George A. Romero’s “Lost” Films on Blu-Ray
George A. Romero redefined horror and the zombie film in “Night of the Living Dead” (1968). (affiliate link) A decade later, he would cement himself as the godfather of the modern zombie film with “Dawn of the Dead” (1978). Between those two, however, he only really had one film that has since gone on to be fairly well remembered: the pseudo-vampire film “Martin” (1978), which came out around the same time as “Dawn”.
This is not to say that Romero wasn’t busy. He continued to do commercial work in order to pay his bills, such as a celebrated ad for Calgon. He did segments for “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”, including a terrifying look at a tonsillectomy. And he made three other full-length pictures.
Sometimes these three are referred to as “lost” films. That is not strictly true, of course. They were never lost, but more forgotten or overlooked. “The Crazies” received some recognition, but the two others — “There’s Always Vanilla” and “Season of the Witch” — spend many years in obscurity. They were not available on VHS, and “Vanilla” first showed up on DVD as a special feature with a fairly cruddy picture transfer.
Now (2017) the three are released on Blu-ray thanks to Arrow Video, looking crisp and clean, and full of bonus material. While none are among Romero’s best work, they are important if you wish to understand his early growth as a director.
There’s Always Vanilla (1971)
A young man (Ray Laine) returns to his home city of Pittsburgh and moves in with an older woman whom he begins to rely on for emotional and financial support.
Following the international success of George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”, (affiliate link) it was only a matter of time before Romero and his production company (The Latent Image) made a follow-up. Though, as Romero would later concede, “Vanilla” is the worst film of his career and not surprisingly was never released on VHS and thus rarely seen before the DVD era.
Latent Image, which involved most of the people from “night”, was largely doing commercial work, as well as some segments of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”. The profits from “Night” should have made Romero and friends millionaires and kicked off huge Hollywood careers, but as we know today, the distributor botched the copyright and the millions in profits never mad it back to the filmmakers. Thus, Latent Image continued on as a low-budget production company rather than the sought-after company it should have been.
“Vanilla” was a miserable experience for all involved. Rudy Ricci never finished the script by the time shooting began, dragging what should have been four weeks to over a year of filming. Ultimately, the “finished” product did not even amount to feature-length and the Ray Laine monologues had to be tagged on after the fact. (Ricci played an important role in “Night”; he was college roommates with Romero in 1957 and introduced Romero to Russo, thus uniting the two primary figures behind “Night”.) Although Romero more or less disowned this film, he is largely responsible for it. Not only the director, he worked as his own cinematographer and editor. Writing came from Rudy Ricci (as mentioned) expanding on a short film he penned, with production officially handled by “Night” veterans John Russo and Russ Streiner. Tackling the score was Steve Gorn.
Bill Hinzman, George Kosana and Judith Ridley (wife of Russ Streiner) are in the cast, as they had been in “Night”. Hinzman would handle much work for Romero both behind and in front of the camera as the years went on. Others, such as assistant cameraman Paul McCollough went with Russo following the Romero-Russo split. McCollough would be editor and composer for much of Russo’s work between 1976 and 1996.
Originally distributed (poorly) by Cambist Films, it was later picked up by Anchor Bay on DVD, tacked on as a bonus feature to “Season the Witch”. In 2017, we finally get a proper Blu-ray release through Arrow Video. A cleaner picture obviously does not magically turn a bad film into a good one, but thanks to the audio commentary and special features (including a 30-minute making-of with Russo and Streiner), we get an in-depth look at the world of Romero and Latent Image. Like it or not, this film is the bridge between “Night of the Living Dead” (affiliate link) and Romero’s later work, thus making it a crucial watch for any student of his films.
Season of the Witch (1973)
A woman (Jan White) feels kept down by her husband, and pursues witchcraft as a hobby. That has some negative consequences, as well as her new interest in adultery.
This is the first film solely written by George A. Romero and a break from most of the Latent Image crew who had made “Night of the Living Dead”. (affiliate link) Some familiar names return. Bill Hinzman appears as “the intruder” and did some lighting and photography. Master bamboo flutist Steve Gorn returns as composer. Gary Streiner, who did sound on “Night” and “Vanilla”, is now a producer. And actors Robert Trow and Raymond Laine from “Vanilla” are back. Outside of the two Romero films, Trow is best known for appearing in 266(!) episodes of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”.
The opening scene features a woman being swatted by newspaper, slapped by tree branches, and dragged on a leash into a kennel. It is very artistic, and shows early on why Hollywood Reporter called the film “a nightmarish vision of female oppression.” Let us put the film in its historical context. Wicca and neopaganism began in England thanks to Gerald Gardner but really took off in America around 1970 thanks to Paul Huson’s book “Mastering Witchcraft”. This coincides with the rise of “second wave” feminism lead by Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. Though the themes today (2017) may seem quaint, they were hot topics in 1973.
Mike Mayo gives the film a solid three out of four, the most complimentary review I am aware of. Yet, his write-up raises questions of his sincerity. He says the film “had more social relevance than it does now”, is “too-talky” and is “not nearly as suspenseful or engrossing” as “Martin” overall. This gives the impression he wants to like it as a Romero fan, but cannot fully commit himself. Had Mayo watched it, not knowing Romero was involved, would he have been so rewarding?
The film’s original title “Jack’s Wife” succinctly captured the essence of the film, being about a woman who was not seen as her own person. The later and more common title is “Season the Witch”, which plays up the very limited horror aspect and probably disappointed many expecting a supernatural tale. (I originally saw it at a horror marathon, which was unfortunate.) Yet another title was “Hungry Wives”, suggesting a sexploitation film, which this absolutely is not.
The movie was originally released by Jack Harris (best known for “The Blob”), shortly after Harris distributed John Landis’ debut “Schlock”. Harris also distributed John Carpenter’s debut “Dark Star” (1974). While his creation of “The Blob” is appropriately celebrated, perhaps Harris deserves even more praise for aiding the careers of not one, but three masters of horror!
The Arrow Blu-ray provides multiple cuts of the film, but its best new feature is an hour-long conversation between Romero and Guillermo del Toro. Of course, this dialogue is not strictly about “Season of the Witch”. But that is what makes it so great, because few filmmakers have the love for genre cinema that del Toro goes, and he can get to the heart of Romero’s visions.
The Crazies (1973)
The military attempts to contain a man-made combat virus that causes death and permanent insanity in those infected, as it overtakes a small Pennsylvania town.
This project began life with Paul McCollough, who authored a screenplay entitled “The Mad People”. The script dealt with a military bioweapon that was accidentally released into a small town, with the military subsequently trying to cover up the incident and the townspeople revolting. Romero revealed that the military subplot was only featured in the first act of the script, and the rest of the film focused on the survivors and their attempts to cope with what was happening. The director called McCollough’s script “very existential and heady”.
The screenplay was read by Lee Hessel, a producer who owned Cambist Films (best known for 1960s sexploitation films) and with whom Romero had previously worked on “There’s Always Vanilla” (1971). Hessel expressed interest in it and offered to finance it as Romero’s next film, but only if the director would be willing to rewrite McCollough’s screenplay to focus on what Hessel considered the most interesting ingredient of the story, namely the military takeover of the town, which occurred in the first 10 to 20 pages.
This is the first film from Romero with a “real” budget of $270,000 and the first time he employed a cinematographer other than himself (Bill Hinzman, best known as the first zombie in “Night of the Living Dead” (affiliate link)).
In retrospect, the best casting decision was Lynn Lowry. At this point, she had made “I Drink Your Blood” (1970) and Oliver Stone’s “Sugar Cookies” (1973), more or less getting discovered by a young Lloyd Kaufman. She would go on to become a horror icon, and is part of the reason “The Crazies” is better remembered today than the other Romero films of the 1970s. Co-star Will McMillan was fairly new, having just wrapped on the forgotten “White Rat” (1972). Today, horror fans may recognize him from “Christmas Evil” (1980).
Some of the film anticipates both “Dawn” and “Day”, such as the group dynamics and the questionable, less-than-heroic portrayal of the military. We also get an early appearance from Michael Gornick, who would be a regular Romero team member going into the 1980s. And music from Bruce Roberts, who would go on to be a major writer of disco songs; this was his first of many film credits. Richard Liberty would return in “Day”.
Arrow Films Blu-ray full of interviews with the likes of Lynn Lowry (covering her entire early career), and an audio commentary by Travis Crawford. The commentary is delivered so fast, you get enough factoids for three commentary tracks. Romero historian Lawrence DeVincentz takes us on a guided tour of Evans City, Pennsylvania. There is an audio interview with producer Lee Hessel (who seems somewhat incoherent) and behind-the-scenes footage with optional commentary by Lawrence DeVincentz. Oh, and that 4K scan? Holy smokes! I had no idea the film could look this good.
The Winners (1973/1974)
Not included in Arrow’s set, and probably never to be released on Blu-ray, was a documentary series called “The Winners”. Being a collection of sports documentaries, there is probably very little “artistic flourish” that would add to our understanding of Romero’s talents. However, it does mark a turning point in his career.
With the show’s debut in 1973, Romero partnered with Richard P. Rubinstein, who would remain his producing partner for the next 40 years with Laurel Entertainment (technically, Romero left the company in 1984, but Rubinstein remained his producer). This series also put Michael Gornick (“Creepshow 2”) in the director’s chair, put Pasquale Buba on sound and camera (he would later be a go-to editor for Romero and Martin Scorsese), and transitioned many of Romero’s crew to bigger things.