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
How I was unaware a zombie film like The Dead snuck out without me knowing about it baffles me. The zombie horror genre has been overshadowed by the recent rise of teen vampires and “found footage” ghost flicks, the only life being found in AMC’s top-notch The Walking Dead. Basically, if you are a fan of George Romero’s original zombie trilogy (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead) and Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (or basically any Italian ziti zombie film), then you need to rush out right now and pick up The Dead. You are going to be blown away by this thing. Certainly not a perfect movie but featuring an unmatched beauty, The Dead is for those who long for the days of the shuffling ghouls, not the sprinting, shrieking zombies that were made popular by 28 Days Later. For a fan of this kind of stuff, it was a blast to sit back and spot all the references and nods to Romero and Fulci all while directors Jonathan and Howard J. Ford carve out their own zombie classic. In all honesty, I haven’t been this excited about a zombie flick since 28 Days Later.
The Dead picks up in Africa, where the dead have risen from their graves and started feeding on the living. Everyman Lt. Brian Murphy (Played by Rob Freeman) is on the last plane out of Africa and just shortly after getting airborne, the plane plunges from the sky. Washing up on zombie-infested shores, Brian begins making his way through the beautiful landscape that has been desecrated with death, eager to find a way back to his family in America. He soon meets up with Sgt. Daniel Dembele (Played by Prince David Oseia), who is on a quest to find his son after his village is overrun by the creeping ghouls, and together they set out to protect and aid each other in their quest.
The Dead is simple and straight to the point, picking up in all the chaos that is tearing Africa apart. There is no lead in, explanation to be found, or an abundance of characters that we need to get to know. We just have Brian and Daniel, both men who have to set aside differences to band together and protect each other. There is not much said between the two men and when they do speak, it’s mostly because they have to. They reveal bits and pieces about their lives, enough for us to really pull for them when they get corned by a group of shuffling zombies. There has been much to do over the slow moving cannibals but the Ford brothers understand that if you always have at least two zombies in the frame, you’re implying that there isn’t much hope for refuge and salvation. These zombies are fairly basic, a little dirt smudged on their faces, a few wounds, dead eyes, and torn clothes. It adds a chilling layer of realism to The Dead. They make us think back to the original terrors that pounded their way into the farmhouse in 1968. They reminded me of the ghouls who forced their way into the Monroeville Mall in 1978. They were eerily similar to the cannibals who shuffled around the tropical island in 1979.
It may retain a traditional style, but The Dead also packs plenty of smarts to compliment the old fashioned approach. The film presents multiple moral situations that would be gut wrenching to face. The worst one we see is an injured African woman trying to flee a group of zombies who are closing in on her. She calls for help to Brian, who is reluctant to assist her, but his reluctance is tried even further when the woman hands him an infant whose cries attract the zombies. The woman forces Brian to take the child, and then forces him to put his gun to her head and begs him to shoot her. It’s scenes like this that makes The Dead such a force to be reckon with. It also mirrors our unwillingness to help those in need, those who are poverty stricken. It was never easy to watch Brian and Daniel put the ghouls down, especially in a place where disease and conflict are consistently present. Surely controversial and upsetting to some who watch it, The Dead understands that there has to be more than just gore to get under our skin, something that Romero certainly understands.
The Dead doesn’t reinvent the wheel and I didn’t really expect it to. That credit falls on the shoulders of Danny Boyle and 28 Days Later. There are a few moments where continuity issues are glaring and a few editing choices that may make you scratch your head. One scene in particular reeks of a tight budget, which seemed to force the Ford brothers to sacrifice clarity. At times, the acting from Rob Freeman is a bit hammy and a little too macho for a man in his situation. Prince David Oseia out acts Freeman in almost every scene and his character is infinitely more interesting. In a way, I sort of liked Freeman’s old-fashioned macho hero because he reminded me of Peter or Rodger in Dawn of the Dead. The Dead never lets up on the viewer; constantly keeping your stomach twisted in knots and you’ll find yourself keeping an eye out for the two heroes. With Romero grasping at rotten entrails and hitting rock bottom with Survival of the Dead, it’s reassuring–and terrifying–to know that there is a stripped down, straightforward, and smart zombie flick out there to satisfy the zombie fans.
The Dead is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.