George A. Romero found fame and an everlasting legacy in the armies of the shambling undead. In THE CRAZIES, a film that reeks of the 70’s in all the best ways (mostly), Mr. Romero finds a provocative, rough, funny, nihilistic, and startlingly prescient film in his account of a man-made virus run amok in a small community. In simpler terms, Romero follows up an undeniable behemoth of a horror film with another damn good film.
About five years removed from his notorious birth of the mainstream zombie genre NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, Romero (who wrote the screenplay based on script by Paul McCollough) takes his biting views at society or more specifically, the American government, through the outbreak of a mania inducing virus. Beginning with the massacre of an entire family at the hand’s of its patriarch, THE CRAZIES has little time for set-up as it quickly introduces the culprit of said familicide: a virus, man-made and American engineered, codenamed Trixie has been unleashed upon the residents of small-town Evan’s City, Pennsylvania. Festering in the town’s water supply and spread through the air, the virus either kills its host or makes them maniacally homicidal. Within the first five minutes of the film, the Army is already setting up quarantine in Evan’s City, led by the surly Col. Peckem (Lloyd Hollar) in order to keep their SNAFU under lock and key. However, this proves to be difficult as the town’s residents, both infected and non, retaliate violently against the Army’s intervention who kindly respond with force as they begin to exterminate any infected (or resisting) persons. Caught in the middle of it all is local pediatrician Judy (Lane Carroll) and her husband David (Will MacMillan) who plot to escape their small town quickly plunging further into chaos and madness.
As the disorder in his surprisingly bizarre film increases throughout, Romero finds a stellar secret weapon in his clear target of criticism in the United States government. While the film, in title and poster alone, gives off the vibe of a schlocky horror film, it actually operates much closer to a very dark political satire even when you have old ladies pleasantly stabbing biohazard clad Army drones to death before going back to their session of knitting. True, Romero gets to display some effectively chilling scenes of madness and violence but every moment throughout is tinged with an utter disdain for the supposed “good guys” of the film: the Army. From the get-go, the Army, a collection of macho generals and blindly devoted soldiers finds no trouble in instilling its violent will on a small town while their suit clad superiors casually discuss further methods of getting their mistakes under control in Washington. In Romero’s eyes, the Army is not a savior to the American people but an overseer that is more than willing to exert control and violence over its subjects. As the film moves on, Romero demonstrates impeccable control of a constantly revolving tone as his film seamlessly blends gory horror with then-current societal observations and bizzare moments of comedy. While the filmmaker finds humor in the pathetic ineptitude of America’s military and government response, that mocking soon morphs from a comedic shunning into head-shaking torment as Romero seemingly exclaims: “This is what we, the American people, have to rely on in moments of crisis: a laughingstock of a government,”. Indeed, seeing the film in 2020, with a pandemic of our own still very much in play and inducing all kinds of madness among sick and non-sick alike with a government response that is at best, lackluster, adds an extra layer of unnerving energy.
What helps Romero thrive in his pool of institutional contempt and maddening horror is in the way the film portrays these events. While NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was a sheltered and claustrophobic depiction of an undead siege, THE CRAZIES plays more like a documentary as the director depicts the film’s events from multiple perspectives in clinical fashion. From the constant mishaps of the invading Army to the more personal journey of Judy and David, Romero’s film feels like some recently unearthed (and highly classified) footage from a forgotten moment in American history. As the film barrels toward a supremely dark ending (bolstered by the needle drop of an incredibly ironic song by Beverly Bremers), viewers will be caught in an entertainingly strange hold of dark hilarity and horror.
Assisting in the proceedings, Romero finds himself with an eclectic group of characters and performers. While most of the actors play things fairly straightforward with MacMillan’s David buoying the film as the everyman caught in chaos, the likes of Hollar and the wonderfully theatrical Richard France as an army scientist help bring Romero’s vision of an equally self-serious and inept Army to life. Additionally, the addition of characters such as David’s aggressive friend Clank (Harold Wayne Jones) and Lynn Lowry as a young girl tagging along with David and co. get to display more showy bouts of increasing madness in amusingly nutso fashion.
Through all the madness and despair, THE CRAZIES never ceases to be an entertaining movie. While it definitely has some dated production qualities to it (choppy editing, wonky ADR), Romero brings together a multitude of ideas and genres into a movie that, like many of his other works, past and future, will nestle into one’s mind long after the credits. With a film about small town residents going insane thanks to a government mishap, Romero doesn’t just want to shock and entertain viewers, he wants them to be pissed.