To mangle Shakespeare, there are two types of horror directors: those who are born horror directors, and those who have it thrust upon them. Arrow Films’ Between Night and Dawn box set reveals George A Romero to be the latter. Consisting of the three films Romero made in between his landmark debut Night of the Living Dead and its extraordinary sequel Dawn of the Dead, it shows the late director casting around for new genres to bend to his purpose. Each of them includes at least a hint of horror, but only 1973’s well-loved The Crazies fits comfortably within the genre. Had any of them been Living Dead-sized hits, his career might have turned out very differently.
The earliest film in the set, 1971’s There’s Always Vanilla, is the furthest from the horror genre. Perhaps this is why it’s also the most obscure; those who enjoyed the Dead films for their gut-splattering violence won’t find much to enjoy here. Fans of Romero’s social commentary, on the other hand, will find plenty to fascinate. A downbeat romantic drama that begins as a tale of social divisions in Vietnam-era America, it ends up suggesting that the ultimate political schism is not between generations or parties, but between men and women. It’s just one of the aspects of the film which feels unexpectedly relevant despite the unavoidably dated music and slang.
In the extras, Romero describes the film as an attempt to jump on the bandwagon of satirical sex comedies that proliferated after The Graduate. In its style, though, There’s Always Vanilla actually resembles experimental 1960s docu-dramas of the kind made by William Greaves and Haskell Wexler. Like Greaves and Wexler, this version of Romero is an inveterate deconstructionist, unable to even show a band’s performance over the opening credits without cutting away to the mixing desk. There’s Always Vanilla has a Holden Caulfieldish worldview where everything is phoney, everything is a facade to be exposed, not least the industry the film revolves around – advertising.
Granted, “the world of advertising is false and superficial” isn’t exactly breaking news (although Mad Men got rapturous reviews by torturing this point to death for years, didn’t it?). What makes Romero’s film more than just a bulletin of the patently obvious is the skill and ambiguity with which he observes the industry. In between Night of the Living Dead and this film Romero and his producer, John A Russo shot commercials, and there are some details – like Judith Ridley distractedly scratching her face during a ‘passionate’ clinch – that are so wonderful they must have been observed first-hand.
Ridley’s Lynn is a commercials actress who flees the set of the outrageously sexist beer advert she’s shooting when the producer sexually assaults her. (Worth noting that the assault is portrayed as an unambiguously awful thing, the kind of moral clarity you don’t expect from an early ’70s sex comedy, or indeed a modern Hollywood producer) She has a terrific meet-cute with Ray Laine’s Chris Bradley, but soon finds that underneath his freewheeling, counterculture front he’s every bit as sexist as the men she’s fleeing. Romero’s feminist concerns really do feel remarkably fresh here – he even parodies the myopic self-mythologisation of macho novelists at a time when Charles Bukowski was the hot new literary darling.
In the end, Chris enters the industry Lynn is rejecting, deluding himself into believing his cynicism will protect him. It’s here that Romero’s flair for the nightmarish comes into play, as the film becomes a requiem for the lost possibilities of the hippie era. There’s Always Vanilla is a flawed film, certainly – Laine and Ridley are solid but unspectacular leads, and the film’s tight budget often shows. But it deserves more attention for its lacerating social satire, as well as its energising formal ambition. It provides two essential snapshots: of a tense, worryingly familiar American political landscape, and of a director who was already proving an expert in turning simple genre exercises into provocative, layered addresses on the state of that divided nation.