George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn

Studio: Arrow Video

Nov 29, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

The last six months have been extremely hard on horror fans. We said goodbye to Tobe Hooper, the filmmaker whose independently-produced Texas Chainsaw Massacre changed the face of horror cinema and instilled in it the visceral streak we know and expect today. We lost an even larger, looming presence over the genre with the passing of George A. Romero, the Pittsburgh-based director whose Night of the Living Dead created the flesh-eating zombies that dominate every avenue of today’s horror-based entertainment, from TV, to film, to comic books and video games.

Night and Dawn of the Dead cemented the modern zombie mythos; Day of the Dead, Night ’90, and the latter-era remakes and sequels to his series continued to explore Romero’s post-apocalyptic world. There was more to Romero than just zombies, however. Although he worked primarily in the horror genre, Romero was one of independent cinema’s truly iconoclastic auteurs through the 1970s and ‘80s. His 1978 feature, Martin, remains one of the more out-of-the-box take on a vampire story; 1981’s Knightriders is the foremost (and perhaps only) film on motorcycle jousting. Then came the classic horror anthology Creepshow in 1982, which launched an enduring partnership with author Stephen King that would result in Creepshow 2Monkey Shines, and The Dark Half

George Romero: Between Night and Dawn – as cleverly-titled a box set as we’ve seen in years – assembles three of the lesser-known movies Romero made in the decade between his landmark Night of the Living Dead and its just-as-influential follow-up, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead. It makes for an interesting study of the director, as many of the underlying currents found throughout his work remained present even when he was not working explicitly within the horror genre. From 1971, the romantic comedy There’s Always Vanilla seems like the biggest leap outside the Romero wheelhouse. The film follows a young soldier-turned-hippie/bum who returns home to Pittsburgh (of course), shacks up with (and knocks up) a local girl, but in the end shoots a hole through the relationship because he can’t compromise his personal ideals with the ones foisted upon him by her, his father, and seemingly society as a whole. Vanilla is ultimately a product of its time; Romero’s social commentary feels a bit too on-the-nose when it’s not tucked inside a supernatural metaphor. From 1972, Season of the Witch holds up much better after 45 years. A Polanski-esque psychosexual thriller, the film focuses on a bored housewife in suburban Pittsburgh (naturally), who turns to witchcraft as a form of escape from her joyless life. As she initiates herself further into the occult, the nightmares which had been haunting her intensify. These dream sequences get pretty horrifying, and as they start to bleed into her waking life, the results are surreal and can be quite disquieting to the viewer. (Romero’s distributors pushed for him to add more sex and turn Witch into a porn film; when he wouldn’t, they re-cut it themselves and released it under the title Hungry Wives.)

Finally included is Romero’s best-known film of this period, The Crazies – a.k.a., Code Name: Trixie, released in 1973. Set in a small town an hour’s drive north of Pittsburgh, the film concerns an experimental virus developed by the U.S. military as a deadly bioweapon. When an Army plane crashes near the tiny hamlet, “Trixie” leaks into the water supply, causing anyone who drinks from it to soon die or turn into a homicidal maniac. The Army descends on the town with a shoot-on-sight order in the vain hopes that they can contain the outbreak. The Crazies may as well have been one of Romero’s zombie films, as it follows a group of unfortunate individuals caught between the military and a horde of mindless killers. While its low budget and hokey soundtrack let it down a bit, The Crazies is a chilling snapshot of a community in deadly chaos. (If the maniacs had slowed down a good bit, Romero might have gotten away with calling this one “Twilight of the Dead.”)

Between Night and Dawn represents a period in the horror auteur’s career as he struggled to find direction after the success of his landmark Night of the Living Dead; the three films here are fascinating developmental works, if not classics. Long overlooked – and in the case of the first two, considered near-lost for a period – these movies are given incredible visual overhauls in Arrow Video’s comprehensive box set. (They look about as good as you can imagine, given the age and budget of the source materials, and the damage incurred over the years.) The extra features are even more exciting, with new audio commentaries by critic Travis Crawford on all three films, memorabilia galleries, archival interviews with Romero and his cast members, current-day explorations of the movies’ locations, and much more. All three discs are housed in their own case with reversible artwork alongside a 60-page booklet full of imagery and Romero-centric essays.

Romero fans owe it to themselves to explore his early, non-zombie work. Here’s to hoping that Arrow Video is somehow able to wrassle down the rights to Martin, Romero’s outstanding, pre-Dawn vampire flick, and someday give it a similar treatment to what these films received.


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