George A. Romero was at a career crossroads after Night of the Living Dead came out and didn’t really do any business. It was well reviewed by some, but it made nothing on its initial release—in fact, until it became a midnight movie staple it remained unprofitable. The story of why is one of the all-time foolish errors in filmmaking history: the producers stupidly didn’t put a copyright notice on the film, so after it was released it was shown constantly without the filmmakers making a penny!
Romero wouldn’t return to the Zombie genre officially till Dawn of the Dead in 1978, so this boxset compiles the films he did in between. The notable omission is of Martin, which Arrow has released on DVD but which, like Dawn of the Dead, seems to have fallen into a rights issue grey area, making a re-release impossible at this time.
The first two films in the set are There’s Always Vanilla and Season of the Witch (which was released under numerous other titles as well). These are odd little hippy films, kind of in the mould of the early and superior Brian De Palma films of the same ilk. There’s Always Vanilla is especially insufferable, and Romero pretty much disowned the final project—it was really the writer’s project anyway, not his. Season of the Witch was closer to Romero’s heart, and was intended to have a kind of “if John Cassavetes directed Rosemary’s Baby instead of starring in it” vibe. It’s about a housewife who is having strange dreams and an unfulfilled marriage, and soon becomes interested in witchcraft. Both films are essentially interesting failures, but Season of the Witch has enough ’70s kitsch witchcraft to keep you interested.
The big draw of the boxset, however, is a new 4K restoration of The Crazies, which was Romero’s big return to genre filmmaking. He considered the first two films in the set basically him trying to learn how to make films, and for that reason he can be seen playing around with style and different shots in those films. In contrast, The Crazies is a more fully realised movie. It’s about a military plane that goes down while carrying a top-secret military bioweapon, contaminating a town’s water supply. When the townsfolk become violently insane after getting exposed, we see how the military and residents deal with the ensuing chaos.
The Crazies is a real tour de force from Romero: it’s full of the social commentary, which you always expect from this director, this time with a pretty damning takedown of the military-industrial complex. He also shows his brilliant pacing as it shows what would happen during a period of complete mayhem. Even his longer films, like Dawn of the Dead, manage to move along at a fast pace, but The Crazies is particularly lean, doing as much as possible with a low budget. It didn’t do massive box office, but it gave his career a boost after the debacle that preceded it, and eventually it found its audiences as late-night fare, keeping his name in the spotlight until he finally had a hit with Dawn of the Dead.
Like all of his films, it’s set in or around Pittsburgh, where he spent most of his life until moving to Toronto towards the end of his life. It adds something to his films—Romero’s own auteur world, like John Waters’ Baltimore. It’s a real shame that Romero passed away recently, because he’s one of the few genre directors who consistently worked interesting political content into his films. Even the films that didn’t really quite work have interesting social commentary.
There are also loads of bonus features in this box set. There is a commentary by Travis Crawford for every film. Each disc includes a couple of interviews with cast and crew, archival footage with Romero, making-of featurettes, trailers, extra footage, image galleries, and more. Everything has had either a 2K or 4K restoration, and the films are included on Blu-Ray and DVD. The real highlight is Guillermo del Toro interviewing George Romero not long before he passed away. Finally, there is a huge 60-page booklet with new writing on the films by Kat Ellinger, Kier-La Janisse and Heather Drain.