Monday 13 November 2017

George A. Romero - Between Night and Dawn Box Set

George A. Romero, whose name needs no introduction to fans of fantastic films, died earlier this year at the age of 77. The producer, director, writer and occasional actor was best known for a series of films updating and repackaging the zombie movie for a post Vietnam generation, chronologically developing the themes of the films to offer changing societal interpretations both shocking and wryly amusing. Romero's Night of the Living Dead, his first major feature, was and remains arguably one of the most important horror films of the 20th Century. But his output was more diverse than generally given credit for, and the three movies that make up the somewhat erroneously titled 'Between Night and Dawn' box set (it's missing 1978's urban vampire movie Martin because of rights issues) summarise his career between his first feature and 1978's Dawn of the Dead.

There's Always Vanilla (1971). Romero's very much of the time drama with comedy touches is the story of two young Americans that literally bump into each other and begin a relationship which starts off rather sweetly but quickly descends into drudgery and mistrust. He is Chris (Raymond Laine), musician and aspiring writer with a child from a previous relationship whom he visits from time to time, and she is Lynn (Judith Ridley from Night of the Living Dead), disillusioned commercials model, working in an environment she is scornful of and hassled by creeps. The film does a good job of creating a soured free love atmosphere, and downtown Pittsburgh is a suitably dull location, but this is a curio rather than a movie to treasure. In an interview with Romero (one of the many extras in this box set) the director admits that he doesn't think highly of the film because his technical attachment to the movie was somewhat peripheral. But despite its rather scrappy narrative and 'new wave' touches (those quick edits) there's some trademark Romero in here. The film's disassociated characters and moody off kilter framing would become hallmarks of his later movies, and it remains a spiky alternative to some of the films it was influenced by like The Graduate (1967).

Season of the Witch aka Jack's Wife aka Hungry Wives (1972). A previously little seen addition to the suburban witchcraft sub genre, ignited by Rosemary's Baby (1968) and most recently honoured (or sent up, depending on your point of view) in Anna Biller's The Love Witch (2016), Season of the Witch is a slow paced curio with a pronounced feminist agenda (as one imdb wag puts it, women's lib horror). Bored housewife Joan Mitchell leads a life of isolation, her work absorbed husband and fast growing up daughter having little time for her. Joan's female friends are suburban bores, but a visit to local witch Marion reveals to her the possibility of gaining strength, individuality and the attentions of the her daughter's boyfriend via witchcraft.

Romero's not-quite-a-horror movie is told entirely from Joan's perspective, documenting her decline and subsequent rise after discovering the power of witchcraft, but he doesn't quite give her the depth of character for us to identify or sympathise with her. Even the scenes of her husband being violent to her (edited out of the finished film) don't elicit much response in the viewer, aside from noting their casually exploitative nature. But Romero was less interested in characterisation than in putting his characters together and seeing what happens. Season of the Witch's violent finale is ambiguous. Are Joan's murderous actions the ultimate gesture of a woman's new found power, or the inevitable result of the deep psychosis that surrounds her? Whatever else, it's an intriguing watch.

The Crazies (1973) The nihilistic spectre of the Vietnam War looms large in Romero's film about the effects of a biological weapon - a virus called Trixie - released into a small Pennsylvania town. The director gives us no lead in to the events; the first scene, of two young children watching their father in the grip of toxic madness, smashing up their house, and their mother slain in her bed, is all the introduction we're given to the effects of the virus on those contaminated. But anyone expecting the post infection mayhem that Romero would give us in 1978's Dawn of the Dead may be disappointed; The Crazies devotes most of its time to depicting the chaos reigning among authority figures, the inability to strategise faced with the problem, and the rise of self appointed hunters of the infected, good ol' boys in white hazmat suits.

Romero's central point, that the veneer of civilised society is wafer thin, masking a climate of chaos, is relentlessly made, the bleakness of the story enhanced by the mix of amateur and professional actors and lack of narrative drive. It's an angry film - the scenes of people being picked off by rifle in an almost random fashion rekindles memories of the Kent State shootings a few years previously, and the self immolation of a priest, a shocking scene, directly references the same fate of Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức in his 1963 protest. Yet Romero, shooting here on 35mm, also manages to serve up some pastoral images to complement the viral madness.

The Crazies is a film that has actually improved with age and Arrow's restoration of this and the other two films, together with a host of extras, makes 'Between Night and Dawn' a great box set.

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