Monday, October 7, 2013

The Crazies (1973)

The Crazies (1973), the story of a man-made virus leaking through a small town from director George Romero, asks who the crazy people are. Obviously, there are those infected by a virus that leaves its victims dead or incurably mad, but what about the other townspeople, the ones who aren't infected but who succumb to panic and hysteria, resulting in their behaving just as irrationally as the infected? Or how about the soldiers who gun down unarmed civilians, rob the homes of the people they round up for quarantine, and blindly follow stupid, ill-informed orders without question? Or the scientists who created the virus? There are also the Washington bureaucrats, more concerned with cover ups and protecting their jobs than they are with stopping the spread of a dangerous virus but willing to drop a nuclear bomb one of their own towns.

In other movies such as Creepshow and Dawn of the Dead, Romero utilized blood, gore, and other shocking imagery in a comic book, Grand Guignol style of excess and black humor. In The Crazies, he uses a more psychological approach to generating tension. There's no shortage of blood in this film, but the sense of dread stems from not knowing who might be infected. At every level, whether military, medical, or civilian, people behave in irrational ways that could be virus-induced or could be perfectly understandable responses to an extremely emotional and dangerous situation. Zombies at least have the decency to die first so you know who they are.

Six days after a military plane carrying an experimental bioweapon crashes just outside the Evans City, the military, led by combat officer Col. Peckem (Lloyd Hollar), moves in to quarantine the small town when residents begin showing symptoms of being infected. Dr. Watts (Orson Welles scholar Richard France), a member of the scientific team that worked on the virus, codenamed Trixie, is brought in to see if he can find a cure, but he and Peckem are hampered by an inept, self-serving leadership in Washington D.C. that inflicts one bureaucratic blunder after another. While soldiers and townsfolk clash in several firefights, a group of people - former Green Beret David (W.G. McMillan), his pregnant fiancé Judy (Lane Carroll) and his best friend Clanker (Harold Wayne Jones) along with Artie (Day of the Dead's Richard Liberty) and his kooky daughter Kathy (Lynn Lowry) - tries to escape a town that's turned into a war zone.

The Crazies has a frantic, urgent tone as one bad thing snowballs into another, and the bodies pile up. The soldiers, anonymous and faceless in their gas masks and biohazard suits, storm homes, clubs, bedrooms, farms, churches, and other places we tend to consider safe. All these notions like due process, right to privacy, and respect for private property are tossed out the window in an instant when it becomes convenient for the government. Those who are resist are designated enemy combatants and likely to be shot, their bodies incinerated. Freedom is fragile, always at risk of being snuffed out. Throw in an armed citizenry that doesn't like being treated this, and then you have a volatile pressure cooker ready to explode.

On the flip side of the Orwellian, totalitarian government and military turning is citizenry into prisoners, there is also the inept, red tape of the government. Whether it's the bureaucrats in charge who wait days to take action and fail to properly supply the military with enough men and vaccines to the officers rigidly sticking with a voice-recognition communication system that wastes valuable time, it's, to quote the trailer, "madness unleaded by human error." In the film's most egregious example, Watts seems to have found a cure but gets mistaken for one of the townspeople by the soldiers and is killed in a riot. It's funny in a satirical sense, but it's also too believable to dismiss.

Amidst this turmoil, Romero throws in unsettling images: a priest self-immolating, an old woman calmly stabbing a soldier with her knitting needle before returning to her interrupted task, a father sexually assaulting his daughter, etc. Other effects are just as crazy but also blackly funny; in one battle, a line of rednecks slaughtering a group of soldiers with pitchforks, dynamite, and hatchets is followed by a dutiful housewife calmly sweeping the field with a broom. Other instances are kind of sad: the infected Kathy flirting with a group of soldiers who respond by shooting her, and Judy giving away her hiding spot with nervous laughter. It's almost impossible to say if an action is the result of the virus or something else: the priest could be making a protest, the father might already have  had unsavory designs on his daughter, and Judy could just be cracking under the pressure. The virus and its effects are so subtle and so easily mistaken for something else that by the time someone is determined to be infected, it's too late, and when it occurs among the members of the group we've been following and rooting for, the result is all the more heartbreaking.

On a technical side, the movie is rough around the edges. Several times it's clear Romero's ambition exceeds his budget, and some of the effects, staging, and editing come off as cheap and amateurish. However, there are several well shot and tightly edited action scenes that are quite exciting and intense, mainly Clanker's last stand and a sequence where David and Clanker take down a pursuing helicopter. They aren't flashy or dominated by explosions, but they work. Romero, never the most subtle of filmmakers, sometimes resorts to overkill and heavy handed symbolism, most notably with the squabbling government officials; after a while, we get it: they're stupid and incompetent.

In many ways, The Crazies foreshadows Romero's work in Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, most notably with the breakdown of society and paranoia of the military, and again its demonstrates one of his favorite themes: we're the monsters. This time, he didn't need a single zombie.

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