Throughout his career, George Romero has demonstrated an uncanny ability to illustrate how little separates the familiar and the frightful. Early on, Romero abandoned wholesale the association of horror with the “foreign,” as embodied in the familiar figures of the genre, like Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster. For him, it was unnecessary to search out a Gothic ruin in order to feel a chill run up your spine. The embodiments of our fears bear a hometown quality, and you could just as soon encounter a vampire, or any other monster for that matter, on the corner of Main Street as in rural Transylvania. For Romero, the monsters of our imagination always coexist with the products on the shelves at the Five & Dime.
Romero’s groundbreaking first feature, Night of the Living Dead (1968), epitomized this approach. Grotesque as the flesh-eating zombies might be, they were our parents, our siblings, and our children. The only problem — and it proved to be a vexing one — was that once undead, our families wished to satisfy their insatiable appetite with our flesh. It is no less appalling that in Romero’s three zombie films, the purportedly “normal” protagonists endeavor to protect themselves, and the spoils of consumer society, with an equal if not superior ferocity.
What caught the public’s imagination in Night of the Living Dead was the manner in which Romero presented the terrifying confrontations. Filmed like a home movie, the action is all jagged camera movements and natural lighting. In his films since, Romero exhibits time and again that this seeming ineptitude was a matter of choice, not chance. He relies on vigorous editing, shrewdly dividing any action into a sequence of discrete images, while recognizing that a film is not simply a matter of one shot after another.
Yet, Romero’s movies never bombard us with stimuli for its own sake. Even if the ostensible purpose is to make us quiver with fear, Romero pursues that end with a degree of intelligence and sophistication uncommon for the genre. He assumes that audiences who can whoop and holler over gore effects can also be made to think about what attracts them to images of annihilation in the first place.
The Crazies (1973) was Romero’s fourth film, following several commercially and artistically unsuccessful works that barely saw the light of day. Working with a meager $270,000 budget, Romero tries out editing strategies, designs camera angles, and works out his use of professional actors in each frame. Rough and unsteady as the results may be, The Crazies possesses considerable passion and professionalism.
The plot is simple and devastatingly effective. A governmentally manufactured biological weapon, Code Name: Trixie, has been accidentally introduced into the water system of a small rural community. The toxic substance brings about either death or irreversible insanity. Anxious not to allow the epidemic to spread or news of its effects to leak out, the government quarantines the community and declares the zone under military control. Tense discussions between harried officials make it clear that they have no qualms about decimating the town with a nuclear weapon if necessary.
Disturbed by the draconian behavior of the white jumpsuit clad military, a small group of residents resist and endeavor to escape. They include a high school coach and volunteer fireman, David (W.G. McMillan), his pregnant girlfriend, Judy (Lane Carroll), and their hyperactive and trigger-happy friend, Clank (Harold Wayne Jones). Soon, a disturbingly tense older man (Richard Liberty) and his doe-eyed teenage daughter (Lynn Lowry), join them.
Their evasion of capture does not, however, ensure that any of them will avoid contagion. Slowly, the group fragments as a result of the Trixie virus’s erosion of their customary self-control. Friends turn upon one another, and parents molest their children. At the same time, the military panics and assumes an increasingly hysterical posture. It becomes harder and harder to determine a clear line between the Army’s paranoid self-defense and the population’s loss of self-control. Anarchy reigns on both sides.
The film suggests that, under extreme circumstances such as the Trixie epidemic, both civilians and the military have only the most tenuous discipline on their emotions and energies. Moreover, it doesn’t presume that the hand of science will halt the contagion. A researcher (Richard France) who helped to develop the Trixie virus, struggles to find an antidote, despite inadequate facilities and a lack of cooperation from the government he serves. The outcome of his efforts proves to be as dismal as the inevitable fate of the central characters.
The underlying cynicism and despair about individual initiative and governmental intervention reflect the social insecurity of the period when The Crazies was released. The senseless prolongation of the war in Viet Nam and the decay of urban centers gnawed at the public mood, leading not to renewed social activism, but to the self-defeating narcissism that typified the latter years of the ’70s. Romero’s horror films — like those of John Carpenter, Wes Craven, and David Cronenberg — illustrated a mood of entropy. The monsters these directors conjured may have been figments of their imagination, but they drew attention to very real horrors. And, at a time when SARS and terrorism exercises are daily news, the fabricated panic of The Crazies feels more than a little close to home.
Admittedly, the film is not Romero’s best work. The plotting is a bit predictable (one catastrophe after another) and the acting is serviceable at best. The characters tend to bellow rather too often, such that it is easiest to distinguish them by their relative decibel levels. Nonetheless, Romero’s subversive attitude and the vigorous momentum of the action keep one’s focus, first scene to last.
The DVD release of The Crazies comes from a new company, Blue Underground, headed up by the filmmaker William Lustig. He previously coordinated the succession of superior releases from Anchor Bay Entertainment that included a wealth of material from Britain’s Hammer Studios. This film is in remarkably good condition and, together, Romero and Lustig add a spirited commentary. Romero, as on other occasions, never fails to acknowledge the efforts of his collaborators and takes a light-hearted attitude towards technical gaffes due to a lack of time and money. Occasionally, the two men engage in too much insider discourse about cameras and lenses, but that does not take away from their enthusiasm for the filmmaking process.
Recent reports indicate that Romero is planning a fourth addition to his zombie saga, currently called Dead Reckoning. The Crazies will, for the moment, satisfy those who regard him as one of the last of the independents who use popular film genres to combine grisly chills with an anti-authoritarian perspective.