GEORGE ROMERO TRIBUTE: There’s Always Vanilla (1971)

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be reviewing several of George Romero’s most well-known — and in this case, least known — works. As a filmmaker that came from Sam’s hometown, as well as one of most interesting voices in American genre filmmaking, there’s plenty to celebrate. Rather than focus on a film like Night of the Living Dead or Dawn, we’d rather speak about the films that feel more personal. Perhaps even lost. So it’s appropriate that we start with a film that was his attempt to escape the fate of being known only for horror.

Edgar Wright wrote a touching tribute to Romero the day after his death. There’s a line that struck me here: “We had coffee in a Toronto hotel with him and he asked me and Simon what we were doing next. I replied that we were making a police action comedy. ‘Oh, not a horror, then?’ he replied, ‘So you’re getting out.’ This was a telling statement, as there was always the sense that George had interests in film that stretched beyond the realm of horror. But even if he was pigeonholed somewhat in the genre realm, one of the reasons that his work resonates still is because of fierce intelligence and humour behind it.”

When I was 14 or so, I read and re-read and then read again Paul R. Gagne’s The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh: The Films of George A. Romero. This was in the dark days when there was no internet, no way to instantly stream a film. Sure, I could rent NightDawn or Day, but hunting down MartinKnightriders or The Crazies was hard. And finding Season of the Witch was pretty impossible. What struck me was that Romero chose There’s Always Vanilla — a movie that even the book told me that I’d probably never see — was that as his second effort he was already avoiding being typecast as a horror director. He obviously failed — but for years, I struggled to find this movie. Anchor Bay and Something Weird released it awhile back and thanks to The Carneige Library’s Oakland branch, I’ve found a copy (if you live in Pittsburgh, you owe it to yourself to visit this huge treasure trove of media, yours for the taking).

It’s the only film he created that has no otherworldly elements. Instead, it’s very much a view of America — and Pittsburgh, Romero’s adoptive hometown — at the start of the 1970s. While Vietnam and the looming Watergate scandal would erode the nation’s trust that the world would remain bright and cheerful and expected, Western Pennsylvania always had certainty in the face of uncertainty — surely the mills and mines of our region would constantly offer work, so even after the military was done with you or college didn’t fulfill you, you could always come back home, always find a job that paid more than well. I personally remember tales in grade school of the holiday parties for the kids of mill workers — every boy got a train set, every girl an Easy-Bake oven. My grandfather put forty plus years into the blast furnace; his friends all worked there or in other mills, gathered around the bar drinking Pabst or Iron City, telling tale of dealing with foremen or how much they could make off a double or triple shift.

There’s more of this erosion to come in Romero’s work as the 1970s go on in Season of the Witch and particularly Martin, which is a grisly reminder of how it only took eight years to make the Steel City look like the end of the world.

Also known as The Affair, Romero would say that this film was a “total mess” and that the budget hampered what could have been a better film. He’s also claimed that the writer was lazy and left halfway through the process of making the movie. Much like the aforementioned Witch, it concerns how women’s roles are changing in society, from providing emotional and monetary support to finally realizing — again in Witch — that their predestined roles are fading away, perhaps never to return.

Vanilla opens on some art that likens America to a machine, as well as the comments of local citizens as they walk past. The gray, dark skies of Pittsburgh — a marked contrast to the post-industrial age clean skies we enjoy now — is noticeable. We meet Chris Bradley, a soldier who’s had a variety of jobs, from pimp to guitar player. He feels like he’s lost the ability to think from all the noise of rock and roll music, so he’s going back home to Pittsburgh.

Then, for some reason, we’re on a commercial shoot. It’s disjointed and feels like b roll from one of the commercials that The Latent Image, Romero’s production company, was working on in between movies.

Chris’ dad owns a baby food factory and always wanted his son to be part of the family business; another big issue as the generation gap widened in Pittsburgh, a place rife with Catholicism and ingrained family values, where multiple generations would toil in the same mine or mill or operate the butcher shop or furniture store. Chris has been a drifter and avoiding the fate of his father — day after day of the same work, again and again. Chris remarks that he’s been gone for three years and his dad is still in the same bar, drinking a shot and a beer, the same way he was when he left. Pittsburgh was — and remains — a hard drinking town, where a boilermaker (slang for a shot of whiskey dropped in a beer) is served at lunch.

Chris meets up with an old girlfriend, Terri Terrific, at a bar that pretty much could be the Edison Hotel (note for anyone not from Pittsburgh, the Edison is a noted strip club that was, shall we say, rather rough — not as rough as the long since demolished Chez Kimberly or Roman V — and is now a cleaned up gentlemen’s club known as Blush) . Terri’s friend refers to Chris as a “jag off,” reminding anyone in town that this movie was definitely shot in Pittsburgh and confusing anyone from any other town in the world.

Oh yeah — Terri may or may not be have had a kid with Chris. His dad may hold true to family values, wondering why Chris doesn’t pay for child support, but he’s also hooked up with a blonde friend of Terri’s. Men and women of the 70s had weird relationships, where guys really did do whatever they wanted and kept their wives in the dark. He asks Chris how much he needs to pay the girl he slept with, showing again that cultural divide. A woman who has sex with an older man she doesn’t know has to be a prostitute in dad’s world. In Chris’ world, this is de rigueur behavior.

The film keeps cutting back to Chris, who directly addresses the camera in a way where we’re supposed to identify with him. Maybe I’m too far past the hippy days of the 60s, but I find nothing of value or kinship.

Chris meets Lynn (Judith Ridley, or Judith Streiner, who played Judy in Night of the Living Dead), a model who he moves in with. We’ve already seen her on that commercial shoot and how she wasn’t happy with another man, Michael. She starts to resent Chris after initially enjoying the escape he initially offered her. She keeps pushing him to get a steady job and after learning that she’s pregnant, she schedules an abortion without telling him (in 1970s Pittsburgh, an abortion was the scandal of scandals, again due to the city’s large Catholic contingent).

The romance in these scenes feels contrived — Chris basically negs on her, saying she isn’t that attractive and that she has a fat ass, which wins her over for some reason. They drive in his Jeep, shop for clothes, have a picnic and talk a whole bunch — in a scene that’s chopped up and edited ala a montage, but ends up feeling really confusing, like a romance version of Laugh-In. Franky, its fucking intolerable. Not really Romero’s fault, I guess, as this feels like plenty of films from the end of the age of Aquarius.

NOTE: One of these dates brings Chris and Lynn to the old Pittsburgh Zoo, where they get to walk up to baby lions and pick them up. They are carrying baby lions around like it’s no big deal, because in 1970 and in Pittsburgh life was fucking cheap and you’d probably die in a mine collapse or by tripping into the blast furnace anyway, so why not pick up a baby lion like it’s no big deal. After all, mother lions aren’t protective. At all.

ALSO: One of their dates, shown in montage, shows them going to the newly opened Monroeville Mall. Foreshadowing?

The search for a job brings Chris into advertising — an occupation that Romero knew only too well (and your author does, too. Why else would he be awake at 4:15 AM but to write script treatments, then be unable to sleep and watching a Romero rarity). Chris is going to be a copywriter and thinks he can do it with no education — again, in my experience, he’s in way over his head.Turns out that he can’t do it, finding that he hates his military past and can’t sell the promises that it offers to anyone else.

Chris also plays in the park with Terri and his maybe or maybe not son. Terri is so Pittsburgh it hurts; she eventually ended up with big claw hair after this,  has old episodes of Evening Magazine videotaped so she can show everyone that time that Patti Burns came to Dormont and knows all the words to “Ah! Leah!”

Lynn discovers that she can’t bring herself to get the abortion, so she moves in with a high school boyfriend who says he’ll raise the child as his own. Chris moves in with his dad and finds that he must embrace the old values — and the drudgery of it — that his father has. At a Howard Johnson’s — fancy dining in Pittsburgh circa 1970 — dad tells him that while life is like an ice cream parlor, packed with exotic flavors, there’s always vanilla to fall back on.

Note: Any time that the title of a movie comes up in the dialogue of the film, everyone should scream as loudly as possible, as if Pee Wee has just said the secret word.

There’s Always Vanilla closes by showing a very pregnant Lynn living in the suburbs (Mount Lebo, right, yinz guys?). A large package from Chris arrives, filled with helium balloons that she allows to drift away, his memory of the carefree time they shared that he will always remember. You know, the times when he called her a bitch and argued with her all the time and told her that she had a fat ass. Those carefree times.

Vanilla is about as night and day — sorry for the pun — from Night of the Living Dead as it gets. However, there were numerous times during it’s running time that I wished that a Venus probe would come back to earth and graves would cough up their dead.

Romero wouldn’t make another movie until 1973, which would find him creating two films, Season of the Witch and The Crazies, which will be getting to this week. I wouldn’t recommend you watch this unless you’re a completist or want to see how awesome downtown Pittsburgh looked in 1970.

Special thanks to Bill DeJoseph for catching a typo!

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