Written by: Peter McCullough and George A. Romero
Directed by: George A. Romero
Starring: Lane Carroll, Will MacMilan, Harold Wayne Jones, and Richard France
Reviewed by: Brett G.
"We're all concerned with Evans City..."
While horror legend George Romero’s legacy will forever be synonymous with the undead, any discerning horror fan would be remiss to ignore at least a few of his non-zombie offerings. These of course include the meditative vampire film, Martin, and one of the genre’s finest anthology offerings, Creepshow. A bit less unheralded was a film Romero directed between his seminal Night of the Living Dead and the aforementioned Martin: 1973’s The Crazies, a film that bears many of the hallmarks of Romero’s career: rampant paranoia, governmental and military corruption, and, ultimately, the notion that mankind itself is the root of all its problems. I will be the first to say that I sometimes find the socio-political commentary in Romero’s films to be about as subtle as an anvil and to be a bit overblown by his more rabid fans. That said, it’s hard to argue that Romero’s films don’t at least capture, reflect, or even invert the zeitgeist of their time period. The Crazies is no different in this respect, and it is perhaps one of the most poignant and darkly ironic pictures in Romero’s filmography.
The film opens in the typical rural American town of Evans City, Pennsylvania; there, a brother is playfully tormenting his sister when their father randomly enters the house and begins tearing it apart in a demented rage. After killing his own wife, the farmer sets fire to his household with his children inside. Before the town can even adequately comprehend the horrifying event, the military swiftly descends on Evans City in an attempt to control the outbreak of a military-grade biological weapon that was responsible for the farmer’s behavior. The accidentally-released virus is quickly spreading throughout the town and is producing symptoms of a violent dementia that reduces the townspeople into “crazies.” Caught up in the hysteria is a fireman, David, his pregnant girlfriend, Judy, and his co-worker, Clank, who are forced to navigate the military-infested countryside in an attempt to break the quarantine. Meanwhile, Dr. Watts, the scientist responsible for the creation of the disease toils away in search for a cure as the military personnel begins to plot the destruction of the town itself to prevent the spread of the virus.
In many ways, The Crazies feels like an extension of the thread started by Romero in Night of the Living Dead. Like that film, The Crazies exhibits an extreme sense of pessimism and nihilism towards humanity. Historically speaking, Vietnam was still raging at the behest of an increasingly-restless and disenchanted American public; in fact, there’s even a self-immolation scene in this film that’s no doubt meant to remind viewers of Buddhist monks who performed the same act in protest of that war. Furthermore, 1973 also represents the height of the Watergate scandal, which only instilled more distrust in the government. The Crazies mostly reflects this distrust, as the film is saturated with an early-70s paranoia. Romero’s choice of a rural American town is no coincidence, as the image of the ominous, NBC-suit clad military encroaching on small-town Americana and literally ripping people from their homes is symbolic of such paranoia. Whereas many of Romero’s films show that no sector of humanity is exempt from disgusting behavior when the chips are down, The Crazies seems to be pointing the figure directly at the government and military. Such blame even extends to the top, where an unseen, sinister president ominously relays messages to those under his command.
Indeed, everyone else in the film is painted as a victim of the military’s actions: the normal citizens are turned into tools of violence, and even the corpses of those who perish are treated with extreme disdain when they’re incinerated by the military. Romero even paints Dr. Watts in a positive light, especially by the end of the film; this military/science dichotomy is a standard staple of horror and science fiction, and it’s one that Romero would revisit in Day of the Dead. Here, it’s used to further highlight the sinister and ominous presence of the military, who do nothing but stifle Watts’s progress with their incompetence and bureaucracy. In fact, the military has an oppressive presence in the film as a whole, as even the score is peppered with military drums that seemingly never cease. By the end of the film, it’s arguable that the title characters themselves are the least of everyone’s worries (not unlike the undead in Romero’s films); instead, it’s the bungling military that’s ultimately a force that isn’t even forced to reckon with its destruction.
Even when stripped of its historical context, The Crazies still works on an elemental level in the sense that humans naturally fear that which is meant to protect them. The viewer itself is even put into the shoes of the protagonists when the military quickly descends onto the picture with little explanation. Indeed, the sense of paranoia and mistrust that pervades the picture is very reminiscent of the pod movies (like Invasion of the Body Snatchers) of decades previous. Similarly, Romero does a good job of even blurring the lines between sanity and the insanity suggested by the title, and by the end, it’s clear that the military has unwittingly destroyed its only chance at salvation.
Obviously, The Crazies succeeds mostly on the strength of its layered and complex narrative; however, this is also where the film falters a bit because it often feels like there’s just a little bit too much going on as we bounce around between three major plot threads. As a result, the film’s pacing is sometimes disjointed and drags for a stretch in the middle where it loses its focus a bit. Furthermore, the film isn’t exactly the most visually stunning or well-acted film either, as the cast is comprised of Romero regulars and other cult actors. Everything is competent enough, and Romero stretches his budget well by making great use of his usual guerrilla film-making tactics. The film’s look is also dated by its styles and fashions, but I’m not sure if the film would work as well in a more timeless context. Like most of Romero’s films, The Crazies isn’t a textbook example of excellent technical craft; it is, however, an excellent example of honest and visceral storytelling that captures a sense of cinéma vérité in its rawness.
And it’s the story and Romero’s deft use of dramatic irony (imagine Night of the Living Dead’s irony-laden conclusion, but triple it) that packs a punch that ensures The Crazies won’t be soon-forgotten. The film is unapologetically violent: bodies are strewn with bullets, set aflame, impaled, and there’s even an attempt at incestuous rape. It’s difficult to call the film gore-soaked or exploitative in this sense because you won’t see The Crazies topping any gore film lists anytime soon. Instead, the overbearing pessimism compounded with the visceral punch of the violence creates a very grim experience that reinforces all of Romero’s themes. Once the film concludes, one feels as if we’ve seen Romero’s response to Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, only stripped of the insistence that we laugh at the military’s incompetence. Instead, it’s something to be feared, and the fate of our military commander here is very much the opposite of Slim Pickens gleefully riding an atomic bomb to oblivion.
The Crazies might feel like a bit of a rehash if one approaches it after exhausting Romero's Dead films; however, taking it chronologically, the film feels like the natural extension of Night, while acting as a prelude for his later works. It would be disingenuous to consider The Crazies to be another Dead film with “crazies” substituted for “zombies,” precisely because the title characters are even more of a non-entity than the Dead. This, perhaps, is Romero’s greatest use of irony, as one must wonder if the term in the title shouldn’t apply to everyone by the end of the film. Blue Underground released this rarely-seen film on DVD about seven years ago, but don’t let its age fool you: the transfer is about as good as it’s going to get for a low budget film such as this, and the 2.0 mono soundtrack is crisp and clear. The disc’s extras include an audio commentary with Romero, an interview with star Lynn Lowry, theatrical trailers, tv spots, a poster gallery, and a Romero bio. A Blu-ray upgrade featuring the same features is also due from Blue Underground no doubt to coincide with the release of the upcoming remake. Before you check out that film when it hits theaters, I urge you to check out Romero’s grim send-up of an ever-corrupt and sinister government and military that still manages to resonate today. Buy it!
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