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The Crazies (1973)

by Steve Habrat

After George Romero left his mark on American cinema with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, he made a handful of films that were largely overlooked until he returned to the zombie genre in 1978 with Dawn of the Dead. These films, made from 1971 to 1976 included There’s Always Vanilla, Hungry Wives, The Crazies, and Martin. Perhaps the best two in this string are 1976’s Martin and his 1973 film The Crazies, which like Night of the Living Dead, held up a cracked mirror up to the Vietnam War. In The Crazies, Romero didn’t go to great lengths to mask the fact that he was blatantly criticizing the unpopular war, even including characters that openly discuss fighting in the Vietnam War. While The Crazies certainly boasts Romero’s trademark brainy subtext, the film becomes one of his shoddier pieces, one that, like much of his other work, is extremely low budget and feels like gorilla style filmmaking. It’s the ideas and images that keep The Crazies in the horror game and the trademark gore is what has recruited its cult following.

The Crazies takes us to Evans City, Pennsylvania; where a mysterious biological weapon named Trixie has accidentally made its way into the town’s drinking water and is turning the good citizens of the peaceful town into wild-eyed “crazies.” After a series of shocking murders, U.S. troops descend upon the town and begin executing a quarantine of Evans City. As the citizens are rounded up without explanation, violence erupts and many of the citizens end up dead or irreversibly insane. Firefighter David (Played by W.G. McMillan), his pregnant nurse girlfriend Judy (Played by Lane Caroll), and David’s best friend and firefighter Russell Clank (Played by Harold Wayne Jones) begin trying to find a way out of the plague-ridden town. Along the way, they hook up with a terrified father Artie (Played by Richard Liberty) and his teenage daughter Kathie (Played by Lynn Lowry), but as their journey continues, certain members of the group begin to think they may be infected with Trixie and putting the rest of the group in danger.

The Crazies is ripe with images that could have been pulled from stock footage of the Vietnam War. In addition to our two heroes who served in the war (David was supposedly Green Beret and Clank was an infantryman), the opening moments of the film are frenzied flashes of an invasion, soldiers bursting into homes, rounding up civilians, encountering resistance from terrified citizens who only wish to know why they are being forced from their homes. In the opening moments, The Crazies gets by on the gossip spilling from the mouths of the actors in front of the screen, trading stories on mysterious truckloads of soldiers spilling into the town while Romero’s shaky camera hovers in all the confusion. His rapid fire editing is certainly in tact in these opening moments, giving The Crazies an almost documentary-like feel to it, like someone quickly spliced together these apocalyptic images for the evening news. The lack of a big budget also allows The Crazies to feel more authentic, much like the limited green that kept Night of the Living Dead grounded in reality. This imagery really comes to a head when a priest bursts from a church that has been overrun by the soldiers, none of them listening to his pleas for peace. He rushes into the streets with a can of gasoline, splashes it all over his body and then sets himself ablaze while horrified onlookers shriek and soldiers rush to put him out of his misery. It is scenes like this that elevate The Crazies from simple B-movie carnage to grave reflection, leaving it lingering in your head the next day.

The Crazies also uses the idea of peaceful people suddenly erupting into violence to really give us a few sleepless nights. A father destroys the inside of his home while his two terrified children watch, one child finding their mother murdered in her bed while the father douses the downstairs in gasoline and then drops a lighter into the gas. Countless wild-eyed citizens arm themselves with double barrel shotguns, pitchforks, and knitting needles to kill them a few gas-masked soldiers who refuse to spill any updates on their situation, some soldiers not even fully understanding why they are taking over this seemingly harmless small town. There are very few images more harrowing than a grinning granny walking up to a soldier and stabbing him in the throat with a knitting needle. There are also the scarring images of children witnessing their parents murdered by the trigger-happy soldiers, who fail to find any alternative to calmly talking down the citizens trying to defend themselves. Romero expertly blurs the infected with those who are on the defensive, causing the viewer to be unsure who is really sick and who is protecting themselves, further adding to the unruly terror.

The Crazies does suffer from some shoddy craftsmanship at points but one can assume that is because of Romero’s limited budget. Yet having seen Romero with a big studio budget (Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead, Survival of the Dead) and comparing it with his much more resourceful work, I have to say I prefer the contained Romero. There is plenty of gore in The Crazies, a trademark of Mr. Romero and there are plenty of disturbing moments to solidify The Crazies as a horror movie legend. The presence of a few familiar B-movie faces (Richard Liberty and Lynn Lowry, who together get one of the most unspeakable sequences of the film) also makes The Crazies worth your while. The rest of the cast does a fine job, especially Jones as Clank, who may or may not be sick with Trixie. The appearance of Richard France as the cure-seeking Dr. Watts is also a fun addition, playing almost the same role he would eventually play in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. The Crazies works on multiple levels of horror, from the documentary-esque footage on the streets of Evans City to the good citizens turning mad all the way to the scenes with several major government officials discussing dropping an atomic bomb on the town, all of which are classic Romero touches. Even though it is not as consistent as Romero’s other horror offerings, The Crazies ultimately settles like a brick in the bottom of your stomach, cynical and suggesting that our own unwillingness to work together will be our ultimate downfall.

Grade: B+

The Crazies is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Survival of the Dead (2010)

by Steve Habrat

The Dead series was always articulate, no one can argue against that fact. Even 2008’s Diary of the Dead had something to say about our current zeitgeist, but I supposed pressure got the best of George Romero, the man who always seems to know how to make a statement with zombies. In 2010, Romero found himself in an odd situation. His Diary of the Dead was a big hit on DVD and there was a scramble to deliver another zombie adventure to his old fans and the new generation who was being introduced to his work. This was all in the span of just under three years and boy does Survival of the Dead reek of rushed ideas and impersonal filmmaking. While there was a minor shift from 2005’s Land of the Dead to 2008’s Diary of the Dead, there was really nothing more to do with his zombies in 2010. It seemed to exist solely in response to the zombie fixation that is gripping our great nation. It’s the only reasonable explanation for the abomination Survival of the Dead to exist and shuffle among us. We have Zombie Soccer, Zombie Highway, and Plants vs. Zombies, all readily available for you to play on your iPhone. We have Call of Duty: Zombies, the massively successful online zombie shooter/survival game. We now even have a television show, The Walking Dead, to satisfy the fan’s unquenchable thirst for more bloodshed. Zombies are as big as vampires, this I think we can all agree on, but they lack the romance factor, which prevents the tween girls from shrieking and crying over them.

Being a fan of the Dead franchise, I was heavily excited to see his latest entry when announced. I was surprised by how quickly he was producing another film, especially after the fatigued Diary. I was convinced that he would find some inspiration and when it was announced it would have a western backdrop, I couldn’t wait to see it. Survival of the Dead was given a limited theatrical release and then shunned to DVD and Blu-ray. It was met with a strong negative reaction, almost unheard of for a Romero zombie film. I rushed out the day of its DVD release and picked it up, eager to add it to my Dead collection. After popping it in and watching it, it was evident that Romero had hit rock bottom. Loaded with even more of the wretched computer effects that paled the impact of Land, Survival applies more farcical death scenes, wisecracking characters, and monotonous scares than you can shake a severed arm at. It made me realize that Diary, for all of its patchiness, at least strayed from the digital gore.

Survival of the Dead does have an old-school feel in its clench, and I enjoyed that. It does feel like a film you would have watched in between sips of a beer that you snuck into your local drive-in. It’s B-movie heaven and I will praise that aspect of it, but Survival of the Dead has absolutely nothing to say. Romero is just going in circles and recycling his idea that we will never be able to get along, even in the face of annihilation. Death does not even stop our grudges. The film follows a group of commandos, much like 1978’s Dawn of the Dead. The motley crew is lead by Sarge Nicotine Crockett (Played by Alan van Sprang), who along with three other soldiers, are trying to figure what to do in the midst of the apocalypse. The world has been reduced to chaos and the cities are being abandoned in attempts to escape the groaning cannibals. Sarge meets up with a young kid (Played by Devon Bostic), who tells them of an island where they could go to be protected from the zombie plague. Two feuding families, the Muldoons and the O’Flynns, who share drastically different views on what to do with their zombified family members, control the remote island. Patrick O’Flynn (Played by Kenneth Welsh) aims to exterminate every last walking stench and Seamus Muldoon (Played by Richard Fitzpatrick) demands they keep the ghouls alive in the chance that a cure is found. They obviously haven’t seen Day of the Dead yet. After Sarge and his gang arrive on the island, they are caught in a warzone that threatens the lives of all the people who live on the island. A side plot involves Muldoon attempting to get the zombies to eat something other than human flesh. They are also desperately trying to catch a mysterious female zombie (Played by Kathleen Munroe) who rides a horse.

Survival of the Dead does not boast a bad premise, and it does every once and a great while show signs of Romero’s wit. The handling of the film is what disgusted me, which appears as if Romero could have cared less about the entire project. It shuffles around and everyone furrows his or her brow. Background characters plea with their stubborn fathers to bury the hatchet and come to an agreement. Sarge seems to have no place in the entire film, just there to fire a machine gun every now and then. His crew is wiped out quickly and we are left barely remembering their names. The film never musters up the scares that Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead blasted their viewers with. The film is just an absolute mess that is more Saturday morning cartoon than horror movie. The performances from everyone involved are too animated, no one offering a lick of concern for their current situation. Why is everyone so calm?

There is some good to be found in all of this, as it does pack two thrilling attack sequences. One occurs at a boathouse where several characters become zombie chow and a gunfight at the end that would seem appropriate in an old school western, if one was to go in and take out the zombie attacks. The cinematography is also crisp and clear, putting the lush and photogenic landscape front and center. There is also some seriously sweet zombie make-up and a hoard of ghouls tearing a horse open and feasting on its guts. I wish I could say more for the characters, who are all unlikable. I wish I could praise Romero’s script or his dialogue, but here it’s disposable and infuriatingly juvenile.

Romero is defeated by his own premise in Survival of the Dead, one that we’ve seen before and to much greater effect. See any of his original three zombie films for further proof. It’s going through the motions, which are rank with decay and in need of life support. It doesn’t help that he shows no subtly whatsoever this time around, something he seems to rejecting as he grows older. The film concludes with the said horse attack, which is both relevant to the series, harkening back to the bug munching going on in Night of the Living Dead while offering a fresh direction for a future zombie film. But that is precisely the problem with Survival, it’s all seems like set-ups for future films. This is just the detour. Romero seems to at least be acknowledging that he’s beating a dead horse, having his own zombies beat and then devour the damn thing. I sincerely hope he gets back on track and soon. The remake of his 1973 film The Crazies was really fulfilling (He produced the remake of his own film). George, we know you still have it in you, man, and I’m not giving up on you, but I can’t be kind to Survival of the Dead. You are capable of so much more than this. Grade: D+

Apollo 18 (2011)

by Steve Habrat

Is it just me or is every single mockumentary horror movie that is “uncovered” a letdown to its audience? It seems like the individuals involved can’t quite help themselves in the final moments and add some unrealistic CGI scam that throws the whole film off balance. This is a problem that plagued Paranormal Activity, a film that had a stellar build up only to shoot itself in the foot with an out-of-place facial distortion that was achieved by CGI in the final seconds. It actually ruined this film for me. It doesn’t help that they made an unnecessary sequel that further clipped the wings of the somewhat effective original. Then we have horror master George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead, a film that used the same mockumentary approach. Diary acts as a restart to his famous Dead series that began with Night of the Living Dead in 1968. The film has some tense moments but it embraces camp with some CGI kills and blood spurts that suck the realism right out of the film. This one hurt because the film is supposed to be taking place at the exact time that Night of the Living Dead is and that film relied on it’s shoestring budget to create realistic scares. It lacked elaborate death scenes and silly weapons. Overall, Night achieved more of an atmosphere of realism that Diary can even dream of. Or Cloverfield, an action/sci-fi/horror mockumentary that has a jumpy tone that is ruined by showing the alien/monster up close and preposterously personal. It’s a classic case of never show the monster!

Apollo 18, a film that mixes history and fiction quite successfully, ushers the summer movie season out with a slight whimper. Perhaps you’ve seen trailers for this film, which was originally supposed to be out in the spring, then summer, and then settled for September. The film suggests that NASA put together a final hush-hush space mission in the 1970’s that sent three astronauts to the moon to set up sensors that alert the United States of an ICBM attack from the Soviet Union. Once on the moon, the two astronauts in the lunar module Liberty, Captain Ben Anderson (Played by Warren Christie) and Commander Nathan Walker (Played by Lloyd Owen), head out to complete their mission and also collect moon rock samples. In orbit over the moon aboard Freedom is Lieutenant Colonel Johnny Grey (Played by Ryan Robbins), who is the watchful eye for the two tough-as-nails astronauts below. Walker and Anderson soon begin hearing strange noises and bangs which naturally disrupt their sleep. Their moon rock samples begin mysteriously moving and they hear strange gargling static over their radios. They then stumble across an abandoned Soviet lunar module and a dead cosmonaut near the ship. As the events become more and more bizarre, Anderson and Walker begin to suspect that they are on the moon for an alternative reason—to investigate the possibility of extraterrestrial life on the moon.

The film is fairly uneventful for the first half-hour or so. The astronauts engage in bland conversation and complain about their cramped space in the ship. They groan over the meals provided for them and play practical jokes on each other. The film picks up once the two men stumble upon the Russian lunar module and this actually leads to one of the more disturbing moments of the film. While out investigating strange occurrences, a spider-like alien worms its way into Walker’s suit and burrows into his stomach. Walker slowly begins getting sick and becoming homicidal in the wake of the attack. The infection scene, which culminates in a surgical scene that nods to Alien, also manages to be one of the more fascinating sequences in the film.

Almost every critic under the moon has critically panned Apollo 18. They have criticized it for a lack of depth and complained that the film established no atmosphere or mood of any kind. They also cry that the film isn’t scary. I will agree that the film isn’t the most terrifying motion picture experience, but a couple of scenes will give you the willies. Yes, the film is slow moving and a bit droll at points, but in my humble opinion the subtly adds to the film. A moon rock twitches here and the American flag is shredded there. Apollo 18 does pack a few of the inevitable boo moments, but the film isn’t overly reliant on this cheap technique.

There is really nothing for the audience to connect with here. I’ll admit that. The characters are not relatable and the film is ultimately unremarkable. The climax is brief but thrilling and the few clips we see of the aliens are relatively creepy, mostly because much of them are left to our imagination (are you paying attention Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark?). There is a clip at the end of the film that, just like all the other mockumentary horror films before it, resorts to CGI overload and ruins what was otherwise a tense scene. The filmmakers did a good job mixing stock footage with the low budget stuff they came up with. The film’s premise is inspired and is a fresh idea to the countless other middling alien invasion films that have taken over the box office (Super 8 was the crown jewel). The film is worth a watch but you will never find yourself clamoring to experience it again. It does appall me that this film is actually receiving worse reviews than the abysmal Battle: Los Angles did. Perhaps we didn’t see the same movie. Apollo 18 is disappointing, that I will not deny, but it is also a disposable and fun gimmick. Grade: B-

Favorite Mockumentary Horror Film….GO!