[20 February 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
George Romero was a semi-hot commodity at the time. While the follow-up films, There’s Always Vanilla and Season of the Witch failed to make much of an impression, the amazing movie that started it all, his visionary Night of the Living Dead, was rapidly becoming a midnight screening phenomenon. Asked by a distributor if he had any other ‘good’ ideas, he showed around a script called The Mad People. A massive rewrite later (the executives only liked the first 10 pages of the screenplay) and Romero had his second certified hit. While similar in theme to his previous zombie masterwork, The Crazies proved conclusively that, even on a limited budget, the director could make an edge of your seat action thriller with just enough social commentary thrown in to wake up the maudlin masses.
At its heart, The Crazies is nothing more than a movie about civilization gone psychotic. It features government conspiracies, half-assed cover-ups (it came out right after Watergate, remember), abuses of power, unthinkable horrors, taboo breaking atrocities, the stereotypical clan of survivors, and enough editorial flare and moviemaking chutzpah to literally rewrite the rulebook on cinematic action. The lack of funds seems to have inspired Romero, his need to be fast, quick, and to the point illustrated in almost every sequence onscreen. There are times when one angle just won’t do. People often exchange mere exposition within a five of six shot collection of clips. It’s as if Eisenstein went to the drive-in and came out with a tale of a small town and the experimental virus that drives the populace insane.
In Evan’s City, PA, the citizenry wakes up one morning to the horrible truth about one of their own. A local farmer has murdered his wife, and set the house on ablaze, himself and his children still trapped inside. Fireman David (W. G. McMillan) is called in to contain the situation, while his nurse girlfriend Judy (Lane Carroll) is needed at the doctor’s office to tend to the wounded. Suddenly, the entire town erupts into a series of senseless crimes. No one knows why. Eventually, the military arrives. Dressed in NBC suits and gas masks, they immediately quarantine the city. A plane crash a couple of days back released an experimental virus into the water supply, and people are getting sick - and insane. Before long, David and Judy hook up with buddie Clank (Harold Wayne Jones), teenager Kathy (Lynn Lowery) and her father Artie (Richard Liberty) and try to escape. They soon learn that no one is meant to leave - not even the soldiers sent in to stop the chaos.
Right off the top, The Crazies will remind some of Danny Boyle’s brilliant living dead revamp 28 Days Later. It has the same senseless post-apocalyptic drive, a similarly surreal unfettered ferocity that flies in the face of genre convention. Instead of blood being the major contagion passing along the problem (again, a bow to the non-zombie zombie roots of the narrative), Romero goes for the simplistic - a contaminated aquifer. He then tosses in an inept army response corps, a Washington based cabal, random brutality, and the delightfully named toxin, “Trixie”. If that wasn’t enough, The Crazies then ladles on the dread, exposing us to material (incestual rape, immolation) that we aren’t used to in a fright film, while continually building up a strong head of suspense steam.
As part of the Blu-ray re-release of this title from Blue Underground, Romero steps up and walks us through the entire production (via a wonderfully witty and insightful commentary track). He challenges those critics who feel that The Crazies is nothing more than Night of the Living Dead amped up with more gun blazing bombast and cherry red gore. Indeed, unlike the previous terror treasure, this full color spectacle is rather heavy on the fake blood bathing. Mothers are seen with massive wounds in their throat. When soldiers and civilians are shot, huge post-squib wounds ooze and seep. There are moments of implied nastiness, but for the most part, Romero stays with the exploitation trends of the time. If you going to push buttons and envelopes, the old cinematic huckster theory went, you better go all the way - and The Crazies frequently does.
It helps that he has a relatively unknown cast here, Lynn Lowery the most recognizable face among a group of Romero’s buddies and well wishers (eagle-eyed viewers will marvel at an incredibly young Richard Liberty - aka Dr. “Frankenstein” Logan from the graphic classic Day of the Dead). Their naturalism and star-less sense really adds to the realism. Sure, Romero does require them to do some outrageous and outlandish things, but it is all part of the attempt to be as authentic to the premise as possible. The Crazies understands that when you make a movie about wholly irrational behavior, you gotta show people going nutzoid. Luckily, because of the time and the era’s temperament, Romero doesn’t have the option of going fully overboard. Instead, he brings just enough shock value to his set-ups to unnerve, instead of nauseate.
The rest of the Blu-ray reveals little that the commentary doesn’t already explain. Ms. Lowery does a nice job of defending her minor celebrity and career (in a nice interview featurette) while a collection of trailers and TV spots will bring back memories for anyone alive during the early ‘70s (they come across as part carnival barker, part fire-breathing parochial school pastor). While it would have been nice to see some of the other cast and crew questioned, at least the print is pristine. Shot on 35 mm and using a widescreen 1.85:1 print, the visual element here is sharp and snappy. The crimson flows like strawberry syrup and the rest of the color palette is presented in sparkling vibrancy. The audio may be a tad overmodulated, but one expects such technological shortcomings from a movie made nearly four decades ago.
Perhaps the most interesting element about this Blu-ray version of The Crazies is something that is not addressed anywhere in the packaging (most of the added content was created in 2002). On 26 February, Sahara director Breck Eisner will be bringing his own take on the material to the by now old hat realm of the scary movie remake. With stars like Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell, the project shows promise. But after revisiting the original, especially in such a nearly flawless home video reproduction, this new version of The Crazies has a lot to live up to. While George Romero would come to redefine horror once again with his brilliant Dawn of the Dead, this interesting action thriller illustrates the talent it took to be such a consistent genre visionary.