. Though there's glimmers of promise I do not think the film is particularly well executed, but it has some tasty social commentary that I found enjoyable. 

Audio/Video: Season of the Which (1972) debuts on Blu-ray from Arrow Video with a brand new 4K restoration of the theatrical version from the original camera negative, presented in the original full frame presentation with the alternate Hungry wives title card. Originally shot on 16mm the image is grainy but natural looking, a significant improvement cropped(1.85:1) DVD from Anchor Bay. There's some nice detail and clarity to the image. this so far superior to what we've seen before on DVD - there's really no comparison between the two, this blows everything else away. The source has very few imperfections, we mostly see some white specking, but nothing else significant mars the image. Audio comes by way of The English PCM Mono 1.0 audio sounds good if not exactly hi-fidelity, optional English subtitles are provided.  The electronic score from Steve Gorn sounds good, as does Donovan's titular "Season of the Witch" song selection. 

Onto the extras we have another audio commentary from Travis Crawford for the theatrical cut, which is excellent,  he goes deep into the feminist character study of the film, if you're a fan of the film this commentary will only enhance your enjoyment. My favorite of all the extras on the set is a Romero interview conducted by director Guillermo Del Toro (Pan's Labyrinthine)from 2016, it covers a lot of ground and I could have watched another hour or two if, opening with Romero acknowledging the influence of I Am Legend on NOTLD. This is just two wonderful filmmakers discussing their craft and mutual appreciation, it's great stuff. We also get a 104-min extended cut of the film, sourced from the same new restoration with standard definition inserts from a tape source assembled by Michael Felsher of Red Shirt Pictures. 

Arrow also carry-over The Secret Life of Jack's Wife interview with actress Jan White from the 2005 Anchor Bay DVD, with the star discussing her enigmatic place in Romero's canon, how she got the role and her experiences making the film, and Romero's fascination with the lamps featured prominently in the film. She also goes into the nightmare dream sequence, explaining some of the imagery that is not explained by the movie itself, and speaking about her body double's huge legs. 

We also get three alternate opening titles, another Location Gallery with audio commentary by Romero historian Lawrence DeVincentz, a memorabilia gallery with poster art, press books, lobby cards and various home video releases. 

Special Features: 
- Brand new 4K restoration of the original theatrical version from the camera negative (90 min) HD
- Alternate extended version (104 min) HD 
- Brand new audio commentary by Travis Crawford
- When Romero Met Del Toro - filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro in conversation with George Romero (56 min) HD 
- The Secret Life of Jack's Wife - archive interview with actress Jan White (17 min) 
- Alternate Opening Titles: Jack's Wife (4 min), Hungry Wives (4 min), Season of the Witch (4 min) 
- Location Gallery with audio commentary by Romero historian Lawrence DeVincentz (2 min) HD 
- Memorabilia Gallery (3 min) HD 
- Hungry Wives Trailer (2 min) 

- Season of the Witch Trailer (2 min) 
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly-commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx 


THE CRAZIES (1973)

Rating: R
Duration: 103 Minutes 
Audio: English LPCM 1.0 Mono with Optional English Subtitles
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (1.66:1)
Director: George Romero 
Cast: Lane Carroll, Will MacMillan, Harold Wayne Jones, Lloyd Hollar, Lynn Lowry, Richard Liberty 


The Crazies (1973) was a return to full-on horror for Romero, and is also the first film he had the budget and creative control over, and it shows. Set in rural Evans City, Pennsylvania we have the populace subjected to a leaked form of germ warfare called Trixie, unleashed when a military plane carrying the chemical weapon crashes nearby and infects the water. The film opens with a father having been infected and destroying his house, murdering his wife and going after his young children, before setting it ablaze.

As the government and military show up in hazard suits,  lead by Colonel Peckem (Lloyd Hollar), Marshall law is declared, threatening to shoot anyone who leaves the quarantined area, for threat the Trixie biological weapon will spread from coast to coast. There are two story lines at play here, we have local and national government, plus the military attempting to thwart the spread of the weapon, there's loads of in-fighting among the official bodies. Then you have the story of the townsfolk, and for the main focus of the feature we follow Vietnam vet and firefighter David (Will McMillan), his preggers girlfriend, nurse Judy (Lane Carroll), and his buddy firefighter/vet friend Clank (Harold Wayne Jones), who act as a sort of defiant civilian populace fighting off the infected around ton and attempting to evade the military patrols who are rounding up civilians.



This movie is tense and claustrophobic, pre-dating the anti-government, distrust of the military themes of Romero's later Dead films. The cast includes a young Lynn Lowry (Shivers) playing a young woman who is seemingly willing raped by her own father, both having been infected by Trixie, she having appeared in several key infection films through the years,, including drive-in gem I Drink Your Blood. Also be on the lookout for actor Richard France (Dawn of the Dead) as government scientist Dr. Watts who attempts to find a cure for biochemical weapon before the government decides to drop a nuclear warhead on the city. 

This is easily my favorite of the film on the set, a seminal infection film that still plays great today, the visuals are still effective, the soldiers in white protective suits are alarming, the idea that you cannot trust the government is nothing new, even at this point, but Romero's handling of it is fantastic. There's some great scenes that standout, a priest setting himself on fire, a woman non nonchalantly sweeping a field with a broom amidst a battle scene, an old woman stabbing a soldier with a knitting needle always stands apart for me, plus a man gunned down on a bridge attempting to leave the quarantine, it's brutal. A nice touch is how disoriented the people are once infected, they appear to be suffering dementia, they have a lost look about them, and then they show their homicidal tendencies - it has an overall eerie and unsettling effect.  

Audio/Video: The Crazies (1973) arrives on Blu-ray from Arrow Video with a brand new 4K restoration from the original camera negative, framed in 1080p HD widescreen (1.66:1) and as expected surpasses the older Blue Underground Blu-ray. Colors are impressive, skin tones look natural and there's some nice depth, fine detail and clarity to the image. As this was the only film on the set shot in 35mm it is far and away the best looking for the features. Arrow stay true to the original presentation with a LPCM Mono 1.0 audio track that sounds good within the mono presentation limitations.

Onto the extras, first I will note that we lose the audio commentary from the Blue Underground release, so you might want to hang onto that one for the Lowry interview and the director commentary. What we gain is a new commentary from Travis Crawford, which is excellent. There's also a new interview with  Lynn Lowry who discusses her early career in sugar Cookies and I Drink Your Blood, how she ended upon in this movie and her experiences making it. Romero historian Lawrence DeVincentz shows up for a tour of the Evans City, PA locations used in movie, and there's a brief audio-only interview producer Lee Hessel

Special Features: 

- Brand new 4K restoration from the original camera negative 
- Brand new audio commentary by Travis Crawford
- Romero Was Here: Locating The Crazies - Romero historian Lawrence DeVincentz takes us on a guided tour of Evans City, PA and the locations used in The Crazies (12 min) HD 
- Crazy for Lynn Lowry - cult star Lynn Lowry discusses her early career including her role in The Crazies (14 min) HD 
- Q/A with Lynn Lowry filmed at the 2016 Abertoir Film Festival (36 min) HD 
- Audio interview with producer Lee Hessel (5 min) HD 
- Behind-the-scenes footage with optional commentary by Lawrence DeVincentz (6 min) 
- Alternate Opening Titles (1 min) HD 
- Image Galleries: Filming Locations (26 min) HD, Collectible Scans (6 min) HD 

- Trailer 1 (3 min) 
- Trailer 2 (3 min)
- TV Spot 1 (1 min) 
- TV Spot 2 (1 min)
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly-commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx 


For this review I was only sent "check discs" without artwork or packaging extras, but the retail version of this limited edition release feature reversible artwork plus a limited edition 60-page booklet with new essays on the films by Kat Ellinger, Kier-La Janisse and Heather Drain.





Arrow's Between Night and Dawn limited edition release is an essential release for fans of Romero's early films, two of which I think probably have only limited appeal to the casual fan, but the A/V presentation is top notch and the extras are wonderful. If you're looking to deep-dive into Romero's early career, including some non-horror stuff, this is a must-have. It's a shame that producer Richard P. Rubinstein has such a greedy death-grip on the rights for Romero's Martin (1978), it's noticeably missing and deserving of some serious restoration and re-evaluation, here's hoping Arrow, who produced a great 2-disc DVD set of the film, manage to get the Blu-ray rights.   


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