The Crazies (1973)

Of George A. Romero’s 16-feature-length filmography, I’ve seen 14 of them and own just as many¹. By 2007, I owned most of those–the exceptions are the then-unreleased (at all!) Diary of the Dead and The Dark Half (thanks, largely, to my overall disinterest in Stephen King). Day of the Dead (in Anchor Bay’s 2-disc “Divimax” format) was one of the first 25 or so DVDs I owned. So, as directors go, Romero’s been more “complete” in my viewings than just about any other–discounting, of course, those with much, much shorter filmographies.

I watched The Crazies many years ago for the first time–something like a decade ago, with my friend John (he rates Martin as his favourite Romero movie), with whom I shared the moniker “Zombie Boys” in college thanks to our habit of watching zombie movies in the shared lobby/large-screen TV there. This stemmed, despite our mutual friends who were also thrown under the umbrella, from our shared habit of zombie-watching, as we passed the movies back and forth, which we continue to do to this day–but, for instance, he was the one to encourage me to watch Return of the Living Dead (fitting, considering his then-stronger punk background).

David (Will McMillan) and Judy (Lane Caroll) are a volunteer fireman and small-town nurse respectively, called out from bed for their respective duties over a house fire in the small town of Evans City, PA. David for obvious reasons, and Judy to assist local doctor Brookmyre (Will Disney) with the small children who are the only survivors. David meets up with coworker and friend Clank (Harold Wayne Jones) to learn that the raving man in the backseat of a police vehicle is the father of those children, murderer of their mother, and arsonist behind his own house’s destruction. Judy gets a closer look at the gathering mass of bureaucracy that surrounds these events, with Brookmyre attempting to shuttle her off in pregnancy before the military, led at first by Major Ryder (Harry Spillman) and later Colonel Peckem (Lloyd Hollar), comes to quarantine the entire town. It seems a plane crash released an experimental vaccine, which has sent one of its developers, Dr. Watts (Richard France) into town to assist, as David and Judy attempt to escape with Clank and fellow confused townsfolk Artie (Richard Liberty) and Kathy (Lynn Lowry).

Whew, bit of a mouthful as a synopsis, but that’s because this is, in some ways, a complete distillation of the essence of Romero’s movie-making: as with his Dead films, the virus, “Trixie” is catalyst, rather than core of the story. The science is “fast and loose” as he himself says, because it isn’t the point. We follow Ryder and Peckem with their attempts to control a situation they are wholly unprepared for, with information withheld both by and from them, leading to uneasy troops, bewildered townsfolk, and angry town officials. David, Judy, Clank, Artie, and Kathy all try to make their way between the military and everyone else on the backs of David and Clank’s military experience. Dr. Watts is infuriated by the incompetency of his directives, which remove him from his most useful position (at “home” with his existing data) and tie his hands repeatedly on the grounds of ill-prepared labs and equipment. A cadre of top officials bounces around ideas for containing the situation as both outbreak and news, while displaying a whole spectrum of empathy from pragmatic absence to heartfelt incredulity.

The titular “crazies” would be those who suffer one of the outcomes of “Trixie”: complete madness. In light of a previously-thought-casual operation and the failure to bring it up to speed when opinions of it changed, there’s no way to confirm the infected until symptoms manifest, in any variety of ways–from homicidal moodswings, to curious choices regarding cleanliness, to enthusiastic and gregarious welcomes to strangers.

This is everything that Night of the Living DeadDawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead are about concentrated into one place, in a sense. It’s not really even an outbreak movie–more time is spent considering how the townsfolk with no explanations of what is occurring, or on the failures of the attempts to contain it competently, than is spent on the idea of infection, disease, or the risks of either. It’s a way to manifest the responses of the ordinary, the middle-men officials, the impotent local officials, and the “Grand Picture” bigwigs to such an event. If it’s not a curious, conceptual MacGuffin, it’s pretty dang close (the madness and infection vectors are kind of necessary to the plot, though–it wouldn’t work with, say, an earthquake or other natural disaster type event, even though they could be similarly used to explore many of the responses).

France gets to really push out his later–yes, that’s temporally backward, sue me–“DUMMIES! DUMMIES!” TV-scientist from Dawn of the Dead, as the perpetually beleaguered Watts, who is rounded up and forced into town against his wishes, even as they coincide in intent with the action to send him there. He has no patience for the military’s bungling of everything, but still does what he can to work around it. Plenty of our core cast (some of whom continued regularly acting, others drifting away as time went on) gets to work around the prospect of a creeping madness that is not always readily identifiable until it begins crossing unexpected lines of violence.

George, particularly as editor, gets to work in some unusual choices, despite his usually-straightforward (especially at that time) approach to film-making. He attempts to work out some musically-oriented cuts, and some really interesting stock-footage edit assemblies surrounding the early plans to plan for nuking (!) the town. There are moments that come back to relate to later work, too–a shoot-out that comes out much like Dawn of the Dead opener with Roger and Peter’s SWAT team, future Day of the Dead star(ish) Liberty gets work on a really uncomfortable character (which I guess is not a change from Logan/”Frankenstein”, to be fair…).

I have occasionally marked this as my possible favourite Romero flick–because of the way that it works all of his ideas into one place, and has his naturalistic approach to acting, that has a different feel than a lot of other film-makers. A weird kind of feel, that is part of why I initially found the sudden tonal shift in Dawn of the Dead really disturbing, the way it involved me more completely with its characters than many movies would. In retrospect, I’m not sure this is my favourite–Romero himself admits there are some serious issues with elements that aren’t just about the limited ($270k) budget, like the ADR they did for the military themselves afterward, and a lot of the sound-mixing in general. I did also fail to recall that there was indeed a scene of sexual violence (muddled that much more by the illness-induced madness of the people in it), but it avoids exploitative gratuity and serves as uncomfortably clear exploration of the corners of the madness the disease unleashes.

What forever stuck with me–past anything else–was the ending. What about it, I naturally shan’t say. But some images stuck for the past decade, and formed the basis of my probable selection of this one. It’s not for folks who can’t deal with low budget effects, or Altman-style dialogue (ie, overlapping conversations), but the actors and Romero’s script still really sell the ideas and achieve very much exactly what they clearly intend with regards to the inefficiencies and bureaucratic nonsense most probable to exacerbate a major issue like this, despite intentions and expertise.

¹Exceptions: I’ve not seen The Dark Half and Monkey Shines, but own the former and have seen Survival of the Dead.