A young brother and sister teasingly play together one evening when all of a sudden their father begins smashing up their living room with a crowbar and dousing it all in gasoline. The young girl rushes to her Mother, only to find her lying dead in bed. The house goes up in the flames and the opening credits begin. It has been fifty years since George A Romero’s The Crazies hit screens. Now sitting down to watch this film in a post-pandemic world there is certainly a strange element of familiarity here at times though certainly this is a much darker and bleaker imagining.
The pace of the first 20 minutes is rapid, from the opening scene that hooks you right in we’re introduced to our main characters, ex-green beret and volunteer fire-fighter, David and his wife, Judy, a local nurse. Both awoken in the night from calls for both of their professional assistance, David to the house fire and Judy to two children who have barely survived the arson of their home. Already the military has boots in the ground and quickly take control of the situation, we’re informed via an exposition dump montage as the various levels of military confer on the situation across locations; a military plane crash landed in the hills near this town, an experimental vaccine (we later learn bio-weapon) has leaked and found its way into the water supply. The goal is to maintain a quarantine of the town so that the virus does not spread further. The way that Romero injects so much energy into this set up is a little disorientating, it feels stylised yet authentic and immediately hooks us.
The Crazies was Romero’s third film post-Night of the Living Dead, (after There’s Always Vanilla & Hungry Wives) and truly feels like the spiritual successor to Night. The film follows a group of townsfolk, bound together by happenstance, trying to survive a plethora of dangers: a virus that has leaked into their water supply, the infected Crazies violently causing destruction, the hazmat-suited soldiers trying to contain the outbreak and the uninfected townsfolk fighting against this forceful quarantine. The main theme of the film is a distrust of the government and the bureaucracy in charge of keeping us safe that will ultimately lead to more bloodshed. The shadow of the Vietnam War looms large here, we even have two of the main characters being vets, with one of them experiencing bursts of paranoid violence evoking wartime flashbacks thanks to the virus. The soldiers rush into peoples homes, dragging them out of bed, displacing them. A character even remarks that “this will feel like an invasion”. Romero has always passionately struck at the structures of power and control with his social commentary. It’s messily done here but the ambition and obvious talent gives this film a level of depth and interest that is utterly lacking in so many other grindhouse movies of the time.
The film truly feels like the stepping stone from Night to Dawn, the scale is sized up from a farmhouse to a whole town. The imagery of the hazmat suits is iconic and a deeply unsettling force that is often undercut by the ADR lines inserted for them, often comedic or mundane. The soldiers are mostly unaware of what they’re doing here and so there is some empathy built towards them. It’s the lines of communications, the unnecessary red-tape that ends up being the main villain of this film.
The Virus code-name Trixie, is initially reported to be an experimental vaccine that has been let loose, the truth is that it is a man-made bio-weapon, when infected the victim often becomes violent and acts straight-up coo-coo. This element is a lot of fun, giving us an old woman knitting happily while her husband is having an active shootout one room away, a priest setting himself on fire, and a father and adult daughter almost- Ok maybe FUN isn’t the right word. It gives us absurd and unsettling variety though, like the image of a bunch of infected townsfolk rushing violently towards the soldiers, accompanied by a woman that is just sweeping with a broom, unperturbed. It all lacks the clean and simple effect that we get from the Night of the Living Dead’s ghouls but when a character starts giggling at danger or acting a little goofy you start getting nervous. It’s interesting to think that if this film was more successful at the time Romero could’ve made Dawn of the Crazies, robbing us of the modern zombie genre but giving us something that would have been far wilder and weirder.
I had a lot of fun watching this but it does feel a little strung together. The initial impact wanes in the middle chunk with a few great impactful moments scattered towards the end, particularly with the main scientist desperately working towards a cure. It’s a fascinating piece of horror history and an important DNA strand for the zombie genre as we know it. The fans of Romero will find a lot to enjoy here, but it ultimately lacks the finesse and character depth that would elevate Dawn and Day of the Dead into crossover appeal. It’s an inventive grindhouse flick with the makings of greatness, and that is definitely something worth witnessing.
- Oscar Jack
Podcast: George A Romero’s The Crazies
Podcast: George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead
Podcast: George A Romero’s Dawn of the Dead
Podcast: George A Romero’s Day of the Dead