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
You almost never come across a list of the scariest films ever made that doesn’t contain George A. Romero’s 1968 claustrophobic skin-crawler Night of the Living Dead. To this very day, the film still manages to be a Halloween night tradition that sends it’s first-time viewers away unnerved and scarred for life. Much has been written on the horror classic and every critic that is armed with a laptop has analyzed it to death. There is not a frame of this classic film that hasn’t been combed over. Perhaps it was seeing this film for myself (along with the 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead) that made me realize that there was quite a bit more going on in movies than meets the casual viewers eye. The film created quite a stir over its stanch, stationary scenes of gore and it’s is-this-really-happening? authenticity. To this day, it still is widely discussed and it is the Dr. Frankenstein to the Ziti Zombie films that started rising from their graves over in Italy (famed Italian film critic turned horror auteur Dario Argento reportedly loved this film). While there is some fun to be had at the Ziti Zombie buffet, they mostly descend into gory guilty pleasures which features dim characters, gratuitous nudity, and enough entrails to please the most bloodthirsty gore hound (I personally love the Ziti Zombie offerings, especially films like Burial Grounds, Zombie, and Hell of the Living Dead). Yet Night of the Living Dead’s violence is just understated enough and is more disquieting in black and white. This film’s use of black and white elevates it from minor to mighty. It shifts it from campy to coarse. It’s borderline too real for words. It resembles a newsreel that has been stored away in a dark, damp basement, away from the public’s eye. You feel as if we weren’t meant to see this film.
While I could just repeat what almost everyone knows about this film—how it evoked the images of Vietnam that ran across television nightly, the controversial casting of an African-American in the starring role, the Cold War comparisons, etc, I could instead explain to you why the film scares me. Why it grabbed me at an early age and never let me go. It scares me because it feels realistic, it’s in black and white, it’s claustrophobic, it never slows down, and it leaves more to the imagination than makes this viewer comfortable. This is quite an intricate film for the uninitiated. There’s the reason to see it because, yes, it is immensely entertaining and is quintessential for any horror fan. And yes, the gore is extreme and comes to a head in the form of a young girl eating her poor father’s arm off. I feel as though everyone who sees Night of the Living Dead is spooked by it for different reasons. It could play on the what-would-I-do-in-that-situation? or the planting of the idea that when the chips are down, the worst in people will come out.
The number one quality that has made Night of the Living Dead endear after all these years is it’s aesthetic. Due to the lack of a large price tag, the film, which boasts granular camera work, feels voyeuristic. The whole time, you feel as if you are a fly on the wall watching this group fight for their lives. Even the rag tag group the story follows feel like real individuals. You have levelheaded Ben (Played by Duane Jones, his head help high), the dazed Barbara (Played by Judith O’Dea), snappy Harry and fretful mother Helen Cooper (Played by Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman), the Cooper’s daughter Karen (Played by the iconic Kyra Schon), and boyfriend and girlfriend Tom and Judy (Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley). The lack of a prolific star within the film and the fact that the faces of these thespians look strikingly ordinary, add to Romero’s obtained authenticity and nightmarish vision. They look like people we could bump into on the street. Most empathetic is Barbara, who viciously looses her teasing brother Johnny (Played by Russell Streiner, who gets the film’s best line—“They’re coming to get you, Barbara!”). Romero never allows her to grieve her loss. She instead has to fight for her life against a staggering zombie in a chilling graveyard sequence. Whenever she does get a moment to catch her breath, she is reduced to hysterics. It never once feels silly and its stone-faced tone always feels like what would really happen if a disaster of this magnitude ever occurred.
Night of the Living Dead feels like a film you would find locked inside a chest in the basement of a sinister log cabin in the woods. The black and white helps conceal the cheap make-up effects and makes the gore seem all the more gruesome. Near the beginning of the film, Barbara stumbles upon a ripped-to-shreds corpse that looks a bit slapdash. It makes the zombie make-up more disturbing (Is that decay or a fresh wound?) and terror inducing. It also adds to the setting and the use of the darkness. Some shots of the film would make the German Expressionists crazy with envy. A shot at the end of the film is shrouded in shadows and turns an already ominous shot of Karen munching on her zombified father’s arm all the more horrific and otherworldly as Karen’s white dress contrasts with the black shadows (the power has been knocked out) around her. Her pale white face smeared with blood, she lunges out of the darkness, as Ben, also hidden in the shadows with a shotgun (his world has been consumed by darkness), readies himself to dispatch the ghoul. It makes our blood turn to ice. It also sends shivers when Karen dispatches her mother, shown only to us in shadows (In cinema heaven, Carl Theodor Dreyer, the director of Vampyr, was beaming when this scene played for the first time) on the basement wall that is also being spraying with her blood. It’s effervescent, redolent (old fashioned horror meets the bloody new school of the genre), and unforgettable.
The film also acts as a merciless adrenaline rush as it speeds by you. You barely have time to catch your breath in between the zombie attacks. They smash through windows and grab at Ben and Barbara, the lunge across the lawn, smash car lights, and pull their victims into their countless hungry hoards. What makes this agonizing and frightening is the fact that there is nowhere for anyone to go. Do we stay on the first floor or retreat to the cellar and barricade the door? The battle stews the entire film and I won’t reveal what is decided upon in the last blood soaked act, but it’s a doozy. Once the zombies get wise to the fact that there are survivors in that seemingly abandoned farmhouse, the action is cranked up full blast by Romero. The rush of action and the claustrophobia act hand and hand. You almost feel yourself losing your mind along with the panic-stricken Barbara. You may feel distressed when a fistfight between the survivors breaks out. You will feel your stomach drop when Ben gets locked outside the house and a group of growling ghouls closes in on him. The film is emotionally draining from its cramped setting and aggressive action sequences. It’s borderline paralyzing.
Night of the Living Dead is a film that also instills fear in us through its lack of a clear, rational explanation for the events at hand. We, as a society, always need an answer. Whenever there is a catastrophic event, our first question is “Why?” We need to drive home some form of ease because the unknown is something that we simply cannot grasp. The film generates real panic because the survivors trapped in the farmhouse have no clear elucidation for why the dead are returning to life. Even the revelation of the cannibalistic tendencies of these monsters comes at the survivors and the viewer as a curveball thrown by the devil himself. It’s just too much to bear. Barbara is already a character that is reduced to blubbering hysterics and shock and Cooper is already defensive and on the prowl for a fight. The idea of not knowing brings out the worst in people, even when they should be sticking together and attempting to device a plan to stay alive. Romero suggests that the unknown will ultimately be our collapse, another dour touch to a film that is already grim enough by the story alone.
Night of the Living Dead has shuffled on through the years, lived through multiple remakes and a senseless color version that looks like it was filled in with pastel crayons. No other film has ever or will ever be as long lasting as the original. No one will ever capture the trepidation that runs rampant through the film, the pessimistic tone, or the resentment that flows from it. No one can clock in a performance like Duane Jones did way back when. The despondency, the growing frustration, and the ultimate defeat will live on in the cinema history books from now until eternity. No film has ever and will ever be as era defining as Night of the Living Dead is. It truly is one of a kind and influential beyond words. A classic horror film that will continue to be passed down, all we can do is thank Romero for it. This is the granddaddy of zombie films and should be revered as one of the scariest films ever made. Grade: A+