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.
by Steve Habrat
The third entry in George Romero’s Dead series is without question the darkest entry into his epic zombie series. It is also probably the biggest cult film out of all of them with a loyal fan base who applaud its genre bending ideas and introductions. I was unaware that Day of the Dead existed until I saw the special features on the Dawn of the Dead DVD, in which Romero referenced the isolated third installment. It would be another year before I stumbled upon the VHS in a Huron video store. That evening, I sat down and watched what was perhaps the most challenging film experience of my life up to that point. Day of the Dead is a ruthless and angry film. It also offers up one hell of a final bang for the series, which was originally supposed to be much grander than what Romero actually delivers. Budget concerns forced the Godfather to alter his vision, but what he came up with is captivating to say the least. It also pushes against the happy-go-lucky conservatism of the 1980’s and shakes things up with a harshest ending of the original three Dead flicks. Personally, I didn’t really know what to make of the film. We had some vaguely aware zombies, strident characters who screamed at each other constantly, and a super gross ending that is quite an accomplishment for visual effects of the time. I should point out that many would find themselves outraged by this film and deem it too hard to endure. This is a very unsightly film.
When the final frame of Day of the Dead flashed on the screen, my eyes had to have been as big as saucers. I remember muttering “wow” to myself while getting up to eject the tape. I didn’t know if I should retreat to the bathroom to vomit or if I wanted to cut all ties with everyone I knew at that point in my life. People are extremely ugly and when things go south, there will zero unity. And what to make of the scientists versus the military? According to Romero, we cannot and should not rely on either of them. It would be a few months before I stumbled upon his other epidemic film The Crazies, which would further push the button of fear towards the evil military. Romero seems to believe in only one thing in Day of the Dead—chaos. Every character is at the others throat, ready to pull the trigger and flee the underground bunker that the two groups inhabit in the wake of the apocalypse. This film takes place in Florida, miles away from Romero’s beloved Pittsburgh. The score is filled with playful synthesizer squeals and pounding snare drums. Its zombie’s are the most eccentric, ranging from a clown, a military man, and a zombie missing its lower jaw, exposing it’s glistening and slithering tongue. It’s main character Sarah (Played by Lori Cardille) is at her breaking point and every other male presence is interested in proving he’s more masculine than the other. This is a seriously unusual film, boys and ghouls.
Sarah is a scientist, aiding the eccentric Logan (Played by a beyond crazy Richard Liberty) in his quest to understand the walking dead. He performs gruesome experiments on the samples that Sarah, her mentally collapsing boyfriend Miguel (Played by Anthony Dileo Jr.), flask-sipping radio operater William McDermott (Played by Jarlath Conroy), and Jamaican helicopter pilot John (Played by Terry Alexander) venture into infested cities to capture. They are at the mercy of Capt. Rhodes (Played by cult favorite Joseph Pilato) and his trigger-happy band of soldiers. They are demanding scientific explanation from Logan on the zombies who have claimed the earth. They threaten that if they don’t see results soon, they will take the helicopter and leave the scientists to fend for themselves. Their frustration is also growing with William who can’t reach any other survivors on his rickety radio equipment. They are beginning to suspect that they truly are the last human beings left. As insanity, murder, and a stunning breakthrough rip through the dysfunctional group, it all culminates in a horrid climax that shows us that our unwillingness to work together will, once again, be our downfall. Heard that one before in a Romero zombie movie?
This is Romero’s cleanest Dead film of them all. It’s tightly and proficiently made, with top-notch cinematography and make-up effects. Seeing the film in Blu-ray shows how pristine the exertion is here. His other two zombie films tripped a few times over technical goofs, which are forgiven because these are after all just a group of independent filmmakers making something out of nothing. Here, Romero has a little something and boy does he use it. Day of the Dead means business and it acts as a kick to the intestines that will leave you clutching your gut and your head for days. It all rises out of some serious camp, which is shocking to me because the film is so austere and oddly existential. Sometimes we wonder if any of the characters see the point in fighting back against the ghouls above. Where can they go if they need to flee? Are they the last human beings on earth? Will they discover what brought this plague on? But Romero turns to us in the final hour and asks us this: When the world ends, do you want to end with it? Is life worth living once all order is gone?
Day of the Dead adds a new element to the zombie genre that hadn’t been explored up to that point. What if the ghouls started to recall aspects of their old lives? Bub (Played unforgettably by Sherman Howard) is a zombie that Logan befriends. A docile creature, Bub is much more curious about what is in front of him. He apparently didn’t get the memo that zombies are supposed to think about brains and brains only. He doesn’t attack the humans and he shows more interest in a book and a gun than trying to rip boards off a window. He even speaks! This is a trait that would show back up in Romero’s towering 2005 comeback Land of the Dead. This was especially off-putting for me upon my first viewing because I wanted zombies to be simply shuffling shells to show up in waves and decimate all that stood in their way. Bub was hard to accept, but he has become a beloved character of mine. I adore him and I can’t help but get chills when he stalks the barbarous Rhodes around the bunker. It has brief hints of Dawn of the Dead’s boiler room stalk sequence, but it never reaches the level of spookiness that Dawn obtained.
If you find this film too curt upon your first introduction, give it a second chance. It doesn’t make the most flattering first impression, but I strongly believe that was Romero’s intention. He wanted this to be a tough experience. See it strictly on the fact that the make-up effects are marvelous, as the zombies are starting to decay (the film supposedly takes place several months—a year, maybe?—after the initial epidemic) and the gore effects are repulsively real. Rhodes gets the best line, as he is ripped into bit sizes, he tells the zombies to “choke on ‘em”! It’s funny but horrific and powerful. He remains a bad ass up to the nasty end. The rest of the players are all a bit too overblown and the result is some heavy doses of over acting. This film also contains the foulest language of all the Dead films, with countless usage of “fuck” to the point where it becomes monotonous. Yet it all feels like Romero is pushing his point home, the he is pissed off and just not going to take it anymore. Romero disappeared from the zombie genre after this for twenty years. This film was a bomb and was critically panned when released. In keeping with the tone, the bleak nature is fitting but was rejected. Overall, Day of the Dead still shines brightly, solidifying its place in the horror realm as a classic. It may not be as scary as Night and Dawn, but it’s still a fervent beast of a horror film. Grade: A–