Directed by George A. Romero, 1973. Starring Lane Carroll, W.G. McMillan, Harold Wayne Jones, Loyd Hollar, Lynn Lowry, Richard Liberty. 103 minutes.

Premise

When an unknown biological agent which causes permanent insanity in those infected breaks loose in a small town, the residents find themselves at odds with military units sent to contain the outbreak. Things do not go well, chiefly because none of the commanders seem to remember Kent State.

Critique

Someone once told me that one can learn a lot about an era by watching its horror movies, even the ones that aren’t deliberate social commentary. George Romero is known for social commentary in horror movies, and The Crazies is probably the most heavy-handed example (although his last three zombie movies give it a run for its money). It’s such a product of its time, it’s hard to write a review that doesn’t come down to a thesis or a sociological analysis of the late ’60s and early ’70s.

The Crazies might be a bit of a misleading title, considering the movie is less about the infected insane than the government-military response to the outbreak. (It’s a better title than Code Name: Trixie, though, which sounds like a lost episode of Exposé or Fox Force Five or something.) Hell, most (but not all) of the time the crazies aren’t even really insane; they moreso have a tendency to act like they’re “on drugs” (ironic quotes intentional). They are the subject of several rather chilling and effective sequences, but this ain’t 28 Days Later. They’re not the dominant image of the film; the moon-suited soldiers are.

Much has been made of Romero’s apparent anti-militarism; in fact, the military is much more sympathetic in The Crazies than in some of his later work (Day of the Dead comes to mind). He especially seems to sympathize with the plight of the grunts. Take a bunch of nineteen-year-old boys, fresh out of high school, have R. Lee Ermey teach them how to use guns and be generally violent, and treat them like the proverbial mushrooms—keep ’em in the dark and feed ’em lots of bullshit. Don’t tell them what’s going on; claim that you’re doling out information on a “need-to-know basis” but it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that they don’t really need to know all that much, do they? Throw in a bunch of (at best) vaguely defined or (at worst) unrealistic goals, and it’s no wonder why things like My Lai happened. The real menace here aren’t the crazies but the government and military bureaucracies that created them and proceed to do such a piss-poor job of handling the ensuing clusterfuck.

It’s telling that the most likeable military character in the circus is the major who implements a time-consuming voice-print which is much bitched about by just about everyone else in the movie. It’s also telling that the most likeable government scientist is played by Richard France, who played the eyepatched Dr. Millard “Dummies! Dummies! Dummies!” Rausch in Dawn of the Dead, and the two characters are almost identical. (This is not an insult; some of my best friends remind me of Dr. Rausch.)

And so on. Kent State is referred to; so is the self-immolation of Thich Quang Duc (as immortalized on the cover of Rage Against the Machine’s first album). But if you want an examination of the era’s anti-government, anti-military, anti-establishment malaise, Oliver Stone does that sort of thing much better than I do. Me, I’m here to tell you whether this movie is worth watching.

Yeah, it is, but you have to be able to forgive a lot.

The story just about does the job. It cuts between various government and military units as they try to do their jobs and a ragged group of townspeople as they try to escape the quarantine area. The scenes with the military and government are the most effective; it’s where the film’s themes really get to shine through, and in many ways it’s scarier to watch a bunch of isolated government think-tankers seriously discuss the nuking of a small American (all-American town, even) than to see an old lady stab someone to death with a knitting needle. I was pleasantly reminded of the most effective bits of the recent British miniseries Torchwood: Children of Earth.

The scenes with the townspeople are somewhat less effective. One of Romero’s biggest issues as a writer crops up here: the problem of character development mainly through pointless bickering that makes you (well, me, at any rate) want to slap everybody silly. (This is, unfortunately, a hallmark of all of Romero’s zombie movies, particularly problematic in Day and Diary, but even present in Night and Dawn.) The very broad acting present here (I am of a kindly nature and will not refer to it as “bad”; like most Romero films up to Creepshow, most of the cast comes from Pittsburgh’s local stage rep companies, and stage acting is something of a different discipline from screen acting) and the terrible sound design don’t help things.

Production values are somewhat lacking, and the garish Technicolor isn’t able to mask these deficiencies as well as the documentary black and white of Night of the Living Dead. My understanding is that this is Romero’s third or fourth feature (I am not clear as to whether Season of the Witch came before or after The Crazies), and it’s clear that he’s still in a transitory period leading up to his eventual masterpieces, 1976’s Martin and 1978’s Dawn. He’s still learning to direct and edit action sequences—in fact, Romero didn’t hire any dedicated pro stuntmen, nor did he have much of a dedicated effects unit. And it shows.

Still, there’s a lot to enjoy here, if you’re willing to look past the shortcomings, put up with a bit (okay, a lot) of bickering, and are open to a history lesson if you’re not already familiar with the twilight of the Age of Aquarius. Because it’s true: one can learn a lot about an era by watching its horror movies.

Moment of Zen

The politicians discussing the possibility of a nuclear strike.

The Crazies poster

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