Director: George A. Romero
Anchor Bay Entertainment

Most of legendary filmmaker George Romero’s movies have had wide exposure over the years, due to their worldwide appeal and popularity. But in between Romero’s maiden masterpiece NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and the return-to-formula outing THE CRAZIES, he directed two little seen efforts that were commercial failures, both badly distributed in the early 1970s. The first was THERE’S ALWAYS VANILLA (the secondary feature on this disc), a sort of romantic comedy/drama which Romero didn’t script, and SEASON OF THE WITCH, basically a dark drama with only slight horror and supernatural references. Understandably, these are often considered the least of the director’s efforts (even by the man himself), but Anchor Bay has put together a nice package with worthwhile extras that will proudly make your Romero collections complete. Both films may be flawed, but they still have their moments of interest, not to mention being an early chapter in an important career of one of America’s true cinematic treasures.

The main feature here, SEASON OF THE WITCH, was originally shot as JACK’S WIFE and then released theatrcially as HUNGRY WIVES. Joan Mitchell (Jan White) is a bored suburban housewife quickly approaching middle age. Her husband Jack is constantly working, and when he’s at home he’s verbally and physically abusive towards her. Her teenage daughter Nikki is hardly at home, and when she is, she’s busy “balling” a guy in her bedroom, and later runs away. Joan soon finds a recreational sex partner in the pompous student-teacher named Gregg (Raymond Laine), a much younger friend of her daughter. In the midst of the daily household turmoil, Joan meets a self-proclaimed witch living in the neighborhood. Fascinated by the lifestyle, she reads up on the subject, purchases all the materials needed, and descends into occultism.

Obviously straying from the Grand Guignol approach of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, Romero here uses modern witchcraft as a metaphor for female liberation, and formulates a very strong character study of Joan Mitchell, well acted by Jan White. Joan’s ordeal includes frequent visits to the shrink and constant nightmares, from being caged by her hubby, to seeing her mirrored reflection as an old hag, to constant images of a rubber-masked assailant breaking into the house in the middle of the night. This is all handled interestingly enough, but the scenes of the masked prowler (played by NIGHT OF LIVING DEAD cemetery ghoul Bill Hinzman) look pretty shoddy and badly edited, as do a lot of other scenes, and it runs about 15 minutes longer than it should (the original release version was trimmed significantly). The secondary cast do a pretty good job, put poor production values stand in the way of any great performances, and it’s all too apparent that Romero was limited by his budget, unlike the comparatively polished NIGHT. Anyone expected a body count film will be disappointed (if it wasn’t for some four-letter words and brief nudity, this would have gotten a “PG”), as this is more of an avant garde thriller made for the arthouse crowds rather than the drive-ins, and in some ways it does succeed with some clever shocks, especially the ending. In a memorable scene where Joan visits a hippie occult shop, Donovan’s trippy 60s hit “Season of the Witch” is heard on the soundtrack, hence the re-release title, and the title that stuck with the various video versions and now DVD. The theatrical title of HUNGRY WIVES was dreadfully misleading, since the story only really centers on one “wife,” and it makes it come off as cheap sexploitation of the naughty kind, which this film certainly isn’t.

There’s a disclaimer at the start of the disc, saying that proper film elements couldn’t be found, and that what was used for the transfer is below Anchor Bay’s usual standards. That statement certainly rings true here, as it basically looks no better or worse than the prior VHS release. Colors are dull, picture detail is poor, there’s the expected print damage and the image looks very soft overall, with a passable mono audio track. It’s presented 1.85:1 widescreen, the theatrical aspect ratio (the packaging claims 16x9 but neither film on the disc is). This was shot in 16mm and apparently employed the full frame aperture, so an open matte presentation (like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD) would have probably been preferable as the image looks very tight in a lot of spots. Basically, it’s a watchable transfer, as the film never looked any better than it does here. The element utilized here still bares a “Season of the Witch” video-generated title card.

Romero’s second feature, THERE’S ALWAYS VANILLA (aka THE AFFAIR) is on the flip side of the disc and hardly given any fanfare on the packaging. Like SEASON, it was made when Romero and his production company weren’t busy doing commercials and industrial films. Twenty-something Chris Bradley (Raymond Laine from SEASON OF THE WITCH) returns to his home town in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania after a tour in Vietnam and an assortment of odd jobs, including of all things, pimping. Chris' wealthy and surprisingly hip father (Roger McGovern) wants him to work for the family baby food business, but he wants no part of that. still trying to cut it on his own. One day Chris meets an attractive older woman named Lynn (Judith Steiner, aka Judith Ridley from NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD) a model who works in TV commercials. Chris charms and insults his way into her life, and he soon moves in with her. They start would seems like a match made in heaven, put personal problems and diverse agendas get in the way of the affair for the duration of it.

The idea for THERE’S ALWAYS VANILLA originated with a short promotional film also starring Laine, and written and directed by Rudolph J. Ricci, the screenwriter for this feature. Romero has stated that Ricci had little interest in the film, and left halfway through the shoot, causing all sorts of production problems, and leaving the director with a bad taste in his mouth for this film. It’s too bad, since it’s not a bad little film, and clearly shows that the director is capable escaping the confines of the horror genre. THERE’S ALWAYS VANILLA may not be perfect, but it’s atypical of the usual Hollywood romance, and an engrossing viewing experience. Laine narrates the story in retrospect to the camera, and although his character is completely arrogant and irresponsible (he may or may not have an illegitimate boy), he comes out likable, which is not an easy thing to pull off. Judith Steiner is simply adorable and proved that she could be a leading lady, even if it was for an independent, low budget effort. Too bad she never did anything else acting-wise. Not too many of Romero’s directorial touches are at hand here, which could give one the impression that he really wasn’t that enthusiastic about this project. But scenes such as the literal “bump into” meeting of Chris and Lynn, Chris in scholarly eyeglasses bullshitting his way through a job interview at an ad agency, and a disturbing back alley abortion attempt (ala ALFIE) are all highlights of this quirky little opus. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD fans will have fun spotting familiar faces such as Bill Hinzman, Russ Steiner, John Russo and George Kosana (remember the trigger happy zombie-hunting sheriff?).

The same disclaimer about inferior quality is repeated here, but VANILLA actually looks fine, especially for something shot in 16mm, yet I’ve seen a VHS edition of this film from Something Weird Video, and I hate to say, I recall it looking a tad better. Presented here letterboxed at 1.77:1 and non-anamorphic, colors are stable and detail is fairly sharp, with only light touches of print damage and the expected amount of grain. The mono audio is also fine.

Anchor Bay has gathered some really nice extras for this release. On side A is the featurette, "Season Of The Witch: The Secret Life Of Jack's Wife," a candid video interview with star Jan (now called Janina) White, a former model who got the role after being spotted in a magazines ad. White remembers auditioning for the film, liking and respecting Romero very much, wanting a body double when it came to doing nudity, and recalls going to Jack H. Harris’ office and begging him not to release the film as HUNGRY WIVES. She also tells us what happened to her after her acting career halted and what she is doing now. “The Directors: The Films of George Romero” is an hour-long special from a few years ago, and aside from some uneven narration and brief chats with co-stars that really don’t have much to say, it embodies an excellent career interview with Romero himself. Side A also contains the original trailer under the title HUNGRY WIVES, the re-release trailer as SEASON OF THE WITCH, two alternative opening credit sequences under the JACK’S WIFE and HUNGRY WIVES titles and still and poster gallery (with a great publicity shot of White on a broomstick). Side B’s extras contain “Digging Up the Dead: The ‘Lost’ Films of George Romero” a new video interview with the director that runs about 16 minutes. It’s no wonder he didn’t do full commentaries for the two films: making both of them were not pleasurable experiences, and while he thinks SEASON could be better, he practically disowns VANILLA to this day. The other extras on this side include VANILLA’s original trailer, as well as bio on Romero featuring a lot of good quotes from the man. (George R. Reis)