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George Romero’s Forgotten Films Get a Gorgeous New Box Set (Review)

With the death of George A. Romero this past July, horror lost another of its great godfathers, but the film world in general lost an artist with uncompromising vision and a will that never gave him the opportunities in Hollywood that he should have received. His movies all have one eye toward excitement and the other toward actually saying something of substance, and that’s what made him such a brilliant storyteller. The fact that he only directed 15 and a half movies is a crime, but it’s nice that so many of them are getting love on Blu-ray these days.

From Scream Factory’s releases of movies likes Day of the Dead, The Dark Half, and most recently Land of the Dead to Criterion’s announcement that Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead is finally getting a proper release following its 4K restoration, it’s clear there’s reverence (and a market) for Romero’s movies. Arrow Films has joined that fray with a terrific new box set entitled “George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn” which gathers the three early-70s movies directed by Romero following the success (but no money) of Night of the Living Dead.

The box set should more accurately be called “Between Night and Martin” since Romero’s 1977 movie Martin, which he made immediately prior to his classic Dawn of the Dead is not included here. But what we do get are three very different, very interesting films, each with their own background that paints a picture of what was happening in Romero’s life at the time.

First up is There’s Always Vanilla from 1971, which Romero didn’t write, and to hear him speak on some of the archive interviews, he doesn’t even feel like he directed it, merely edited the footage shot by a committee. This was the follow-up to Night, but his company at the time, Latent Image, was no more financially secure than it had been. Due to that dumb copyright problem with Night, Romero and Latent Image didn’t actually own the movie and therefore could not see any profit from it. As such, they were starting from zero again.

There’s Always Vanilla began as a now-lost short film designed to be an acting showcase for their friend Raymond Laine. The idea was introduced to turn it into a feature, which another member of the Latent Image family, Rudolph Ricci, did, creating a sort of romantic comedy starring Laine and Judith Streiner, nee Ridley, the wife of Latent Image’s Russ Streiner and co-star of Night. As it is such a low-budget affair, a lot of the “comedy” is lost, though it looks quite good and the stars certainly have chemistry. Not a great movie, but an interesting look at what might have been if Romero had left horror behind.

Included on this disc is a rapid fire, incredibly detailed audio commentary track by writer and programmer Travis Crawford (who indeed provides the same type of commentary for all three films) as well as a brand new documentary on the making of the movie with interviews from some of the Latent Image gang, including producer John Russo (who co-wrote Night and has been trading off of that forever), producer Russ Streiner, sound recordist Gary Streiner, and actors Judith Streiner and Richard Ricci. This is a very good look at filmmaking from the Latent Image perspective, which is something we rarely get. We also get a 2005 archive interview with Romero talking about this movie and Season of the Witch, in which it’s very clear he’s in a bad mood and has nothing nice to say about Vanilla but does like Season a fair amount.

Next up is 1972’s Season of the Witch, released initially as Hungry Wives and written and initially filmed by Romero as Jack’s Wife. As you might be able to gather, it’s not a movie anybody really knew what to do with, but I think it might be my favorite of the movies in the set. Jan White stars as a housewife and mother of a teenage girl who has vivid dreams about being haggard and literally kept on a leash by her husband. She begins to have a sort of middle-aged sexual awakening thanks to a chance meeting with her daughter’s hip-ass professor (played by Raymond Laine again), and at the same time begins reading about witchcraft after meeting a self-proclaimed witch with her housewife friends.

For only Romero’s second screenplay, and his first solo, it’s astonishing how self-assured and grown up the storytelling and character interactions are. It feels like a direct precursor to Martin, being a drama with postmodern horror elements. While Joanie’s dream sequences–which also include an intruder wearing a demon mask–are shot and edited to maximize unease and fright, most of the movie is about a woman who’s been taken for granted by her husband, friends, and society and turns to the black arts to justify her wanting to have an affair. It’s really very good, though as Romero said, he cringes at some of his technical mistakes. They aren’t major, but he does break the 180-degree rule a few times, which elicited a chuckle from me.

The main feature on this disc is a terrific one: “When Romero Met Del Toro,” a nearly hour-long interview held in 2016 between Romero and Guillermo del Toro, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of Romero’s filmography and is so reverent that it makes the elder man blush. They go through each of Romero’s movies and talk about his recurrent themes, including social upheaval, loss of self, religion, and casual nudity. A brilliant discussion between two brilliant people.

Finally we have the movie I’d seen already, and probably the only one of these you have as well, 1973’s The Crazies, which was the first Romero film since Night to get a proper theatrical release, and prefigures a lot of the visual style and tone of Dawn. Following the accidental release of an experimental nerve toxin, residents of a rural Pennsylvania town begin to go insane and murderous, which leads to the government and military stepping in, which only makes matters worse. We follow both a small group of uninfected townsfolk and a small team of military scientists trying to quickly find a cure.

This movie is Romero at his most cynical until 1985’s Day of the Dead. The white-clad, gas-masked troopers sent in to clean up the town are more terrifying than the actual crazies a lot of the time, and Romero mixes the types of scares with aplomb. Though Dawn pigeonholed him as the “Zombie Guy,” that movie had a lot of anger at the status quo, which seems even more angry in The Crazies, and if he’d never made Dawn, we might have gotten grittier stuff like this for longer.

Not a ton of new features on this disc, but again we do get a very thorough commentary by Travis Crawford, and some nice archive interviews with actress Lynn Lowry.

This, like everything Arrow releases, is a superb box set. Vanilla has been given a 2K restoration while the other two get a glorious 4K restoration, and look ridiculously good. Whether you’ve never seen these movies or have watched them a ton, this box set has something for you. Understanding George Romero’s “lesser” films is key in understanding him as a filmmaker, and as a man, and I found all of these films and extras nothing less than a complete revelation for a director I thought I knew all about.

Images: Arrow Video

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