George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Tim Salmons
  • Review Date: Nov 15, 2017
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn (Blu-ray Review)

Director

George A. Romero

Release Date(s)

1971-1973 (November 14, 2017)

Studio(s)

Latent Image/Cambist Films/Jack H. Harris Enterprises/Pittsburgh Films (Arrow Video)
  • Film/Program Grade: See Below
  • Video Grade: See Below
  • Audio Grade: See Below
  • Extras Grade: A-
  • Overall Grade: A-

George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn (Blu-ray Review)

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Review

After the passing of George A. Romero, I had the distinct feeling that many of us would be going back and reevaluating his work – specifically his less popular work. Post-Night of the Living Dead, he went through, what I consider to be, a “wandering” artistic phase. If he was able to get the backing and the support to do so, he would dip his toes into foreign creative waters and try to make whatever he wanted. At the same time, he wasn’t interested in repeating himself or being typecast as nothing more than a horror director. Eventually, that did come to pass, but only because he had decided to make a sequel to Night of the Living Dead of his own free will. But before Dawn of the Dead changed the course of his career forever, he attempted a few things that wound up not working critically or commercially, yet gave him an environment to learn his craft, almost all of which are presented in Arrow Video’s new boxed set George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn.

The pre-Dawn phase began with There’s Always Vanilla, which was initially released as The Affair. Once considered a lost film before making its way to DVD many years ago, it was put together immediately after the success of Night. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out for anybody involved with in it. In the story, we follow Chris (Ray Laine), a freewheeling hippie-type who is a bit off course in life with no direction or any clear idea of what he wants to do. Returning to his hometown after a short stint away from it, he finds possible parental responsibility waiting for him when he gets there. Making things even more complicated, he runs into a local actress named Lynn (Judith Ridley), who he falls for immediately. Unfortunately, his selfishness and unwillingness to better himself will put a strain on their relationship and, ultimately, threaten to undo it.

Despite most of the previous and current negative feelings felt towards There’s Always Vanilla (and I don’t say this to be an outright contrarian), I find the film to be kind of fascinating and undervalued. It tends to receive an unfair bashing, including from its own director who couldn’t see past its shortcomings (although I have it on good authority that his opinion of it had changed not long before he passed). It’s no lost masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a more interesting film than its follow-up, Season of the Witch. You can certainly see stylistic touches reminiscent of his later work, particularly the sequence in which Lynn’s failed attempt at getting an abortion ends in a suspenseful foot chase. One also can’t help but be reminded of Barbara running from the cemetery zombie. For a film that’s been shunned for most of its existence, it has some surprising creative flair to it and holds up much better than expected. I may be going out on a very lonely limb on this one, but I firmly believe that There’s Always Vanilla has been vastly overlooked and underappreciated amongst George’s body of work.

Following the disappointment of that film was Season of the Witch, which had no less than two title changes (Jack’s Wife and Hungry Wives) before eventually settling on what we know it as today. A different beast altogether, it examines the life of a suburban house wife (Jan White) who has reached middle age and is finding herself to be lost and desires for something different. She begins practicing witchcraft, coming to believe that it’s actually working and affecting her and her deepest aspirations, but at the possible risk of her sanity. Although the film wasn’t a success, things seemed a little more promising for George as he was more satisfied with the results of the film creatively. The feministic views and oftentimes surrealistic approach to the material make it a film that’s certainly intriguing. Personally, I find that it has serious pacing issues, and just the thought that it was once longer by nearly forty minutes is shocking. It’s not a bad film as its meditations on women’s liberation through the eyes of someone a tad off center makes it an unusual but attractive piece, especially for its time. It was also a bit of a starting point as aspects of it would be further explored in future films. However, I don’t believe it holds up well as a whole.

Next for Romero was The Crazies, also known as Code Name: Trixie. A precursor to what he would do later with his Dead sequels, it showcases his view of what a crumbling society would be like in the face of a crisis: chaos. In the town of Evans City outside of Pittsburgh, a virus outbreak has occurred, which is causing people to exhibit bizarre, sometimes violent and destructive behavior. While the army arrives in town to try and unsuccessfully contain it, a ragtag group of seemingly immune survivors attempt to avoid the troops and somehow escape from it all. This film, more than any others, clearly reminds me of Dawn while I’m watching it. Not only for the subject matter, but by the style of editing, which George was beginning to get a firm grip on aesthetically. His style seems to be coming to fruition here and the sequences involving the firemen in the beginning can be directly linked to the opening scenes of Dawn. While the film itself isn’t one hundred percent effective, particularly due to some the schmaltzy musical choices that seem out of place, it demonstrates disorder better than almost anything George would make later.

For Arrow Video’s presentation of each film, new restorations were carried out to get the best possible results. For There’s Always Vanilla, a 2K restoration from a 35mm internegative element was utilized. Unfortunately, a good quality element no longer exists, mainly due to the Kodak dupe stock that was used that didn’t hold up over time, which included a loss of its color properties and image detail. What can be done with the material has been done to improve it. It’s naturally filmic with obvious grain levels, but irreparable damage. Depth can be observed, but fine detail sometimes struggles to make itself known. The color palette is obviously faded, more in a few specific places than others, while black levels are inherently crushed. However, overall brightness and contrast levels are excellent and the frame is quite stable. Tempering expectations about this transfer is likely to yield you with more satisfactory results. It’s really not bad to watch at all and is obviously much better in motion.

Season of the Witch is sourced from a 4K restoration of the original 16mm AB camera negative. This is the original 89-minute theatrical version of the film. George’s original 130-minute director’s cut is now considered lost, but a slightly extended version, clocking in at 104 minutes, does exist and is included in this set as an extra. As for the main presentation itself, it’s quite satisfactory. Coming from 16mm film, it’s highly grainy with some crushed blacks, but in motion, it’s organic in appearance with strong detail. The color palette isn’t overly striking, which has more to do with the set design and costumes more than the transfer itself. Everything has an inherent 70s brown and green tint look to it with only occasional splashes of blue and red. Overall brightness and contrast are good and the image itself is stable. Next to no damage is leftover, other than minor speckling and occasional scratches, which didn’t stick out all that much.

The Crazies comes from a 4K restoration utilizing the original 35mm camera negative and a color reversal intermediate element. Truth be told, I’ve always felt that The Crazies was an unremarkable film visually, but Arrow Video has made the most of it. Grain is a bit splotchy with a definite “breathing” quality to the footage, which is more pronounced on solid backgrounds with solid colors. Texturing and detail is excellent and color reproduction is remarkably improved, especially reds which really pop, as well as skin tones. Black levels aren’t thoroughly deep, but fairly decent with good shadow detail and pleasing brightness and contrast. It’s also stable with next to no film damage leftover other than some minor weak spots, which are minimal.

The audio for each film is presented via an English 1.0 LPCM track. There’s Always Vanilla, like its video counterpart, is presented in the best possible way, but with obvious deficiencies that couldn’t be fixed. Hiss, pops, and crackle are all present, although likely attenuated as much as possible. Dialogue is perfectly audible, while score and sound effects are predictably flat. It’s also fairly narrow for the most part without any dynamics to speak of. By comparison, Season of the Witch definitely has a stronger emphasis on the sound design, particularly the nightmarish and surrealistic sequences, but nothing overly dynamic. Dialogue is mostly clean and clear, while sound effects come off a tad thin. The score, as well as Donovan’s title song, have a slight bit of breathing room, but the overall quality of the track is limited. The Crazies features extremely mild dynamics with mostly good dialogue reproduction, although the army folks in their masks are a little difficult to make out sometimes (perhaps by design). Sound effects have some mild bite to them, but the score has very little impact and is pretty dim within the mix. Each film also features subtitles in English SDH for those who might need them.

THERE’S ALWAYS VANILLA (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): B-/B-/B-
SEASON OF THE WITCH (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): C/B+/B
THE CRAZIES (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): B/B+/B

As for the supplemental features, each disc comes packed with new audio commentaries for every film with film journalist Travis Crawford (joined by podcaster Bill Ackerman on Disc Three) and two separate image galleries (filming locations and collectible scans). For There’s Always Vanilla on Disc One, there’s Affair of the Heart: The Making of There’s Always Vanilla, which includes interviews with many of the film’s cast and crew; the vintage Digging Up the Dead: The Lost Films of George A. Romero, which is an older interview with the filmmaker himself; and the film’s theatrical trailer. For Season of the Witch on Disc Two, there’s the aforementioned 104-minute extended version of the film, assembled by Michael Felsher using SD inserts to complete it; When Romero Met Del Toro, a fantastic new interview piece between the two men; The Secret Life of Jack’s Wife, an archival interview with actress Jan White; 3 sets of alternate opening titles; and 2 theatrical trailers for the film. For The Crazies on Disc Three, there’s Romero Was Here: Locating The Crazies, a location tour with film historian Lawrence DeVincentz; Crazy for Lynn Lowry, an interview with the titular actress; a Lynn Lowry Q&A from the 2016 Abertoir film festival in Aberystwyth, UK; a short audio interview with producer Lee Hessel, conducted by his son; 8mm behind-the-scenes footage with optional audio commentary by Lawrence DeVincentz; a set of alternate opening titles; 2 theatrical trailers; and 2 TV spots. In addition, there are DVD copies of all three films and a 60-page insert booklet with 3 articles about each film including “What about Butter Pecan? Finding New Flavors in George A. Romero’s Romantic Comedy There’s Always Vanilla” by Kat Ellinger, “Women Fly When Men Aren’t Watching: George A. Romero’s Season of the Witch” by Kier-La Janisse, and “Welcome to Evans City: George A. Romero’s The Crazies” by Heather Drain, as well as restoration details. All of this is housed in sturdy cardboard packaging. Missing from the Anchor Bay DVD release of Season of the Witch is The Directors: George A. Romero documentary and missing from Blue Underground’s DVD and Blu-ray releases of The Crazies is an audio commentary with Romero and William Lustig and The Cult Film Legacy of Lynn Lowry featurette.

Sadly, the only real problem with this set, which has been duly noted since it was initially announced, is the lack of George’s fourth film that was also made before Dawn of the Dawn, which is Martin. Unfortunately, the rights to that film are being held onto by its owner with a tight grip for whatever reasons. That said, it’s also a blessing that it isn’t in this set either. Martin is such a good film that it would clearly overshadow and devalue the other films in this set. These films need a little more appreciation than Martin as it’s currently the most popular of the four and it deserves its own high quality solo release. Perhaps someday we’ll get it – one can only hope.

For anyone interested in George’s career outside of straight horror movies, George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn is a fascinating eye-opener. None of the films are perfect, but they manage to demonstrate a filmmaker who is learning both how to make films and how to navigate the business of them. For that reason alone, it’s a wonderful lesson in low budget filmmaking against adversity, regardless of your opinions of each film. And with quality high definition transfers and entertaining extras, this boxed set is a must. Highly recommended!

- Tim Salmons

 

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