George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead wasn’t an overnight success, but a success it was, eventually screening at the Museum of Modern Art. But he resisted being typecast as a horror director. Instead, his first couple of budget-malnourished follow-up features point up Romero’s other enduring auteurist imprint: his blunt social observation, which outside of his zombie-vehicle metaphors comes off as too free-form and unacademic to be called criticism, and yet too naturalistic and bemused to read as satire. Jack’s Wife (Romero’s preferred title for the film Anchor Bay has released under the alternate name Season of the Witch, which is at least preferable to the original distributor’s porn chic Hungry Wives) is Romero’s own Belle du Jour (Belle du Nuit?), a tale of a lonely, neglected housewife whose discontent and suppressed erotic desires are efficiently conveyed in a series of bondage-tinged dream sequences.
Only instead of finding solace from the bourgeois monotony of her position in a day brothel, Jack’s wife Joan (played with an insouciant Lynda Carter-esque iciness by Jan White) is drawn to the casual mystique of the neighborhood’s tarot-reading, rec room witch-cum-housewife. Romero’s carefully organized, schematically impressive script (in many ways his very best—one can hardly blame him for speaking of his desire to remake the film) charts her progression toward the black arts from its spark out of enervated dilettantism to her fevered zeal over what becomes her new religion, even as his lamentably cheap-jack financial backing undercuts his every formal conceit, rendering every flourish that seems suspiciously like crafted artifice a probably happy accident. (Though it’s interesting to note that it’s a movie about the middle class made on a “checks cashed here” budget, as well as a movie about a desperate woman on a leash struggling to release herself from gender stereotypes filmed by a man desperate to unfasten the shackles of genre pigeonholing.)
Jack’s Wife is Romero’s precursor to Martin (his own justifiably favorite film), both psychological studies set against a clarified, ethnographically rigid backdrop, where the former reacts against the latter with self-delusion and maladaption. Joan’s best friend, the blowsy middle-aged Shirley (Ann Muffly, in a near-operatic performance straight out of the ashes of Cassavetes’s Faces), and Joan’s daughter’s fuck-buddy TA (Ray Laine) both have Joan’s number when they suggest to the fledgling pythoness that it’s all just another hobby, a scene, a happening, no different really than her increasingly groovy eyeliner. Maybe a tad more hip than gin martinis and wife-swapping (or, in the case of Shirley’s husband, homosexual experimentation), but nonetheless a futile vial of snake oil for what they believe is a terminal malaise. (Not unlike Dr. Logan’s attempt to train Bub in Day of the Dead.)
Romero hardly disagrees—the final scene finds Joan at another cocktail party, proffering “I’m a witch” to anyone who will listen but still being introduced as “Jack’s wife” (despite the fact that there is considerably less reason to introduce her as such as there would’ve been earlier in the film). Jack’s Wife might look, to warp a phrase from Godard, like a film found in a pawn shop or, as the title for “costumes and furnishings” indicates, Gimbel’s. But Romero’s commitment to un-snarky examinations of life (or a life deferred) along the border between suburbia and rural America is even still undervalued against his visions of what, exactly, it looks like when a zombie yanks a human head from its neck.
Made immediately before Jack’s Wife, the youth-oriented There’s Always Vanilla was a troubled, angry production that tipped off the self-destruction of Night of the Living Dead’s Latent Image production company. Romero himself has disowned, denigrated, and flat-out ignored the film, and it’s not entirely difficult to see why (outside of the forgivable bad blood). Vanilla is something of a trend-jumping anomaly in Romero’s canon, and not only just because the central storyline—a quick and torrid love bout shared between two twentysomething scenesters, a pretty but discontent TV commercial model (Judith Streiner, the girl who is tragically unable to unfasten her seatbelt in Night) and a cultural drifter half-trying to come to a conclusion about which of the myriad high-minded vocations he’s unequivocally qualified for he should pursue (Ray Laine, who balled Jack’s Wife)—is not a horror movie. Excepting, perhaps, for Romero’s nightmarish portrayal of insidious commercial shoots. (He was undoubtedly drawing from his own apparently frustrated utilitarian career filming commercials for beer and laundry detergent.)
Instead of taking an indirect sociological tack, Vanilla opts for fairly transparent post-Graduate countercultural hot-button topics. There’s the generation gap, exemplified by Laine’s father, who insists he can still “cut the mustard” but doesn’t know enough about free love to realize that the go-go chick Laine sets him up with isn’t a whore. There’s an unforgiving slant on antiestablishment overtures, characterized by Romero as nothing more than a petulant mask for kids who refuse to grow up. Alternately, there’s the first rumblings of Romero’s anti-capitalism that would reach its peak with Dawn of the Dead. In recent interview footage included on the film’s DVD, Romero clarifies that he considers his own salient contribution to the film not in his direction but in his editing. Unfortunately, the haphazard, showy cross-cutting between Laine’s to-the-camera narration and the flashbacks (sometimes to scenes he couldn’t possibly recollect) do little to hide the fact that Romero, like his aimless protagonist, seemingly couldn’t care less.
Vanilla looks better than Jack's Wife, though only marginally. At least the former looks like it might have been sourced from film elements, whereas the latter is obviously taken from a VHS dub. The video and sound are both compressed and blotchy and occasionally downright unwatchable. It's so bad that Anchor Bay actually includes a title card before the disc's menu warning of the inadequate elements. (Would've been nice of them to include that warning where it might count: on the back of the DVD case.) But all of that would've been forgivable given both film's poverty row budgets, not to mention the fact that Romero's preferred cut of Jack's Wife reportedly no longer exists on film. What is completely unforgivable is Anchor Bay's decision to hard matte both films to a 1.85:1 aspect ratio (they were clearly shot in the Academy ratio of 1.33:1, what with all the chopped-off foreheads on display here), supposedly because then they could market the disc as being "enhanced for 16x9 televisions." Hysterically, the advertised anamorphic transfers aren't even anamorphic! So what we essentially have here is a vandalized pair of films presented in unacceptable form (though you wouldn't realize it until you've already opened the case and rendered the product un-returnable) and improperly advertised as anamorphic. Criminal.
Still, Anchor Bay can throw together a collection of newly-produced bonus features for obscure films with the best of them. There's an episode of Encore's The Directors series devoted to Romero, which covers almost every film from Romero's entire pre-Bruiser filmography except for Jack's Wife and There's Always Vanilla. There's also a pair of new interview featurettes (roughly 15 minutes each): the first centering around Jan White and her aborted acting career (interestingly, the star of the resolutely anti-domestic film went on to a tumultuous career in real estate), and the other around Romero, giving him a chance to discuss (and, with Vanilla, wash his hands of) the two collected films. Finally, there is a solid collection of alternate credit sequences, theatrical trailers, and still galleries. Nothing so essential as to absolve Anchor Bay of their immoral treatment of the main features, but it's still a nice cut of meat.
Jack's Wife is as important a Romero film as Martin and Knightriders, but Anchor Bay's criminal indifference to the original aspect ratios negate its DVD debut. Simply, they fucked it up.