Is George Romero paranoid? It’s a possibility. At the very least, I would say he is mistrusting of authority. Night of the Living Dead, his seminal work, and all its follow-ups, showcase a horde of the undead rendering civilization waste. But it’s worth remembering that Romero’s zombies are not supernatural in origin. Rather, they are the result of government experiments gone wrong. Ergo, it’s not the zombies that are the greatest threat to civilization in Romero’s universe. It is the people who take our taxes.
This mistrust of authority is a common theme among filmmakers who came of age in the 60s. John Carpenter and Oliver Stone come to mind. It’s also a reflection of American culture at large. Music, literature, the everyday lives of the young in that era was one of mistrust. And why not? This was the generation that peeled back the façade that is the United States and found something rotten. They were hardly unified, nor were they the first Americans to realize that our benevolence was a myth, but they had huge numbers and were connected enough by a bullshit war to forever change the wider view of our leadership. Baby Boomers may be insufferable these days, but that very nature was perfect for the time.
Not content to let zombies fill in for the government, Romero released The Crazies in 1973. In this film, a government tanker truck, carrying a deadly manmade virus called “Trixie,” has wrecked near Evans City, Pennsylvania. The army, realizing the danger of the virus, an encephalitic hybrid that causes madness and death, moves in and quarantines the town in rough fashion. Here, Romero had a choice. He could have introduced hordes of crazed, infected citizens as the film’s main antagonists, cutting swaths of bloody destruction through the citizenry, but he didn’t. He chose to go another way. Those infected by the virus are rarely seen. The crazies of the title turn out to be the weekend warriors charged with sealing off the town.
Romero has these soldiers decked out in white hazmat suits and gasmasks. They carry rifles and little else. There is no other purpose for their existence than to herd and shoot the people of Evans City. They make for a pretty menacing presence throughout the film.
The main characters of the film, though, are a small group of people trying to escape the town. They’re only vaguely aware that some viral menace has descended on the area. They are far less concerned with Trixie than they are with the soldiers. Two of the townsfolk, David and Clank (Will MacMillan and Harold Wayne Jones), both volunteer firefighters, are Vietnam vets. They are sure, owing to their own experiences, that the army is not in Evans City to help anyone.
This group is slowly winnowed down throughout the movie. Their scenes are interspersed with more footage of the rampaging guardsmen, and of their leadership, cloistered away in the local clinic. They are led by the irascible Colonel Peckam (Lloyd Hollar), the army officer in charge of the quarantine. In fact, there isn’t a person in uniform throughout the entire flick that isn’t prone to anger. There’s a fair amount of hollering going on at headquarters.
Hollar is beginning to have doubts about his mission. Not about its necessity. Oh, no. He’s a true believer. Rather, he seems to realize his efforts are as futile as holding back the tides. But he soldiers on anyway.
Despite the serious nature of the subject matter, The Crazies is pretty heavy on satire. The atmosphere is one of amateurish fun, only accentuated by the poor cast, cheap sets, cheaper props and costumes, and bad, bad, bad post-production sound. When I was young, my friends and I playing in the backyard could make more realistic gunfire sounds with our mouths. Exaggeration, of course, but not by much.
I’m not too familiar with Romero’s career immediately after he made Night of the Living Dead, what vagaries he went through in the film industry, but The Crazies is a step backwards in production values. It’s almost as if he kept things absurd because to make a straight film in those conditions would have been disastrous. No matter the circumstances, The Crazies is an interesting relic, but for hardcore horror or b-movie fans only.