Posts Tagged ‘the crazies’

Sifting through the veritable mountain of tributes that have been flooding the internet since the announcement that the film world lost one of its truly great auteurs today, it seems to me that almost all of them miss a vital point : sure, the man, myth, and legend that was George A. Romero is among a small handful of people — King, Carpenter, Craven, Wrightson — who re-defined and frankly revolutionized horror across all media in the late 20th/early 21st centuries; he was beloved by fans for not only his staggering body of work but also his warm and engaging personality and infectious, perpetually-youthful enthusiasm;  and there’s no doubt that he will forever be regarded as The King Of The Zombie Movie in the same way Elvis will always be remembered as The King Of Rock N’ Roll and Jack Kirby as The King Of Comics. These ae all givens. But what most people fail to remark upon — perhaps because the aforementioned alone are more than enough to cement a legacy that, like his zombies, will never die — is that Romero was also one of the most important, and trailblazing, independent filmmakers of all time.

I’ll tell you who never lost sight of that fact for a second, though — all the celebrated indie directors who followed in his wake. Go on, ask folks like Quentin Tarantino or Kevin Smith where they’d be without the road map Romero set out for them, they’ll tell you : nowhere. When a guy with a background in commercial and industrial film production hustles up $114,000, heads out to a Pittsburgh-area cemetery in 1968, and makes a flick that not only changes the face of a genre forever but plays both drive-ins and “proper” movie-houses for literally years on end, it fundamentally alters the definition of what is possible, and gives birth to the notion in many eager young minds that, hey, maybe they can do this one day, too.

Here’s the damndest thing of all, though — Romero affected this fundamental shift not just once, but twice.  Ten years on from Night Of The Living Dead, he doubled-down on his claim to cinematic immortality with Dawn Of The Dead, a rising tide that lifted any number of boats along with it. Just ask Tom Savini. Or Ken Foree. Or Goblin. Sure, they’d all done fine work in the past — and would continue to do so — but would any of them have risen to legendary status absent their involvement with Romero’s masterwork?

While we’re at it, let’s try to imagine the contemporary horror landscape had Romero never happened : there’s no 28 Days Later, a film that made its mark by dint of its open flouting of Romero’s unwritten-but-so-effective-everyone-else-followed-them “rules.” There’s no Zombie (or Zombi 2, if you prefer). There’s sure as hell no Walking Dead.

Like any number of artistic standard-setters, then, Romero gave birth to a veritable slew of either outright imitators on the low end or more slick, mass-audience-friendly progeny on the high, and surely others (thanks to an infamous copyright indicia oversight) profited from the fruits of his imagination, either directly or indirectly, more than he ever did himself — but if he let that bother him, he certainly never showed it : George was indie to the core, and while he did some damn fine work for the studios intermittently over the years (The Dark HalfMonkey ShinesCreepshow), after returning to the by-then-an-industry he’d created with  Land Of The Dead (by my account still the best John Carpenter movie of the last 20 years even if it wasn’t, ya know, directed by John Carpenter), he couldn’t wait to get back to his low-budget, DIY roots. Diary Of The Dead and Survival Of The Dead may not have been as well-received as Night or Dawn or Day Of The Dead, but do yourself a favor in the coming days as you program your home-viewing Romero marathons : watch ’em again with an open mind and tell me that they don’t feel like the work of a guy who’s absolutely in his element, making the kinds of movies he wants to make, saying the things he wants to say, with an admirable lack of concern for commercial considerations.

And while you’re perusing through his unjustly-less-celebrated works, don’t forget to give Martin a go and silently weep for what the vampire genre could have become if it had chosen to follow Romero’s lead rather than Anne Rice’s; enjoy the ethereal and intriguing admitted near-miss that is Season The Witch; frighten the living shit of yourself with The Crazies, a film every bit as prophetic as his zombie tales; check out Knightriders for proof positive that he could step outside horror altogether and produce a damn-near-sprawling moody character-driven drama tinged with understated melancholy. There’s a lot to choose from, and all of them are “master-class” offerings on how to do a whole lot with very little by way of resources — other than the two most important, vision and will.

Others have commented — and will continue to do so — on the expert analysis Romero offered on subjects ranging from racism to consumerism to sexism to Cold War and post-9/11 “security state” paranoia in his films, and it’s no secret that he proudly wore his “social justice warrior” bona fides on his sleeve well before that term became either a badge of honor or an intellectually lazy, reactionary insult, depending on who’s using it. Suffice to say, though, that even the most politically conservative viewer would have to admit that what Romero’s perspective revealed was a guy who understood that horror is most effective when it’s rooted in the world we know, and when it both reflects and lays bare certain uncomfortable truths about our society, indeed or reality, that we’d rather not talk about. George understood, intuitively it seems, the words of the late, great Walt Kelly — “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”

In today’s early morning hours, then, this writer would humbly suggest that we lost a whole lot more than the father of the modern zombie movie. We lost a pioneering independent filmmaker, an insightful social and political commentator, and a singular artistic talent. We lost the best there is at what he did, and I don’t think any of us would begrudge him getting back up from the dead for a minute in the least, if only to take a well-deserved victory lap.

"The Crazies" (2010) Movie Poster

I really — and I mean really — don’t want to compare director Breck (“Sahara”) Eisner’s new remake of  1973 independent exploitation horror classic “The Crazies” with Zack Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead” remake. It’s just too obvious. But then, the parallels are too blatant to ignore. And not just because they’re both based on George Romero films.

First off, like “Dawn,” the fact is that “The Crazies” just didn’t need to be remade. The original is as fresh, exciting, and relevant as ever. Sure, Viet Nam is no longer a contemporary issue, but substitute Iraq or Afghanistan vets for the lead characters in the original, and all the issues end up being the same. Biowarfare, massive paranoia in the populace, government fuck-ups and subsequent government cover-ups, and excessive state secrecy — the main political themes in the original are every bit as relevant today as they were in 1973 — hell, moreso.

Secondly, like Snyder’s “Dawn,” this isn’t, on the surface, a bad remake. It’s stylish, exciting, suitably grisly (although, also like the 2004 “Dawn,” not so grisly that it would only appeal to horror fans — this is definitely a mainstream flick not intended solely for a genre audience), competently acted for the most part, suspenseful, and a fun and gripping ride.

Thirdly, it’s respectful to the original premise without being a tired rehash. The basic set-up is the same — plane carrying a biowarfare agent code named “Trixie” crashes down in a small rural locale (this time the fictional town of Ogden Marsh, Iowa, rather than Evans City, Pennsylvania — again, as with “Dawn” 2004, Romero’s story gets transplanted to the midwest), but the characters have the same names and that’s about it, the focus here being  solely on David (Timothy Olyphant) his wife  Judy (Radha Mitchell) , and David’s best friend Russell (Joe Anderson) trying to both escape and learn what it is that they’re escaping from.

On paper, this should work. The original paid as much attention to the action from the point of view of the military as it did to the plight of its nominal protagonists. And while Romero was able to pull of this juggling act with his usual supreme skill, in point of fact the idea of a small confused group of principal characters who are in the dark as to what is going on so that we learn the truth of events at the same pace they do is, technically speaking at least, better and more gripping in terms of pure plotting.

As always, though, it all comes down to execution, and the creative choices made by the filmmakers along the way.

The “Trixie” virus itself operates in essentially manner as the 1973 film, inflicting loopy behavior followed by violent homicidal madness followed by death. The folks fighting it, though — that’s where the main difference between the two films is to be found, and it has profound implications for exactly what type of movie this remake is.

In Romero’s original, Dave and Russ are Viet Nam vets back in their home town, trying to adjust to a society they no longer quite understand. They’re blue collar guys trying to find their way in a country that has used them up and spit them back out. David’s girlfriend ( or, as the new version would have it, wife) is also blue collar, working as she does as a small town nurse. They are quite literally nothing to the political and economic establishment, outsiders to the system trying to eke out a means of basic survival within it.

In the 2010 version, though, that’s all changed — and with it, so has the tone of the film itself, at least from a political standpoint. You see, this time around, David is the local sheriff, Russell is his long-serving trusty deputy, and Judy is the town doctor. Our heroes, therefore, are no longer outsiders fighting against a murderous virus unleashed by a murderous establishment that’s trying to use a murderous military to clean up their mess — our heroes are yuppie system insiders who used to be part of the establishment but now are expendable to it since said establishment is out to use its military to clean up its mess.

In a way, this shift in focus is somewhat tolerable, in that it shows that the system is more than willing to eat its own to cover up for its excesses and/or incompetence, but on the whole, it’s a pretty serious cop-out compared to Romero’s original vision, because it the message in the 1973 version is that the system is rotten, corrupt, evil, and homicidal and can only be successfully fought by those outside it. The new version, though, sends an altogether different message — yes, the system is rotten, corrupt, evil, and homicidal, and yes, it will even turn on its own, but brave and courageous souls within the system itself can fight it. In Romero’s film, the system was co-opted from top to bottom and rotten to the core. In Eisner’s new version, the system is out to destroy innocent lives, sure, but our best chance for salvation comes from within its very ranks.

Another key difference between the films is that in Romero’s flick, the military were incompetent fuck-ups who were changing their plans on the fly every second and everything they did only made matters worse. This seems much closer to actual reality, as we have $300 million helicopters that can’t fly, “Patriot” missiles that can’t hit their targets, and more red tape and bureaucratic snafus among the brass than you can count. Who many times have we “changed strategy” in Iraq and Afghanistan? Has anything worked?

In Eisner’s version of events, however, the military, while certainly undertaking actions that anyone in their right mind would consider unconscionable, such as wiping out innocents and infected alike in order to prevent the virus from spreading, acts with cold, technical precision and absolute competence. So while Romero was telling us that the money we were shoveling at the Pentagon was wasted, the new, Hollywood-approved vision of “The Crazies” is one with a perfectly capable and dependable military — it’s just that they gotta be ruthless sometimes. You know how it goes.

"The Crazies" Promo Poster

If you feel like shutting your brain off and going for a well-made cinematic thrill ride that offers little or no actual food for thought,the 2010 version of “The Crazies” works just fine. It’s a pretty solid little white-knuckle rollercoaster of a flick. The effects are solid, the story is involving, and the premise is neat,the ending is pretty damn spectacular — and it even has the guts to show a news report during the closing credits giving the government’s official BS line about what happened in Ogden Marsh. But come on. The government and the media lie? That’s an easy and obvious criticism to make. We all know that.

And here’s where the final unfortunate parallel with the 2004 “Dawn of the Dead” remake comes in. Like that “reimagining,” where Zack Snyder and company managed to set the film in a mall packed to the rafters with excess yet somehow say nothing about consumerism and greed and “the American way of life,” this new version of “The Crazies” takes a classic Romero work of socio-political commentary and almost completely emasculates it. The film takes Romero’s bold and thoroughgoing critique of the entire system itself and makes it safe and palatable. Sure, the government lies, but they’re competent and efficient and there are good people within the system who can change it when things get a little too ruthless and bloodthirsty (provided they don’t, you know, get killed). In the end, Eisner doesn’t seem to have the guts to even seriously criticize the military itself, despite the fact that they’re clearly the bad guys in the film! Go figure.

And that is this movie’s ultimate failing. It portrays a ruthless and inhuman military-industrial complex engaged in full-fledged, wholesale slaughter — and metaphorically, if not literally, lets them, and even more importantly the system they serve, off the hook. The essential theme at the core if the film is no longer “smash the system, it’s beyond repair” as it was in 1973, instead it’s “work from within to change the system — even if it’s trying to kill you, hey, it’s nothing personal.”

As with  Synder’s “Dawn,” Eisner here has taken Romero’s work and replaced all its guts with stuffing, while preserving it an admittedly aesthtically pleasing form. You might call that a remake, I just call it taxidermy. And while stuffed birds are nice to look at, they’re not nearly as spectacular as those that are alive and flying.

"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.