The funny thing about Gory George Romero's comic-book thriller The Crazies (1973) is how often people relate it to his more outrageous zombie films as some sort of sidelined alternative that can be easily dismissed as a commercial failure. On the surface, this assumption seems fairly obvious. The inhabitants of a small Pennsylvania community, Evans City, become infected with a weaponised biological germ, codenamed “Trixie”, that was onboard a plane that crashed in the vicinity, and turn, in some cases, into homicidal maniacs. The military, realising the dreadful implications that would ensue if the toxin was to spread across the good old U.S. of A., move in and seal off the town, clamping down on the terrified population with an iron fist and enforcing martial law. As more and more people succumb to the plague, friends turn on friends, families attack their own and everyone tries to resist the hard-line soldiers in their symbolic white chemical suits and anonymous gas-masks. Critics, at the time, and ever since, have preferred to merely bundle these infected folk along with the zombies - after all, they look like us, and the contagion spreads like wild-fire, causing colleagues you once trusted to become as deadly as any zombie almost in the blink of an eye. Whereas Night of the Living Dead rather voraciously observed the social upheaval that America was undergoing at the time and amplified the violence from Vietnam that was being shown on TV news programmes, The Crazies very acutely poked accusation at the US involvement in South East Asia, as well as embracing the distrust and anger that normal citizens felt at a government that was blatantly lying to them. The very concept of the Administration - we see the back of the President's head in The Crazies as he ponders, all too briefly, the final option of nuking the town - moving-in with such a swift savagery and a totally casual, almost contented indifference to the suffering of their own people is a total allegory.
The other misconception that people, other than Romero-devotees, have is that The Crazies is a poorly-made, inept and easily forgettable film and a considerable disappointment after the taboo-breaking milestone of Night Of The Living Dead - which couldn't be further from the truth. Whereas, NOTLD most certainly is poorly-made and resolutely threadbare, The Crazies reveals the director working at ease with a larger cast, more locations, strenuous action set-pieces involving vehicles, guns and helicopters and a scope that feels both powerfully claustrophobic and dreadfully far-reaching. Although his own-penned screenplay, after comprehensively reworking the original draft from Paul McCullough, was mostly a metaphor for ultra-right-wing tendencies, it was also frighteningly prescient of a world that would grow to fear AIDS, SARIN, Mad Cow's Disease and Swine-Flu like they were some Biblical pestilences sent to punish, and smite us. If his zombies were the eroded offspring of his own social conscience, then his “crazies” were their thrill-killing, amoral cousins, drunk and high on the excesses of the 60's and just suffering an entire generation's 'Nam flashback.
His favourite type of protagonist - small community blue-collar grafters - in this case two volunteer firemen, David (W.G. McMillan) and his best buddy, Clank (Harold Wayne Jones), are caught, along with everybody else, in the sudden, overnight military takeover, but using their war-honed wits - both are Vietnam Vets - and the sheer determination to fight against such unexplained subjugation, escape the encircling Army and seek to break free of the perimeter being set up around the outskirts of town. Together with David's pregnant lover, Judy (Lane Carroll) and a couple of other fugitives, they are forced to fight for their lives across country. Whilst we are most galvanised by their plight, the story is balanced by the organised anarchy that forms the backbone of the military operation to secure and contain the plague. Colonel Peckham (Lloyd Hollar) sets up his HQ in the centre of town and struggles with his chain of command, his own confused and semi-frantic staff, the often violent locals and the increasingly embittered town doctor, as well as the one scientist, and Trixie expert, that he has at his disposal. Romero paints all of this in rapid-fire sequences that pluck incidents out seemingly at random. Quiet moments are, ironically, reserved for the fugitives during their various rest-stops, whilst those ostensibly holding court over the proceedings degenerate into arguments and authority disputes with almost every passing second, as Peckham, blighted by red tape and a political merry-go-round, slowly loses control. The situation just goes from bad to worse and The Crazies becomes dementedly episodic and rife with symbolism. At its heart it may present us with a sombre warning, but the film is also, unavoidably, something of a black comedy. But those who dismiss it as one of Romero's lesser contributions are way off the mark, I feel.
There is brilliance here, and a daring that has not manifested itself in his work for a very long time.
The opening sequence, echoing the isolated farmhouse terrors of Night Of The Living Dead is a gut-punching introduction to what this scenario can induce, as a young brother and sister watch helplessly as their family tears itself apart. Scenes of babies shrieking in distress as their mothers are dragged out of houses by faceless troopers jolt the senses, too, Romero's early documentary-style shooting techniques serving the “round-up” montage with a realism that a slicker, more polished movie would lose. Cracker-jack editing from Romero keeps even the smallest, most confined sequence driven and energetic, the film, as a whole, benefiting from this continued momentum. Some of the performances are sub-par, though this is the exception rather than the rule, but the main cast acquit themselves well. Mostly unknowns, they seem willing to throw themselves into anything that Romero can hurl into their path. Carroll, McMillan and Jones (which sounds like a firm of lawyers, doesn't it?) make for a weirdly charismatic trio. There is something of a forced love triangle there, but the bond of friendship is actually quite credible ... which makes later consequences all the more effective. If you look, there are early shades of the forthcoming relationship between Dawn's SWAT duo, Peter and Roger, Romero enjoying placing trained men outside the law and seeing what tricks they will come up with. Unlike NOTLD, in which his protagonists were clearly just us, he is already moving away from “normal” people to explore how specialists fare when they encounter something that they weren't prepared for.
The rest of the cast are great fun, too.
It is wonderful to see that Richard France has a major presence here, as the eternally frustrated and determinedly sarcastic Dr. Watts, before being cannily sidelined in a slight, but memorable role as the eye-patch-sporting boffin on the emergency TV broadcast in Dawn Of The Dead. As the only member of Project Trixie that the Army is able to draft into Evans City before the total clamp-down - actually, his other scientific associates are either dead or deranged after exposure to the pesky little bug in the lab long before this outbreak - he is continually butting heads with the exasperated and thoroughly imbecilic Col. Peckham, almost proving his later character's remarks in Dawn about the “brains” being dead and it is “the idiots that are alive”! It is tempting to think that Watts and his unnamed scientist trying to make sense of the zombie plague are one and the same, but events in Evans City put a staggeringly ironic twist on that notion. With his voice unsettlingly like that of James Coburn - shut your eyes and listen to him - and that burly rug of a beard weighing him down like a carpet of bees, France is not only the most obviously level-headed person in the show, but also the most weirdly likeable. I would love to see more of this guy!
And the Dead connections don't end there, either. As well as Bill Hinzman (who played the very first Romero zombie to stagger into celluloid notoriety as the one that attacks Barbara in the cemetery), appearing here in only a fleeting cameo, but also acting as Romero's DOP, we have Day Of The Dead's cult favourite Dr. Logan, Richard Liberty, as one half of the father/daughter combo of Trixie-carriers that tag along with our heroes. Playing the part of Artie with equal amounts of believable paranoia and skin-crawling creepiness, he, too, has a really distinctive voice ... but there are few shades of his later ghoul-fixated Dr. “Frankenstein”. But possibly the main supporting performance comes from genre-babe Lynn Lowry as the cosily nutty daughter of the double-act, Kathy. Having already appeared in the goofily risible I Drink Your Blood for David Durstan, as well as a slew of borderline soft-porn romps, she would go on to appear in David Cronenberg's seriously disturbing Shivers and even Paul Schrader's remake of Cat People, as the unfortunate hooker whose bra “pings” open at the most hilariously gratuitous and inopportune moment. She even has a guest appearance in Brett Eisner's remake of The Crazies. With a dangerously hippy-like trance coming over her, Kathy reveals that Trixie is not necessarily a conduit for ultra-violence, and her simpering, lullaby-crooning to a platoon of approaching soldiers is eerily reminiscent of the Peace Movement disciples attempting to stick flowers down the rifle barrels of riot troops. Although she recalls being disappointed by her final shot in the film, it remains a terrifically memorable and unorthodox, even haunting, moment in a film that is, admittedly, already rife with them.
Romero cannot resist his trademark depictions of the fragility of close-knit groups reluctantly flung together in adversity. Cleverly constructed demonising of the US Special Forces, when Clank, slowly succumbing to a more muddled and neurotic strain of the virus, ridicules David, who just happens to be a former Green Beret, for not acting quick enough during a siege with the white-smocked soldiers which, in truth, only endorses the fact he, because of his training, knows when to practice restraint and not to just go in all-guns-blazing and kill everything in sight, as Clank, who apparently failed selection, himself, would, and indeed does. Thus, Romero is wily enough to depict the military not only as bumbling, merciless fools in the upper echelons, and loyal, unquestioning lapdogs on the ground, but also as capable, tactical and intelligent individuals valiantly wrestling with the predicament as best they can, albeit from possibly different sides of the fence. It is the top brass, as ever, who are to blame. He peppers the film with inescapable idiocies on their behalf, such as the frustratingly time-wasting necessity of a voice recognition test every time someone has to make a phone-call between units and establishments and the complete lack of information passed on to subordinates, grunts and the stricken populace at large with regards to the full symptoms and the potential impact of the plague. And the fact that all of this ineptitude rings completely true has been borne out in real life many, many times over.
Shock-tactics abound. Taking the emotive, flash-imagery from the chaos of 'Nam - a parish priest incinerates himself in a full-on reference to the Buddhist monks sacrificing themselves on the streets of Hanoi, innocents are mowed-down by trigger-happy soldiers, peaceful families are herded, children screaming, from their homes and marched away - Romero finds the same angry heart that beat its way all through Night Of The Living Dead and makes it, somehow, even more relevant to the society that fostered it. His use of flame-throwers evokes memories of GI's clearing villages, and the throwaway shots of dead bodies being immolated recalls the harrowing vision of napalm blitzing the jungles. Even the callous, misguided pondering in the isolated and far-removed Head Shed - a forgotten room in the Pentagon, perhaps, or a re-purposed niche in Fort Bragg - by a trio of the most cantankerous and ill-advised “officials” (one even wearing a medal-festooned jacket that is obviously two sizes too big for him) as they argue over the use of a nuclear solution stinks of the detached plotting of air-strikes from blissfully safe aircraft carriers. Insubordination, cowardice and sheer terror prevail in the face of the panic that Trixie causes, and all military proposals founder as the disaster clearly grows, and all contingency plans prove either unworkable or just plain worse than the germ, itself.
Now in colour after his guerilla undead opus, Romero finds a kinship with the red stuff. Bullet-hits and stab-wounds proliferate, the odd gas-masked noggin disintegrating in a showy welter of claret. In a beautiful touch that clearly isn't by accident, most of the blood impacts upon, or spurts from the Dazz-white smocks of the invading force of soldiers, maximising the contrast of the bright red grue. The effects aren't as accomplished as Tom Savini's, who had yet to forge his relationship with Romero, but the blood is just as vivid and spectacularly unrealistic, which only leads you to suspect that it is the splatter-meister, himself, who hankers after this heightened spectacle. The celebrated scene has a surprisingly polite soldier - especially surprising as he and his comrades have just blasted someone who is, presumably, her husband to death downstairs - getting viciously and repeatedly stabbed by a sweet, unassuming little old lady with her knitting-needle. This very scene, folks, got me into trouble in school when I was about nine years old, when I re-enacted it for my class-mates, complete with a full roster of shocked and dying expletives! Then there are a few bullet/skull interactions, one of which offers a bravura taste of what would come, in abundance, once the dead walked the Earth again in 1978, as a gruesome hole is blown right through the side of one unsuspecting bonce. And, in spite of his lack of finances, Romero comes up with some great little action vignettes that seemed to show that he was definitely having a bit of fun with the set-up, as well. David's unarmed combat moves are worth rooting for, and the hit and run skirmishes that he and Clank have in the woods with the rather obvious white-garbed soldiers, forsaking stealth for that unnerving alien look, are packed with ambitious photography and a kinetic sense of ferocious, on-the-hoof drama. Sudden rustic shoot-outs provide an air of total unpredictability to the narrative and Romero handles them all with an assured combination of shockingly matter-of-fact realism and swift, unblinking brutality.
With Robert Wise's The Andromeda Strain (1970) having brought the whole concept of a viral enemy into cinemagoers' consciousness, The Crazies should have cemented Romero's position as the premier independent horror director. But the truth was that, after the virtual non-events of his previous two films - There's Always Vanilla and Jack's Wife - The Crazies played to empty theatres and actually lost money, adding to its creator's ill health at the time. Yet, as with John Carpenter's Assault On Precinct 13, three years later, it would be British critics who best understood and provided it with a richer, more considered welcome. Home video and, of course, the awesome popularity of Dawn Of The Dead would bring some respectability back to The Crazies and, today, the film is admired as much for what it reveals about a fledgling talent still cutting his teeth in the craft of movie-making as the actually quite audacious story that he attempting to tell us. Also known as “Code-name Trixie”, which is a daft militaristic, spy-caper sounding title, The Crazies is fine entertainment. The acting may be iffy in places, but the raw and visceral style and the vigorous direction more than make up for it. Some bemoan the film's lack of focus, citing too many characters running about and the continual presence of faceless, identity-less soldiers becoming monotonous - but I would retaliate to this by stating that this is the point. Romero knows that such a situation wouldn't be neat and tidy. You wouldn't have Dustin Hoffman flying in to save the day, or Will Smith doggedly attempting to find a cure even after it is much too late. Once the unthinkable occurs - be it zombies, or a plague on this scale - the authorities close ranks and shoot first, seek solutions later, and there would no longer be such a thing as an innocent bystander, or a sensible search for an antidote. Cynical? Hell, yes. Accurate? More than likely. Romero used to have a voice and an opinion that his films emphatically backed-up. He is much older now and still happily playing with dead things, as the recent Survival Of The Dead proves. But this also means that he has, sadly, lost much of his angry old edge. The Godfather of Gore is now a stately Grandfather of Gore, but you only have to look back these at early shockers, when he genuinely had something to say and the devil-may-care attitude to bring such visions to life, to realise that what he was doing back then is just as relevant and important today.
The Crazies remains a thoroughly entertaining thriller that still packs a punch and pitches-in more of those essential societal observations that only George Romero had the guts to offer up for scrutiny. Seen through his peculiar darkened lens of the macabre, civilisation is forever on the brink of self-destruction but, damn, he also makes sure we'll have some good lurid fun on the way out.
The Crazies is highly recommended.
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