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