Grindhouse Classics : “The Crazies” (1973)

Posted: March 5, 2010 in movies
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

"The Crazies" Movie Poster

With the new big-budget (well,comparatively speaking) Hollywood remake of George Romero’s seminal 1973 horror film “The Crazies” (a.k.a. “Code Name : Trixie”) upon us, now seems as good a time as any to take a look back at the original — as well as the new version, which your host took in last weekend. But let’s give the progenitor its dues first, shall we? I mean, it’s only fair, and in addition to coming first, it’s also, for reasons I’ll delve into a bit later when we look at the new one, the better of the two by far.

It’s a shame that this film is so often overlooked by horror historians, because truth be told it’s every bit the precursor to “Dawn of the Dead” that “Night of the Living Dead” was. Sure, it didn’t fit the “zombie movie” mold as established at the time since the “crazies” of the title weren’t walking corpses but were, instead, victims of a viral biological outbreak, but by today’s standards as set forth by films like “28 Days Later,” it certainly fits the bill — which is why we’re dealing with the rather bizarre situation we find ourselves in where the remake is considered a proper “zombie flick” while the original, at least at the time, wasn’t.

But it’s not just the fact that it’s (admittedly retroactively) classified as a zombie movie that makes “The Crazies” a thematic lead-in to “Dawn,” it’s the fact that it deals with current (at the time) political and socio-economic issues in a direct manner that makes this film every bit the precursor to DotD that NotLD was. Yes, “Night” tackled issues of race and Cold War paranoia and the like, but it did so mainly indirectly, via metaphor. “The Crazies,” on the other hand, tackles militarism, Viet Nam, germ warfare, state secrecy, and related issues every bit as head-on as “Dawn” tackled the emptiness of consumer culture and the wretchedly excessive gluttony of the “me generation.”

On the run from "The Crazies"

It’s evident from the start that Romero isn’t going to beat around the bush with this film. We start with a guy murdering his own family by burning down their house. He’s acting weird and completely loses it in rather a hurry, and when the local Evans City, Pennsylvania volunteer fire brigade arrives, including among its ranks two of our film’s main protagonists, recently-returned Viet Nam vets and lifelong buddies David (Will MacMillan) and Russell (Harold Wayne Jones),  the family man-turned-firestarter has a tragic moment of lucid clarity before succumbing completely to madness and death.

And the story seldom slacks up from this intense introductory sequence, with Romero opting instead to put the pedal to the metal and never let up. In fairly short order we learn that a military plane containing some sort of vaccine has crashed in the mountains nearby, that the vaccine isn’t a vaccine (of course) but is instead a deadly germ weapon designed to inflict madness, mayhem, and death on an “enemy” population, that the military can’t get its shit together when trying to effect a containment and clean-up, that the local population, infected and otherwise, quickly comes to be considered an enemy by the military, that the heavily-armed townsfolk and rural dwellers aren’t going to take being put under martial law lying down, that the virus, conde named “Trixie” is probably airborne, that gas-masked, hazard-suited military guys who are clearing out households and disposing of dead bodies aren’t opposed to looting homes of their goods and corpses of their cash, and that the US government will wipe the whole area, and everyone in it,  out in order to keep a lid on what’s happened. Oh, and in true Romero fashion, the bodies of the biological plague’s victims need to be burned.

As Romero himself would say, "another one for the fire."

The action shifts around a lot in “The Crazies,” with equal time being paid to the military’s ever-changing “plan” of response, the violent actions of the townspeople (infected or otherwise), and the struggle to escape the situation undertaken by our previously-mentioned protagonists David and Russell along with David’s girlfriend Judy (Lane Carroll), who works as a nurse and is pregnant, and a local evacuee named Artie (Richard Liberty, who would go on to appear in Romero’s “Day of the Dead”)  and his daughter Kathy (cult film legend Lynn Lowry of “Shivers” and “I Drink Your Blood,” among many other credits), who join them along the way.

There is a somewhat lengthy interlude wherein our erstwhile heroes take refuge in the clubhouse of a local Country Club, which actually comes as a welcome relief when it happens, but apart from that it’s pretty much full-throttle mayhem and paranoia and frantic desperation all the way, with barely a pause to take a breath.

And here is as appropriate a time as there probably is for your host where your host to salute the genius social commentary of George Romero, because not only does “The Crazies” deal with the obvious themes mentioned earlier, but the story of Dave and Russ as returned vets at loose ends suddetly confronting a battlefield scenario they don’t entirely grasp the implications of has none-too-subtle, albeit entirely unstated in the script and its dialogue, parallels with both the war in Viet Nam itself, and the situation many veterans found themselves in coming home to a country they no longer fully understood. One gets the definite sense, in fact, that once all hell breaks loose in their tiny town, these two feel more at home than they have at any point since coming back.

The insanity and outright viciousness of the outbreak itself, its victims, and the military’s inept and violent “containment” procedures only escalate until things reach a downright insane, and pretty goddamn bleak in most respects, conclusion. It’s entirely fitting, but it’s the breakneck-paced story along the way, driven in every respect by the human and entirely (if at times depressingly) understandable actions of the plethora of characters on all sides here that makes “The Crazies” so memorable. It’s 100 miles of bad road and we’re packed like sardines into a jeep with no shocks full of people whose actions, reactions,  concerns, and motivations we understand all too well. Some we like, some we don’t, but they are all us, and we are them.

"The Crazies" DVD from Blue Underground

“The Crazies” is available on DVD (and, as of a couple of weeks ago, Blu-Ray) from Blue Underground. The remastered picture looks absolutely superb for a low-budget exploitation flick filmed in rural Pennsylvania in 1973, the sound is mono but clean and good, and the extras package is nice, as well, featuring the trailer, a great little documentary featurette on the cult film career or Lynn Lowry, and an absolutely sensational commentary track from Romero and Blue Underground head honcho (and “Maniac” and “Maniac Cop” director ) Bill Lustig. Romero’s memory of the production is sharp, Lustig asks terrific questions, and the two of them obviously get along terrifically well. It’s an absolute pleasure to listen to.

Hard-core Romero fans are generally the only folks who have given this movie its proper due, but hopefully with the remake in theaters now, horror and exploitation fans, and just people with taste in general, will take a look at this somewhat neglected classic. It packs a punch both for what it does as well as what it says about ourselves and our society. Spellbinding, gut-wrenching stuff all the way around.

And speaking of that remake, we’ll get to that in the next day or two, maybe even tonight if I’m feeling ambitious.

Comments
  1. CJ says:

    I loved the original version because the people going crazy in 1973’s “The Crazies” were neighbors —I mean they were my real neighbors, for I live where it was filmed and many of the townspeople in the film were played by locals. The people here like to talk about what a “nice little town” it is (not always true) so it gives me a tiny bit of pleasure to see some of them (albeit much younger than they are now) going wacko, which is not much different than they would probably act if a real disaster hit the town.

    I haven’t seen the newer version. I’m sure the special effects are slicker, but I often find they detract from films, rather than enhancing them. And besides, those Iowans aren’t my neighbors.

    • trashfilmguru says:

      I think it makes a big difference when films are shot close to home and you can recognize a lot of hte locations and what have you, it adds an extra sense of familiarity to what’s going on. If you decide to see the remake you probably won;t find it too dreadful, because its’ really not that lousy as far as remakes go, but it just doesn’t have any of the same immeidacy as the original, and that would be even more true for you since the original was right in your neck of the woods.

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