By now I think that every one of us is sick to death of seeing the original Night of the Living Dead and the original Dawn of the Dead. I suppose a few of you are suffering from a little Day of the Dead fatigue as well, but for my money, I can never get enough of that profanity-inclined group of dysfunctional soldiers and scientists that inhabit their cozy little missile silo while they farm zombies for some crackpot reason.
A victim of their own success, I positively blanch at the thought of having to watch that wimpy helicopter pilot and the rest of the crew from Dawn of the Dead monkey around in that mall one more time.
Still, there is the primal need in all of us to see more low budget examinations on the precarious nature of society and how easily it comes apart when something as innocuous as a virus gets loose that either re-animates the dead or makes everyone into a nutter. As luck would have it, George Romero took a breather in the mid 1970s from movies about zombies running riot over us to make a film about people who had gone crazy doing the same thing.
The Crazies doesn’t get nearly the attention that Romero’s zombie movies do, but it manages to take some cues from the prior Night of the Living Dead as well as anticipating elements of its two immediate sequels and wrap them in a story that’s infinitely more plausible and thus scarier than any of those three movies.
The story of a biological weapon accidentally released into a Pennsylvania town’s water supply probably resonates more today that it did back in 1973. How would the government respond to such a crisis? How would the impacted community respond? How would you respond if you knew that the military was rounding up everyone in your town without explanation?
The mix of paranoia and legitimate mistrust of a deceitful government with the very real threat the virus presents coalesces into a situation where everyone views everyone else as a threat to their existence and only serves to ramp up the tension and bleakness the movie excels in creating.
One of the complaints about Dawn Of The Dead were the tedious stretches where nothing much happened while the characters were in the mall between zombie attacks. This was remedied to some extent in the leaner and meaner “European Cut” of the film prepared by Dario Argento, but The Crazies starts out kicking you in the balls and doesn’t let up until the closing credits, which in classic apocalypse movie fashion merely signifies the finish of the televised portion of Armageddon.
From the moment that a family man goes berserk, tears up his house and torches it while his kids and the wife he’s already killed are still inside, Romero manages to maintain a breathless and relentless pace while switching between a group of townspeople trying to escape the quarantined area the military has set up and the military guys trying to contain the epidemic from escaping that very area.
The opening scenes recall the chaos in the television studio at the beginning of Dawn Of The Dead. Characters shouting over the top of each other while all sorts of activity transpires give the movie a bit of a documentary style (betraying George’s filmmaking roots no doubt) and you might even recognize Richard France from those early Dawn Of The Dead scenes as a bearded scientist attempting to find a way to stop the virus. It’s very effective because it communicates the stress and confusion of the situation and the presence of the anonymous soldiers in their white hazmat suits and gasmasks only add to the whole “faceless government is taking over my life” vibe they’re aiming for.
Trixie is the name given the virus that’s causing all this trouble and its unpredictable effects only worsen the situation. It turns some into homicidal maniacs while others are freakishly happy and still others are freakishly happy even as they’re turning into homicidal maniacs. This provides more opportunity for drama than you’d find in a zombie flick.
While you could easily tell when someone was turning zombie on you and knew that when they got bit it was all over, Trixie is a bit trickier. This is shown to good effect in scenes with our group of survivors who are trying to outwit the military as well as avoid the Crazies. Is the erratic behavior of some members a result of being infected by Trixie or just because of the stress of the situation? When one of them kills a bunch of soldiers is it because he’s worried about his safety or is he becoming unhinged by the virus or maybe he was always a psychopath?
Romero sets this dynamic up within the group of five we follow very well, establishing a credible backstory for the characters that allows us to wonder what exactly are the motivations? Jealously and suppressed feelings of inadequacy among the characters certainly play a role in what transpires as well as unresolved feelings of grief. Trixie then doesn’t really turn ordinary people into monsters so much as reveals the monstrousness that lurks inside all of us. And as the group falls apart, so too does the situation on the outside.
Lest you worry that this is some cerebral examination of inner turmoil, the movie is rife with violence, some of it quite graphic. Lots of people get wasted just as you would hope, I mean expect, from a movie about crazy dudes taking over.
Romero used lots of locals in shooting the movie and this lends it an air of authenticity since you can’t really get that inbred rural Pennsylvanian look by hiring a bunch of Hollywood pretty boys in ugly make-up.
Much more layered and complex than any of Romero’s zombie films with characters who exist to do more than merely play hide and seek with the infected locals and military, The Crazies is an unsettling thriller that easily equals if not outright surpasses Romero’s more famed horror films.
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