Following the success of Night of the Living Dead, the late George A. Romero became something of a one-man movie studio in his adopted city of Pittsburgh. Romero didn’t opt for the obvious and took a much more unconventional, challenging route.
Given that reluctance to adhere to expectations, it’s a pity that his sophomoric effort There’s Always Vanilla is such a rambling, largely laborious affair. The film follows the romantic misadventures of an easy-going army vet drifter Chris Bradley (Raymond Laine) who returns to his home city of Pittsburgh. Save for the charismatic lead, it’s a rather staid drama, although it certainly captures the experimental cinematic mood of that era, with its loose, choppy editing and heavy-handed juxtapositions. It’s a sporadically interesting if laboured snapshot of the early 1970s counterculture, complete with a little of Romero’s social commentary. A curio for fans of the director, but little else. If There’s Always Vanilla had been a Graduate-size hit, it would have undoubtedly sent Romero on a very different career trajectory.
Season of the Witch has the director venturing back to the genre in which made his name, but the unsettling opening – which sees the central character in a Buñuelian-like dreamscape – hints at a stranger, more subversive film which never really materialises. Joan Mitchell (Jan White) is a bored and dissatisfied suburban housewife. Regularly seeing a shrink to try and rationale her nightmares, her malaise leads to experimentation in witchcraft when she’s encouraged by an older female neighbour who practises in the dark arts. It causes a liberation of sorts in Joan, who begins to shed her inhibitions which alienates her teenage daughter, but brings her into the orbit of said daughter’s casual lover (Laine, again).
Re-released in 1978 under the title Season of the Witch to capitalise on the success of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (it stills bares the original title of Jack’s Wife during the opening credits), it’s easy to see why the film didn’t make much of an impact, initially. It doesn’t really go anywhere as an occult thriller and aside from a couple of unnerving sequences – where Joan may or may not be dreaming of a masked assailant trying to break into her house – the exploitation aspect inherent in the material is never really cranked up to a satisfying level. There’s some fun to be gleamed from a chintzy exteriors and cheesy witchcraft iconography, but the provocative feminist subtext feels a little short-changed, too.
Romero is on much firmer ground in the final addition to this Arrow Video box set. Arguably the most familiar of his films outside of his work with the undead, The Crazies gets off to a grisly, harrowing start and rarely relents. Once again based in Pennsylvania, the film is split into two narratives, where we observe a group of civilians trying to stay alive during a virus outbreak which is causing their fellow townsfolk to go insane. At the same time, the political and military leaders tasked with trying to contain the epidemic are at a loss and struggling to stem the bloodshed and carnage.
This is a markedly better edited and much more tightly paced affair than the previous two films. It’s essentially a variation of the themes found in the Dead series, and like those, Romero captures the pandemonium and panic of an unstoppable force incredibly well, allowing for some dark humour to bubble up (the knitting slaughter scene really have to be seen to be believed). That deep distrust of authority is present and correct, and the troop’s inhuman massacre and destruction of the virus-engulfed bodies in the otherwise bucolic surroundings (all scored to a chilling military drumbeat) is a relentlessly sobering affair, mirroring that of Night of the Living Dead’s bleak epilogue.
Adam Lowes | @adlow76