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, whilst firmly rooted in the horror genre for the most part, demonstrate a master filmmaker with more than mere gut-munching on his mind.
In There's Always Vanilla, Romero's sophomore 1971 directorial effort, young drifter Chris and beautiful model Lynn embark upon a tumultuous relationship which seems doomed from the outset. 1972's Season of the Witch (originally filmed as Jack's Wife but released to theaters under the title of Hungry Wives) follows the exploits of Joan Mitchell – a housewife whose dissatisfaction with her humdrum life leads to an unhealthy interest in the occult. Lastly, 1973's The Crazies, which sees Romero returning to more "straight" horror territory, has a small rural town finding itself in the grip of an infection which send its hosts into a violent, homicidal frenzy.
Taken together, these three early works, made in the period between Romero's celebrated living dead outings Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, serve to display the broader thematic concerns and auteurist leanings of a skilled craftsman too often pigeonholed within the genre.
Sometimes, no matter how hard they may try, a filmmaker simply can not break away from the genre that spawned their careers. When you see the name George Romero, your brain will naturally spring images from Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Creepshow or any number of other horror films Romero directed or inspired. What you don't instinctively think of is George as a director of dozens of commercials, several documentaries, and a handful of films outside the horror genre. In point of fact, George only turned to horror for his first feature effort because he had a keen mind of the marketplace and knew that would be the most marketable and profitable genre to tackle. With Arrow Video's George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn, we get a look at the middle period of George's filmmaking career when he tried to break away from zombies and establish himself as a bonafide filmmaker.
Before the release of Dawn of the Dead, George would try to tackle a romantic dramedy with There's Always Vanilla and an Ira Levin-styled psychological thriller with Season of the Witch before returning to horror with the classic The Crazies. It's this period of time that we get to see George try and break away from Night of the Living Dead and attempt to establish himself as not just another "horror director" but someone with range and willing to take risks. Unfortunately, the results aren't exactly the best of the best outings for the man who invented the modern zombie. While Romero's statical wit is infused in each of these films, you can still feel the man finding his legs as a director and a visual storyteller where somewhat complicated material remains just out of reach.
There's Always Vanilla (1971)
If you've ever wondered what a romantic drama/comedy directed by George Romero would look like - well, this is the closest thing to it. Romero may have directed the film, but he turned to writer Rudy Ricci who had worked as a Zombie in NOTLD and had helped with the production. It's at this point that Vanilla doesn't work. There's nothing of Romero really in it. He may be pointing the camera and shooting and his early cinéma vérité stylings are on full display, but the heart and soul are not his. Not helping matters, Ricci apparently quit the film midway production and left Romero and crew to work from an incomplete script under a very tight deadline that didn't allow for Romero much time to fill in any story gaps or fix any plot issues. While the film tries to have a meaningful message about misogyny and its effects on monogamous relationships and the lives of swingers, there's little point to it. Romero himself even said it was his worst film and he's not lying. This is a toothless social satire that lacks any bite. 2/5
Season of the Witch (1972)
It's difficult to pinpoint what went wrong with Season of the Witch. Financially, it was a flop because of extremely poor marketing choices by the distributor who hacked and slashed the film and tried to release it in the soft core porn market - even though there's little to no sexual interest in the film. If there's a comparison to be made to Season of the Witch, it's like Romero took the roots of Ira Leven's Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives and smashed the two ideas into a psychological thriller that doesn't quite come together. It's visually hypnotic and arresting, you're instantly sucked into this little world Romero created because it's so completely unlike anything else in his career. However, the themes surrounding a stark look at conformity against the backdrop of the women's liberation movement gets a bit muddled when you look at the sexual/horror aspects of a coven of witches looking to add to their ranks. It's a decent film overall, but you can feel Romero testing waters he's not quite comfortable exploring. 3/5
The Crazies (1973)
Of the three films contained within this Between Night and Dawn set, The Crazies is the most cohesive experience to the rest of Romero's catalog of films. It's part Night of the Living Dead and part Dawn of the Dead. While not 100% exactly a zombie film, it does contain a number of similar traits ranging from violent people who were once "normal," the incapable military presence that is unable to contain the problem, the band of survivors that must avoid contact with the infected and even each other if they hope to live. If you take away the presence of Vanilla and Witches from Romero's canon of films and strip everything down to just his horror films, The Crazies is a middle effort. Still shot on a shoestring budget and a bit campy at times, the film was also Romero's first union film and his first stab at large production filmmaking. Made in the waning days of the Viet Nam conflict, it's also easy to spot the parallels to that situation and gives the film a sharp and biting edge while also providing extra humor. It may not be as fine-tuned as Dawn, but it's every bit as visceral and showed that Romero could manage a decently budgeted film with flair. 4/5
With George's passing last July, it's hard not to feel a loss when you look at and appreciate his early films before the Hollywood machine consumed his energy in the early 90s. While his Dead films are arguably his most famous, Between Night and Dawn does a fantastic job of showcasing the filmmaker when he was still experimenting and finding his footing. Given that the quality of the films varies from one to the next, you can clearly chart his progression and confidence behind the camera. That said, there is one slight omission with this set and that is his brilliant vampire film Martin which was released just a few short months before Dawn of the Dead in 1978. As I understand it, Martin is a bit of a rights quagmire so its absence in this set is understandable but a shame none the less. Hopefully, with the upcoming Criterion release of Night of the Living Dead that will get sorted out as of his earliest films that reside between Night and Dawn, Martin is easily his best work.
Taken as a whole, this George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn set is a pretty damn impressive collection of Romero's work. Aside from The Crazies, it includes his lesser known films restored into a condition that is at least watchable. My earliest experiences with There's Always Vanilla and Season of the Witch were sad bootleg VHS tapes that I rented from my local mom and pop shop decades ago. Now finally seeing them presented in their best possible condition, I will say that Season of the Witch is the most watchable of the two and worth revisiting. After getting through There's Always Vanilla a couple of times now, it's a rough movie, to say the least, and is merely suitable as a curiosity in Romero's career. But for those completionists out there who are hankering to own each and every Romero film on Blu-ray, Between Night and Dawn is a terrific collection of his middle career films.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Arrow Video. Each film, There's Always Vanilla, Season of the Witch, and The Crazies is given their own Region A BD-50 disc with accompanying DVD and are housed in their own respective hard clear Blu-ray cases with reversible artwork. All three cases are held in a sturdy cardboard case and comes with a terrific 58-page book containing essays, stills, and restoration information about each film. Each film opens to an animated main menu featuring traditional navigation options.
Considering the films involved, their age, and the care (or lack of) they have received over the years, the transfers for this set are a bit of a mixed bag all around.
There's Always Vanilla
As the film that was least cared for, its 1.37:1 1080p transfer is clearly the most problematic. Scanned at 2K from an internegative, the Kodak negative duping stock used in the 1970s was unstable and allowed the cyan layer to fade rapidly taking with it shadow and color information. As a result, you have an image that is considerably rough around the edges and far and away from anything considered pristine. Originally shot on 16mm, the grain field is very heavy and the image can appear quite noisy. Detail levels are appreciable but unremarkable as they can vary from shot to shot. Colors are a bit of a hot mess as they travel all over the spectrum from being stable and good looking with decent primaries to being washed out with blown out contrast. Black levels are stable enough but image depth wavers quite a bit. Considering the last time I looked at this movie was a bootleg VHS tape, this isn't nearly as terrible as it could have been, nor is it the shining success some may have hoped for. As it stands, it's at least watchable and gives you an idea of what Romero was going for, but it's hardly definitive. This transfer is merely as good as it's likely ever to get. 2/5
Season of the Witch
In contrast to Vanilla, Season of the Witch makes for a rather beautiful 1.37:1 1080p transfer. Scanned at 4K from the original 16mm camera negatives, this image offers up plenty of fine details. Grain is present but stable allowing you to appreciate facial features, costuming, and the rather odd production design work. Colors are robust and vivid with a strong primary presence with plenty of pop. Skin tones are on the warmer side but still lifelike and healthy without appearing too pink or too pale. Black levels, are for the most part, deep and inky giving the image a notable sense of depth that really comes to life during the many dream sequences giving the odd imagery a more visceral feel. There are a couple odd moments of black crush during a few night scenes and there are moments where anything outside of midrange and closeup can get a bit soft and hazy, but nothing too terrible. The image is in fine condition with only a couple scratches and very slight speckling here and there. Like Vanilla, the last time I saw this was on a crappy bootleg VHS and this image is far and away better than what I'd hoped for. 4/5
Considering Blue Underground churned out a decent - but not altogether amazing - release of this film in 2010, I honestly didn't know what to expect with this new 4K scan of the 35mm negative. While I thought the Blue Underground release was a pretty decent upgrade over the DVD, this new Arrow Video 1.85:1 1080p transfer is a sharp improvement in virtually every department. Scratches and debris have been cleaned up or removed altogether with only mild occasional speckling the only damage to report. Details are also greatly improved - especially finer details in clothing and facial features. Outdoor daylight sequences offer a particular lifelike pop and presence to them. Colors are also more stable with lifelike flesh tones and more pronounced primaries. Blood enjoys wonderfully bright red splash to it. I would also point out that in many ways this transfer is darker than the Blue Underground release as it pulls back blues and stabilizes contrast levels, but not to a point that makes the image muddy, but instead works to normalize the image. The opening shot of the farmhouse at the beginning is a sign of this, but in terms of enjoying stronger color saturation, the immediate shot of the little girl getting a glass of water in the bathroom with the red walls shows how more lively and better resolved the color timing is of this release. Black levels feel more even here with a natural inky quality without the crush and flatness of the image as the previous release featured. All around this is a huge improvement to my eyes and fans fo the film should be happy to see the work and care put into this release. 4/5
While Arrow Video has clearly done everything in their power to provide the best possible presentations, there is only so much magic that can be worked with these films. There's Always Vanilla, Season of the Witch, and The Crazies each exhibit some unfortunate audio anomalies within their LPCM mono audio tracks that are essentially baked into the mold at this point. Each displays moments with shrill blown-out dialogue exchanges, flat lifeless sound effects and mixing issues that just make things sound odd and out of place rather than creating a natural atmosphere of sounds. As such, much like the video transfers, each film is a sliding scale.
There's Always Vanilla is the roughest of the bunch. While dialogue is intelligible, it absolutely has issues. Any dialogue exchanges in locations with high ceilings sound as if the onset dialogue was used for the final mix without any finessing or ADR dubbing to clean things up. There are stretches that are just a cacophony of noise that threatens to drown out the dialogue. 2/5
On the flip side, although still hampered by baked in issues is the track supplied for Season of the Witch. The issues plaguing Witch are scant by comparison. Dialogue is a lot cleaner and better defined. Sound effects and scoring work to provide a richer sense of atmosphere. However, this is still a very flat sounding film without much sense of imaging or dimension. There are also several dialogue moments similar to Vanilla where everything sounds like it was mixed using only raw set recordings without any ADR mixing. Hiss is present, but nothing terrible. This is a decent if unremarkable track that gets the job done. 3/5
Much like it's video transfer, The Crazies offers up a significant auditory improvement over it's previous 2010 Blue Underground release. While I never felt too harshly about the audio of that release, to say it was problematic was a bit of an understatement. The most notable improvement is the discernibility of the mix. Dialogue is much cleaner and nowhere near as soft or quiet as the previous release. Where the 2010 audio required a steady thumb on the volume, I felt like that wasn't as severe an issue this time around. During the opening dialogue bits and some extended dialogue exchanges I felt the need to pop the volume up a notch or two, but nowhere near as frequently as before. Sound effects and the score are much clearer and natural sounding. Again, this isn't a perfect mix, some of the issues of the previous release are still present, they're just not nearly as bad or glaring a problem. 3.5/5
As with any Arrow Video release, you can count on a pretty terrific assortment of bonus features. Between all three films, there are hours of bonus features to dig through offering up plenty of Romero-centric bits as well as plenty of material about each individual film's production and release.
There's Always Vanilla:
Audio Commentary featuring Travis Crawford.
Affair of the Heart: The Making of There's Always Vanilla (HD 29:43) Featuring interviews with John Russo, Russell and Judith Streiner, Richard Ricci, and Gary Streiner, this is a pretty terrific retrospective of the film as each of the interviewees offers up plenty of information and anecdotes about working on the film.
Digging Up The Dead: The Lost Films of George A. Romero (HD 15:56) This is a pretty solid piece featuring George talking about his past works and he offers up a rather candid and often critical eye towards his own films.
Theatrical Trailer (HD 1:45)
Filming Locations Image Gallery (HD 11:30)
Memorabilia Image Gallery (HD 1:09)
Season of the Witch:
Audio Commentary featuring Travis Crawford.
When Romero Met del Toro (HD 55:40) Perhaps one of the meatiest and most fan-focused feature of the set, Guillermo del Toro gets to sit down and talk to George about his films and it's a truly great piece.
Extended Version (HD/SD 1:44:20) Comprised of the restored negative elements as well as insert footage from the VHS tape master, this longer cut of the film offers a lot more material and steers the film into more manageable territory but at the same time you can see that the piece was hardly a great work that was given the slash and release treatment from a bad distributor. It's still an oddly arresting yet unmanageable film.
Alternate Opening Titles (HD 3:33, 3:26, 3:27) These are slightly different opening title sequences showcasing how the film looked under its various titles Jack's Wife, Hungry Wives, and Season of the Witch.
The Secret Life of Jack's Wife (HD 17:17) This is a pretty great interview with star Jan White as she offers up plenty of interesting tidbits about the film.
Theatrical Trailer (HD 1:47)
Hungry Wives Trailer (HD 1:31)
Filming Locations Image Gallery (HD 1:34)
Memorabilia Image Gallery (HD 2:32)
Audio Commentary featuring Travis Crawford as well as Bill Ackerman.
Romero Was Here: Locating The Crazies (HD 12:24) This is a pretty fun look at the film's various shooting locations with George Romero and historian Lawrence DeVincentz.
Crazy for Lynn Lowry (HD 15:54) Actress Lynn Lowry provides an entertaining and informative interview about the film.
Lynn Lowry Q&A (HD 35:52) Recorded at the 2016 Abertois Film Festival in Aberystwyth U.K., it's a decent Q&A that works well alongside the actress' solo interview footage.
Audio Interview with Lee Hessel (HD 4:32) Unfortunately this interview is very brief, but it's still pretty good and a worthwhile listen.
Behind the Scenes Footage (HD 6:26) with optional commentary from Romero and historian Lawrence DeVincentz, this is a pretty cool look at the goings-on behind the scenes shooting of the film.
Alternate Opening Titles (HD 00:35)
Theatrical Trailer (HD 2:57)
Theatrical Trailer (HD 3:04)
TV Spot (SD 1:04)
TV Spot (SD 00:33)
Filming Locations Image Gallery (HD 26:56)
Memorabilia Image Gallery (HD 6:04)
When you look at the films of George Romero, it's important to look at the films that simply didn't have "Dead" in the title. Granted, Zombies are what made the man famous and helped him leave an indelible mark on the landscape of movies, but it's also wise to take a look at everything he did. He may be better known and skilled in the realm of horror, but you can't fault the man for trying to break out of that mold. George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn is a terrific look at Romero's earliest attempts at feeing himself from horror genre filmmaking. Granted, There's Always Vanilla is pretty tough and Season of the Witch isn't a work of art, but The Crazies highlighted the man's growth as a filmmaker and his improving abilities at managing larger and larger productions. So it is to that end that this set from Arrow Video is a very recommended endeavor. However, as Vanilla and Witch are best viewed as curiosities, the main attraction here is the newly restored release of The Crazies as it offers up a marked improvement in picture and audio quality.
All three films offer up strong bonus features packages and the included booklet also provides terrific insight into the works of George A. Romero. As a diehard fan of Night of the Living Dead and eager for its impending Criterion Collection release, Between Night and Dawn is a terrific course of appetizer films. They may not be as delicious and fulfilling as his other more famous productions, but they're important and worth watching if only for the fact that they offer a terrific insight into the world of Romero and his career. With that, as Arrow Video recently announced that There's Always Vanilla, Season of the Witch, and The Crazies will be getting single edition releases, those only interested in one or two of these films may rightly feel inclined to wait. However, if you're a Romero completionist and aim to own all of George's works, it's safe to consider Between Night and Dawn Highly Recommended.