The Bottom Shelf: Damnation Alley and George A. Romero: Between Night And Dawn

Our latest round-up of genre DVDs and Blu-rays covers George A Romero, Damnation Alley and more...

With real life’s ridiculous news stories almost beyond parody, it seems fitting that 2017 was the year we saw George A. Romero, the master of satirical zombie tomfoolery, responsible for horror classics from Dawn Of The Dead through to Tales From The Dark Side, shuffle off this mortal coil. To commemorate three of Romero’s less celebrated early movies, Arrow Video has released the intriguing Between Night And Dawn set on Bluray, with ample extras to sate the most eager fanboy/girl.

First up, and by far the movie most will know (perhaps due to its 2010 remake), 1973’s The Crazies plays out almost like a retread of Romero’s 1968 debut Night Of The Living Dead, with a group of townsfolk again subject to a dodgy violence-inducing substance whilst military jackanapes try and control the epidemic. This time, our marauding hordes are definitely (definitely) not deados but instead crazier than the time this writer briefly believed there was a calamitous seismic event in Norfolk, after accidentally switching between a Great Yarmouth-based TV property show and seventies disaster movie Earthquake.

Visually low key and grainy, the HD transfer nicely exaggerates the desolate bleakness as rural America loses its mind in increasingly disturbing ways, from a farmer burning his own farm to the ground, through to father-daughter incest. Some well-realised weirdness ensues as D-grade serious army blokes do sinister things in the name of protecting the public and early bug-eyed performances from the likes of The Thing’s Richard Liberty enliven this late-nineties Bravo TV staple.

1971’s There’s Always Vanilla is the director’s first and thankfully last romantic comedy, as well as a somewhat perverse choice to follow Living Dead. Romero adopts almost Russ Meyer-esque hippie/hipster affectations to tell the possibly not-so-romantic tale of a feckless army dropout turned bohemian drifter (Raymond Laine), whose relationship with advertising model Judith Ridley is strained when the couple consider aborting their unborn child.

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Wacky lines such as the brilliant “What do I want? A peanut butter sandwich!” sit uncomfortably with the heavy subject matter as Rudolph Ricci’s boldly unconventional yet terminally messy script attempts to say… something about commercialism, domesticity and society, though more often veers into irritating swagger. Laine is suitably smug as our dickheaded lead, though you can’t get away from the feeling of a sadly unrealised vision lurking beneath the disappointingly dull surface of what Romero himself describes as his ‘worst film’.

Season Of The Witch, or Hungry Wives, as it’s named in this outing (distributors tried to accompany the suggestive name by turning the film into a porno, which Romero succeeded in resisting), released two years later, represents something much more akin to the confident horror-satirist we know and love as Vanilla star Laine and composer Steve Gorn both return. Jan White plays a bored and beaten-down housewife who becomes intrigued at her friends’ idle chatter about an acquaintance’s dabbling in black magic. Soon, this intrigue leads to creepy dreams, love spells and our middle-aged mother going all Mrs Robinson with her daughter’s man, played by the cock-sure Laine.

High definition redder-than-red blood, Donovan’s Season Of The Witch theme song and beehive hair hysteria are the order of the day as our wonderfully detached witchy protagonist gets involved with far worse things than plastic crystals from the local goth shop. Featuring some impressively haunting surreal dream sequences alongside the creepiest eating of a hard-boiled egg since Frank Reynolds’ efforts in that field, this combo of feminist commentary and shocking gore is pure Romero.

Stubbornly refusing to leave the seventies, we follow the path trodden by the likes of Blacula and Blackenstein as Arthur Marks’ entertaining Blaxploitation meets supernatural horror classic, 1976’s J.D’s Revenge, also makes its way onto Arrow Bluray. Marks’ film sees law student and all-round nice guy Glynn Turman (The Wire) possessed by the vengeful spirit of a 1940s gangster after taking part in a hypnotism show that somehow goes horribly wrong.

Set in New Orleans, our hero gradually gets creepier and creepier as the gangster JD Wetherspoon Walker slowly takes over his personality, which is shown mostly through extravagant headwear but also worsening violence and jive talk. Turns out this JD fellow is holding something of a grudge against preacher man Louis Gossett Jr (and we all know you can’t go far wrong with Louis Gossett Jr, except perhaps Jaws 3-D), leading to a cool battle of wits between the two. Throw in sleek direction from Marks and a great score from jazz composer Robert Prince and we’ve got an agreeably OTT extended Twilight Zone episode (complete with utterly, utterly ridiculous ending) for our money.

Even more preposterous, though, is Japanese auteur Sion Sono’s existential schoolgirl massacre party Tag, exploding in a bloody mess on Eureka! Bluray this month. Sono, the man behind 2008’s crazy penis-slicing, hara-kiri-depicting opus Love Exposure, has something of a reputation for extreme cinema and 2015’s Tag certainly keeps the pace.

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Opening with a schoolgirl pillow fight that results in body-shredding carnage, the tone is set as Mitsuko (Reina Triendl) escapes this horrific scene only to start again as Keiko, kind of still herself, with the same friends, but played by Mariko Shinoda, with another chance to avert the impending disaster. Writer-director Sono introduces new and unusual ways to die, such as death-by-crocodile-chewing-your-vagina for example, as the action gets incrementally weirder, culminating in the most creative use of a dead pig’s head since David Cameron’s alleged university hazing.

Crafting together an incredibly rich tapestry of bizarre imagery and ultra-violence, it’s unclear whether Sono’s film is demonstrating feminist zeal as strong female characters reject various imposed fetishistic roles, or just a male director’s gaze depicting his taste in women. Endlessly fascinating and reliably controversial, Tag’s colourful, delirious universe is one well worth exploring.

We finish this month’s almost entirely seventies excursion by heading back to 1977 and the early January Bluray release of Airport 1975 director Jack Smight’s agreeable adaptation of Roger Zelazny’s post-apocalyptic gallivant, Damnation Alley. In many ways a dream team of talent, with cult sci-fi hero Zelazny providing the source material, the great Jerry Goldsmith composing the original score and the likes of George Peppard, Jan Michael Vincent, Jaws’ Murray Hamilton and Paul Winfield starring, the end result isn’t quite the sum of its parts though is a decent mid-level romp through an irradiated world/instruction manual for survival in the year 2018.

So, nuclear war has tilted the world off of its axis, which has resulted in constant northern lights (which basically just makes Harry Stradling Jr’s cinematography look pretty and eerie throughout) and giant, killer versions of everyday critters, from massive desert scorpions through to man-eating cockroaches. Our survivors must make their way to Albany, N.Y, apparently America’s last remaining city, but to get there, they must go through a valley of deadly ultra-tornados, inconvenient at best.

This makes for encounters with moustachioed jerkwads, sexually not-cool rednecks (always with the rapey rednecks, eh?) and a young Rorschach from Watchmen, as well as your classic Peppard/Vincent boss-wiseass double-act. Lacking the gravitas of a Charlton Heston, or even an Ernest Borgnine, our eighties TV tag-team remains good, undemanding fun. So, this January, it’s time to Michael down your Vincents in preparation for the calamities to come.