Arrow Video: Between Night and Dawn (1971-1973) - Reviewed

It’s been four months since the passing of legendary American-Canadian horror film auteur George A. Romero, better known as the man who popularized the zombie apocalypse subgenre beginning with Night of the Living Dead in 1968 before arguably delivering his masterpiece with the 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead.  Between that brief gap separating Night and Dawn, however, the zombie horror maestro tried to distance himself from the genre in a series of films curated by Arrow Video for the blu-ray boxed set Between Night at Dawn

Made between 1971 and 1973 with two produced by the same company that financed Night of the Living Dead, the first two films find the director leaning towards documenting 60s counterculture with There’s Always Vanilla and female empowerment in the form of witchcraft with Season of the Witch.  Having failed to find an audience with the first two, Romero returned once more to apocalyptic horror with The Crazies which ultimately proved to be a reasonably effective dress rehearsal for Dawn.

Varying vastly in quality and narrative hook, Romero himself ultimately disowned There’s Always Vanilla as well as citing Season of the Witch as an unfinished project he had hoped to remake one day, making this new Arrow Video boxed set an uneven package strictly for die hards eager to see the transitional period which built upon Night towards Dawn.  As such, it’s an intriguing if not somewhat disappointing package as neither Vanilla nor Witch bear much solidarity along with The Crazies sporting familiar territory better explored in Dawn.  Nevertheless, the Movie Sleuth took a good look at these early works in the zombie horror master’s career and here are our thoughts.

There's Always Vanilla (1971)

Cited as one of the director’s only romantic comedies in his oeuvre and characterized as among the few pictures written by someone other than Romero (penned by Rudolph J. Ricci), There’s Always Vanilla is a rough-around-the-edges 60s flower generation 16mm venture featuring much of the cast and crew from Night of the Living Dead without that film’s focus and drive.  In other words, There’s Always Vanilla not only meanders and struggles to maintain the viewer’s attention, Romero himself went on the record to call it his ‘worst movie’ and added in a video interview included in the boxed set just how little he cares about it.

Following the aimless exploits of former U.S. Army soldier Chris Bradley (Raymond Laine, also appearing in Season of the Witch), the film jumps about between Laine addressing the camera directly through recollections in an attempt to add coherence to the proceedings and following his soon-to-be girlfriend Lynn (Judith Ridley from Night of the Living Dead) fending off a sleazy television commercial director.  If it sounds like this film went on ahead without giving the audience something to latch onto, it certainly is.  While some fans will get a kick out of spotting Russell Streiner as a hippie working on a beer commercial, it’s difficult to invest in what frankly amount to little more than random scribblings.

Outside of a creepy abortion clinic chase sequence compounded with medical unease, most expecting the Romero who delivered Night will find themselves increasingly bored by this misbegotten effort.  Arrow Video have done a fine job cleaning up and giving new life to this forgotten film, but chances are most people who buy this boxed set will only ever watch this once before moving on to the director’s more fully realized efforts.  Romero places blame of course on the picture being underbudget and largely unfinished, though I doubt this is one anyone feels the need to remake for modern audiences anytime soon.


Season of the Witch (1972) *

There’s a phrase I picked up while watching I Love Lucy a lot as a kid: “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” The epic response to this colloquialism is one of the best jokes ever uttered on the show, but that’s neither here nor there. I found this saying creeping into my subconscious during the many, many times I was bored to tears by George A. Romero’s 1972 domestic melodrama, Season of the Witch, originally titled (more fittingly) Hungry Wives. This is a film from a man who — until very recently — was a living legend, having created what is arguably the single most beloved and critically praised horror trilogy of all time.

As it turns out, it was a long, winding road that led from Night of the Living Dead to Dawn of the Dead, and I guarantee you someone passed out behind the wheel along the way. It takes more than license plate bingo and road head to keep awake during this snoozer. This is a damn shame. Not just because of what Romero would become known for, but because this film starts out really strong. It opens with a dream sequence that’s downright Lynchian, with surrealist editing and cinematography (both of which were provided by Romero, who also served as writer and director). This introduces us to the troubled psyche of Joan Mitchell, mundanely portrayed under horrible 70s makeup by Jan White. The dream shows her following far behind her husband, who either doesn’t know she is there or flat-out doesn’t care. She gets pelted in the face with tree branches, falls between dreamscapes resembling places we will see later, and all as she shouts into silence for her husband to acknowledge her.

This is an absorbing and thoughtfully crafted sequence that tells us everything we need to know about Joan, her marriage, and it sets the tone for the rest of the film. Sadly, after that Season of the Witch rolls downhill like a ball of dog dooky down a muddy slope, gathering up dirt and sludge until it looks like a gigantic boulder. It might not all be shit, but it sure looks like it. The movie has moments that hint at the genius we all know and love, but after such a resonant preamble, he continues to let us down in scene after scene. Nothing of any real interest happens ever again. Even developments that could have been noteworthy — one climactic moment in particular — have their momentum destroyed by muddled pacing and truly awful dialogue, digested and puked out by acting that ranges from catatonic to cringe-worthy.

It’s not hard to see why Romero decided to roll the dice on this film. The story of a domesticated and discontented housewife who turns to witchcraft in search of empowerment strums the chords of all the obsessions that would fuel some of his best work. When you boil down the Dead Trilogy to its core themes, they are about people who have to figure out life and relationships when the future they had in mind is dead. Those films would eventually feature strong women in central performances, making sense of their role in the crumbled and chaotic remnants of a “man’s world”. Joan Mitchell and her cadre of desperate housewives see their children hitting adulthood as a road that dead ends into middle age with severe tire damage. But while zombies provide an easy metaphorical foil for Romero’s social commentary, he seems unable to really peel back the layers of Joan in any convincing way. Her most revealing moment involves her literally revealing her body, but if you want psychological depth with your pointless nudity, you’re better off watching Basic Instinct. One scene in particular is so poorly written and performed, it marked the moment when this reviewer officially gave up and cracked open the wine bottle.

In more capable hands, I could see Season of the Witch being rather impressively remade. The story is standard, but ripe for psychological exploration. Jan White lacks the appeal and acting chops to provide an anchor this kind of material demands. Darren Aronofsky could knock this out of the park; a young and inexperienced George A. Romero all but drove it into the dirt. I would feel bad for pointing this out, but Romero himself didn’t like it, so I guess we’re in good company.


The Crazies (1973)

After facing two box office failures with There’s Always Vanilla and Season of the Witch, Romero decided to return to apocalyptic horror with his viral outbreak thriller The Crazies.   Echoing the ecological thriller sentiments of The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue while functioning as a dress rehearsal for what would eventually become Dawn of the Dead, The Crazies concerns a military bioweapon designed to drive people mad which is accidentally unleashed upon a small town.  Much like the eventual Bong Joon-Ho film The Host, the real terror isn’t so much the mad virus as it is the ruthless military quarantine response.  The army of ordinary citizens transformed into ruthless killers are only a small part of the problem compared to the brutal military force who ultimately cause more harm than good.

Unlike the previous films centered on one character returns to the ensemble cast format employed on Night of the Living Dead.  Still ostensibly microbudget in size though sporting a wider scale than anything attempted previously, The Crazies like his Dead pictures offers up a cavalcade of colorful characters including familiar faces such as Richard Liberty playing the same manic and crazed role he’d play twelve years later with Logan in Day of the Dead.  Also playing a substantially greater role than his smug television commentator in Dawn is Richard France as Dr. Watts, the only figure in the crisis who may have the key for a medical cure. 

While The Crazies tends to suffer from technical limitations and the same inconclusive notes that closed There’s Always Vanilla and Season of the Witch, this is a considerably more polished alternate take on Night of the Living Dead.  Proof positive Romero’s strengths lie with depicting survivalist situations rather than singular character studies, The Crazies is surprisingly engaging when compared to the first two films in the set which struggle to give viewers a narrative hook to latch onto.  The Crazies also serves up moments of startling gore that can’t help but forecast the horrors Romero and effects technician Tom Savini would unleash just a few years later with Dawn.  Of the films in this set, The Crazies is easily the best but it still pales in comparison to the film it was clearly working towards.


- Andrew Kotwicki
-* Blake O. Kleiner