The horror begins in the home, with brother frightening sister, father killing mother, and the whole house going up in flames. A military aircraft transporting biological weapons has crashed somewhere near Evans City, Pennsylvania, and infection is hypothesized to be spreading through the water supply. The primary symptom seems to be dementia, which in some cases can turn homicidal. But among the conceptual masterstrokes in The Crazies (1973) is the conceit that even in such a cozy, conventional, middle-American community—or perhaps especially in such a place—it’s actually pretty hard to tell which citizens are infected and which aren’t. Once NBC suit-wearing military troops invade the town, evacuating frightened people from their homes, the line between the panic and repressed aberrant behaviour it prompts is nearly indistinguishable from the hypothesized bacteria-induced psychosis.
In anticipation of the impending remake, Metro Cinema is screening George Romero’s original Crazies this Friday. Though Romero made a couple of features in the interim, genre fans will regard The Crazies as the proper successor to Romero’s groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead (68). This tale of a horrific disease, born of America’s cabalistic military-industrial complex, devouring a community, rendering its citizenry a mass of babbling, violent monsters, leaving only a handful of ill-equipped renegade survivors to fend for themselves, is after all, like Romero’s debut, essentially a zombie movie. And as with any good zombie movie The Crazies is grotesque satire, a commentary on the hysteria, perversity, and murderous fury bred from middle-class complacency and on government forces that when under threat are not inclined to act in our best interests.
Our heroes include a lusty pregnant nurse, a stoic fireman, a green beret, and a bearded biochemist, hilariously played by Richard France, expressing his frustration in Wellesian tones. The real nightmare they confront is not actually that of the mysterious contagion but of incompetent and rapidly metastasizing bureaucracy embodied by the invasion of disorganized military officials. Romero, acting as his own editor, stages and cuts sequences so as to evoke equal disorientation between viewers and the people on-screen, utilizing disruptive flash cuts, a cacophony of voices and sound effects, and a dizzying collage of close-ups and inserts, which makes the rampant over-acting from his enormous acting ensemble, many of whom were residents of Evans City, recruited on the spot to play themselves, even more bombastic.
Even while the movie storms ahead in an aggressive flurry of deliberate confusion, Romero has a knack for keeping us grounded in inspired banal details. The soldier who quietly steals a couple of slick-looking fishing rods in the midst of forcing a screaming family out of their home, the military official who goes to light a cigarette and forgets he’s wearing a gas mask, the father who complains about the new generation’s loose morals before attempting to have intercourse with his daughter. (Has he caught the crazies, or is he just an inveterate child molester?) The Crazies may not be quite as atmospherically charged or fully realized as Romero’s very best, and all the drama class shout-acting gets a little tiring, but it’s these little particulars, the fragments of ordinary life that Romero refuses to overlook, that remind us of his unique and lasting contributions to the movies.