Between “Night” and “Dawn”, Romero stepped away from the undead to make a witchy rumination on suburban feminism that struggled no matter what he called it.
Quick — name a George Romero movie without any zombies in it. Creepshow doesn’t count because of “Father’s Day” and Ted Danson. To the discerning readers out there that called Monkey Shines, you have my respect. But if you’re not intimately familiar with Romero’s work, especially the darkness before the Dawn, it might take you a minute.
Browse your social medium of choice on the nickel anniversary of an enshrined horror filmmaker’s most inessential work, and you’ll find a vocal minority singing its delayed praises. This is not a criticism. The first time I ever got paid to write about movies, I went to the mat for Memoirs Of An Invisible Man. I stand by my taste in Carpentry.
But you don’t see as much noise for The Dark Half. Or Knightriders. Or even The Crazies, though that one’s been mostly overshadowed by the remake and its own delayed praises.
It’s a criminal oversight that will eventually iron itself out between horror sites like this one and the niche distribution companies restoring them as God and cinematographer intended.
The Season of the Witch print currently streaming on Shudder comes courtesy of an Arrow Video restoration, released in a boxset with Romero’s lone romantic comedy There’s Always Vanilla and the aforementioned Crazies. The name of the collection puts their value plain: Between Night and Dawn.
The four features between his two holiest texts (Martin, the most celebrated of the four, isn’t included on Arrow’s set) are remembered mostly as their context. What does Romero make immediately after Night of the Living Dead? A counter-culture melodrama he’d eventually consider the worst film he ever made.
If nothing else, it’s a determined zag to his zombie zig, the sign of a filmmaker chomping at the bit to make anything but another detergent commercial. Eventually he’d heed the siren call of horror again, with The Crazies’s crazies and Martin’s ambiguous vampire. But the sum of this time in the wilderness, from 1971 to 1977, plays like a frustrated film school in reverse. He changed an entire genre for pennies on the dollar, then spent a decade compromising broader ambitions on the same budget.
Season of the Witch, an uneasily split difference between Vanilla’s domesticity and The Crazies’s exploitation thrills, is the saddest casualty.
“There is one that I always felt was a real failure,” said Romero in a typically candid 2010 interview with Movieweb.
“It’s called Season of the Witch. I was trying to do a Women’s Lib thing and I didn’t understand anything about women’s issues. I was too young to even pretend to have had enough relationships to understand that. Also the people who were financing it ran out of money in the middle and we had to finish it on half of the money that we were expecting to have.”
Besides the admirable admission of his limited perspective that filmmakers today would do well to heed, it’s worth noting that Romero brought it up as his only film that he’d like to remake. He was already halfway through a script for it, too. While I would’ve been first in line for that movie, I think he’s too hard on the original.
What 30-something George didn’t know about the inner workings of women, he certainly understood about the casual cruelty of men.
Season of the Witch opens with housewife Joan Mitchell following her husband Jack through the same dead Pennsylvanian woods from Night of the Living Dead, now in fashionable color. Jack stays a few strides ahead, face buried in the latest Post-Gazette.
Joan keeps a respectful distance. If she gets any closer, she pays the price. Her husband brushes skeletal branches out of his way, whipping them directly into Joan’s face.
If Romero’s legacy could be described as “muted,” given the whole inventing-modern-undead thing, it has more than a little to do with his filmography’s resistance to One Perfect Shot immortality.
In a single, violent sequence, Season of the Witch reminds that his enduring style can’t be pinned down in a retweet-ready screenshot.
What makes a Romero movie a Romero movie is the way they move.
It sounds silly and should play the same, a grown woman getting pelted with twigs by her careless husband. But by the third cut, it’s a nightmare. The branches keep coming. More seem to sprout, the closer she gets. Jack never looks back, never away from his newspaper. Even as the trees leave criss-cross scars in Joan’s face.
Eventually she wakes up, but the point is quick and corrosive. Joan exists only as her husband’s shadow and she better not forget it.
The film’s original title, Jack’s Wife, was its most honest.
This is a story about a woman politely battered into cocktail party complacency longing for agency. But try selling that on a drive-in double bill. The distribution company, owned by no less than Blobfather Jack H. Harris, carved out forty minutes and sold it as soft-core porn under the name Hungry Wives, which lives on as the title card here.
That angle is funny for two main reasons.
One, the poster shows off a bevy of barely dressed Victoria Secret models to represent the affordable cast of moonlighting Yinzers, only one of whom gets anywhere near naked. Two, the most salacious scenes in the movie are more intentionally unsettling than erotic. Hungry Wives did about as much business as chaste porn can, so they released it again with another title a few years later to capitalize on Romero’s horror street cred.
As a bastardized cut twice removed, Season of the Witch doesn’t have much witchcraft in it.
That’s Joan’s eventual escape, the strange woman who just moved in and believes in those silly tarot cards. It’s not much of a thrill, but then again Joan’s only high is when somebody hits the sangria too hard at their weekly Mad Libs game and says intercourse. The allure of black magic is the allure of control, something Joan can’t even dream about anymore.
Romero, though, rolls his sleeves up for her regular nightmares. Early on she’s a leashed dog stuck in nauseous fish-eye, led around by her husband and left in a kennel while he’s away on business. Later, her house is reduced to its funny farm essence, as a kind orderly tells her exactly where to find the bedroom she only uses for sleeping and the handyman she only fantasizes about from a safe distance.
The closest Season comes to outright horror is a later, recurring vision of a masked intruder (played by the Cemetery Zombie himself, Bill Hinzman) hiding in the polyester shadows of her suburban castle. It’s bone-rattling stuff, as effective as it is familiar. Misshapen faces lurking just out the window and just out of focus. Ravenous hands breaking glass, fighting for a way in.
The rhythm is pure Romero, but the difference is in the threat — rarely does he deal with violence so credibly. No monsters in crates, no crazed monkeys, no name-brand flesh-eaters. Just a breaking and entering.
But don’t go into Season of the Witch expecting a nail-biter or many genre spills at all.
Romero himself didn’t consider it horror so much as horror-adjacent. The witchcraft is a way out for Joan. Depending on how you watch it, the witchcraft might even be fake. Joan’s mystical tweaking looks an awful lot like willful decision-making the longer you stare at it. Sure, she might cast a lusty spell on the fireable-offensive professor sleeping with her daughter, but he was already hitting on her anyway.
70-something George did have a point: 30-something George wasn’t ready to make this movie.
With the exception of lead Jan White and her kaleidoscope eyes, the acting is what you’d expect from off-season Pittsburgh summer stock. If you squint, it passes for soap opera, though the problem could be as much inexperience as insufficient funds.
Scenes that explore femininity, specifically between women, sound exactly like something a well-intentioned but ultimately ignorant man would write. When Joan touches herself to the sound of her daughter enjoying sex, a forgotten song in the Mitchell household, that’s strike one. When the daughter catches her mother in the act and shakes her head like mom forgot to pick her up from school, that’s strike two. Never referring to it again is strike three.
But then again, they might’ve in the lost 130-minute cut.
What we’re left with is the imperfect 89-minute cut of an imperfect curio.
It’s not horny enough to work as Hungry Wives. It’s not scary enough to work as Season of the Witch. But it’s incendiary enough to be Jack’s Wife, which happens to be the film’s poisonous punchline.
George Romero made his fair share of bleak endings, but this may be his most quietly nihilistic. At just under an hour and a half, the pay-off is worth it. And like Romero’s best work, it’s still tragically relevant, too.