The Crazies (1973)

The other night I watched George Romero’s 1973 film, “The Crazies.” This is perhaps (un)happy circumstance, because the next day a non-fictional group of crazies descended upon the Lincoln Memorial in Washington to demand that our socialist president let (the Christian) God back into our lives while reducing taxes on the wealthiest 10%… and many of them were wearing tricorner hats adorned with tea bags and star spangled T-shirts. Or something like that.

Cheap political potshots aside, I really wanted to like this film (it has always been on my “to watch” list; I just never got around to it). I haven’t yet watched the 2010 remake with the same name in which the previews feature a demented man dragging a garden fork around in a particularly menacing manner.

I find myself enjoying Vietnam war era films a lot more these days — perhaps because they hearken back to a time when US society was dominated by a fairly bitter cultural schism and there was a fear, in the back of the minds of many, that as a society we had become too “soft” or permissive and were under attack from within (which pretty much seems to be Glenn Beck’s schtick in a nutshell; ha ha… “nutshell!”). The parallels of social unrest and the themes of a culture war in films of the 60s and 70s are interesting to me because I see some similar expressed fears in the current media stream.

Situations created by fear and mistrust that spiral out of control had been themes in Romero’s Night of The Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978), so it’s not surprising to see them in “The Crazies.” But, unfortunately, for a lot of reasons, “The Crazies” just doesn’t work very well.

“The Crazies” begins with a farmer who lives outside a small farm in Pennsylvania going mad and setting fire to his farm. One cut scene later, we are then introduced to David, a volunteer fireman, and his girlfriend/fiance Judy (a nurse) as well as ‘Clank,’ David’s buddy and a fellow volunteer fireman. David and Clank set off to fight the fire as Judy rushes to the office of the local doctor to help care for the children of the dairy farmer who survived the fire.

Judy is astounded to find the doctor’s office invaded by soldiers in tyvek suits and gasmasks. It turns out that a few days earlier, a plane carrying a supply of some sort of a top secret biological weapon codenamed “Trixie” had crashed nearby and the agent/virus had made it into the water supply. We are told that the ‘Trixie’ virus kills some people and drives others insane. The doctor, worried because Judy is pregnant with David’s child, gives her a shot to help protect her and has her hide a syringe and a vial of the resistance drug in her pocket so she can inoculate David.

At some point we get to see “Colonel Peckham,” point man for the operation, putting his socks and underwear into a garment bag while talking on the phone about the ‘Trixie’ situation. He is ordered to go to the infested village and get the situation under control. Meanwhile, bombers are being scrambled into the air to nuke the Trixie town from above if needed. There are a lot of fists pounding desks and “Goddamnits” while some government bureaucrats and army men argue what to do.

There are various scenes of tyvek clad soldiers fighting crazy villagers. One soldier gets stabbed to death with knitting needles by someone’s grandmother.

Colonel Peckham arrives and sets up a perimeter guard; anyone caught trying to leave is to be detained or shot. David, Judy and Clank are captured by Tyvek clad soldiers and her supply of the resistance drug is confiscated. They manage to escape, taking Artie, a middle aged man, and Lynn, his daughter, with them and hide in a country club. Artie and Lynn, both now crazy, have incestuous sex. Clank, who is also increasingly crazy, discovers this and beats up Artie. Artie is later discovered dead, after having hung himself. Lynn, the teenager, wanders outside and is shot by soldiers. David, Judy and Clank run off after having another shootout with the soldiers.

At some point, an irascible scientist who worked on the original Trixie virus is brought to the town in hopes of being able to develop an antidote. He finally manages to do so, but, frustrated by the slow process needed to verify his identity over the phone, he decides to just hoof it over to Colonel Peckham, taking the antidote with him. He is mistaken as a “crazy” by some soldiers and forced into the local high school (where they are attempting to quarantine the crazies). Inside the high school, he is pushed down some stairs by some crazies and falls to his death. The antidote is destroyed.

David, Judy and Clank manage to ambush a few soldiers and disarm them, but Clank (full blown crazy now), kills the prisoners while David is trying to get them to tell him what they know. Judy opines that David must have a natural immunity because he is not crazy. Clank goes gonzo and starts shooting soldiers in the woods, finally getting shot himself. Judy, now showing signs of being crazy, wanders into the crossfire between some crazed civilians and soldiers and is also killed. David, his spirit broken, is captured and led away.

The movie ends with Colonel Peckham being congratulated over the phone by some stuffed shirt bureaucrat at his success in having contained the outbreak. Peckham seems depressed at how badly things have turned out. The film ends with him boarding a helicopter because there has been another outbreak in another town, and, as the new “Trixie containment” expert, he is needed to try and contain it.

Like many of Romero’s films, the ‘messages’ of whom to trust and mistrust are a bit too heavy handed for my taste, but I can’t decide if that is a factor of the awkward dialogue or lack of character development. I try not to judge the production values of films from this era too harshly (budgets were a fraction of what they are now and there was very little in the way of post-production effects available at any price in 1973), but many of the edits and portions of the sound in the film could have been much better. One of the real problems with “The Crazies” is that they try to pack too much into one story. The discussion of what the virus is and how it got into the town require a lot of exposition by the town doctor and military officers. Stylistically, I think most horror or action films have moved away from explaining what is happening as much through the characters on the screen discussing whatever problem confronts them, so perhaps I too jaded by the more modern storytelling of films like 28 Days Later, but there are places in which “The Crazies” really kind of plods along. The film switches back and forth between three stories (1st is the story of Judy, David and Clank; 2nd is the story of Colonel Peckham and 3rd is the shorter story of the doctor and his antidote) and I wonder we (as an audience) would have been better served by concentrating on just one story. I also find that characters in Romero films tend to be pretty thin as far as showing the audience their motivation. Granted, horror and sci-fi are genres where character depth and development tend to be pretty thin as a rule, but Romero always makes gestures towards developing his characters and then just leaves his principle characters as people who can be summed up in a single sentence.

I enjoyed the film and would watch it again (if I didn’t have so many things already in my queue and not enough free nights to watch them). I’d be curious to see how the remake of “The Crazies” compares to the original, but the previews of the 2010 version make it look more like a zombie/slasher film than the original.



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