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The Crazies (1973)
Director: George A. Romero

review by Jonathan McCalmont

There once was a time when George Romero did not dine out upon past glories. When, instead of trying to squeeze yet another film out of the increasingly dried and creatively bankrupt out husk of the zombie genre he once created, he turned his hand to something new. Something original... Something that added to the horror lexicon rather than simply re-using the same old tropes. Romero's third film after Night Of The Living Dead (1968) is just such an attempt at originality. A blend of horror and social satire, The Crazies is not a huge departure from Romero's zombie films but it does function quite nicely as a vicious satire of military inefficiency. It is just a shame that it fails to function on pretty much any other level.

All is not well in Evans City, Pennsylvania. It appears that the population of this sleepy little town are going mad. Some are going kill-crazy, others are going mildly eccentric but pretty much everyone is going completely tonto. They are losing their marbles because a military plane carrying an experimental biological weapon managed to crash near the town, sending out a plume of deranging virus in the process. The first that most of the townspeople hear of this is when the military takes over the local doctor's office. First it is a few mid-ranking officers and guards but before long it's hundreds of guys in white suits under the command of Colonel Peckem (Lloyd Hollar). Peckem's orders are clear: contain the virus at all costs.

Well... I say 'all costs' but it would appear that in reality, this is something of a slapdash operation as Peckem is under-manned, under-equipped, under-supported and under-trained. In an early scene he even moans that he is a combat officer with no real grasp of how to run a military quarantine begging the question of whether the military sent him to Evans City because he was black and therefore further down the pecking order than more experienced white officers (a suspicion seemingly supported by the fact that his superior officers insist upon inexplicably calling him by his first name).

Right from the start, Peckem is hamstrung by bureaucracy: he needs helicopters and planes to police the quarantine zone but the army refuses to send him any. He then tries to set up a communications network but the army insists upon a ridiculous set of voice-print recognition protocols which effectively make it impossible to speak directly to anyone when you need to. Indeed, Peckem's only success comes because he has the presence of mind to effectively kidnap one of the scientists (Richard France), who developed the biological weapon - a lovely little virus codenamed 'Trixie'. Against this background of bureaucratic incompetence and waste of life, the film follows a pair of firemen (Will MacMillan and Harold Wayne Jones) and a nurse (Lane Carroll) as they try to escape to freedom by picking a path through the myriad dangers caused by a rapidly collapsing military quarantine.

Visually, what is most striking about The Crazies is how spectacularly ugly and ungainly it is. The opening scene in a farmhouse is a riot of clashing 1970s' colours that assault the eye almost as violently as the male members of the cast. The film's aesthetics are also marred by the fact that, in an attempt to save money, Romero and his director of photography S. William Hinzman decided not only to set most of the film in-doors but also to film pretty much every single scene as an extreme close-up. This means that, rather than looking like a horror film or even an action film (as Night Of The Living Dead did), The Crazies looks more like a terrible period soap opera. This is why I brought up the ugliness of the cast: there's just no escaping them! The film's only memorable image is of the gangs of white-suited soldiers but they do not appear that often. This is a film whose ideas are discussed rather than visually demonstrated.

And those ideas are certainly promising. The Crazies is a product of the Vietnam War. Looking back on Vietnam now, it is easy to fall into the trap of seeing it in purely cinematic terms. To see it as the pit of madness and savagery that has produced films like Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon (1986), and Full Metal Jacket (1987). This perception is largely down to the experiences reported by the men who fought the war and lived to tell their tale. But from the point of view of the political class and the people away from the front-lines, Vietnam was a very different beast indeed.

Consider, for example, the disconnect between the opening half of Full Metal Jacket and the second half. In the first half, the recruits exist in an intensely ordered environment. An environment that is structured and regimented in such a way as to break down the personalities of the recruits and sculpt new ones. It is almost a scientific process. It is clean and ordered, which is why Private Pile's madness and suicide is so shocking. It is shocking but it also serves to introduce the recruits and the audience to the realities of war. From the point of view of policy-making, the Vietnam War was run along strictly rationalist lines.

In order to make sense of the Cold War, bodies such as the RAND Corporation applied game-theoretical models to the waging of war, quantifying strategic and operational decisions which had, in previous generations, been left to such woolly and subjective qualities as strategic genius and tactical insight. It is telling that Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defence under Kennedy and Johnson, made his name working for the Ford Motor Company, the company that pioneered mass production. McNamara's story and personal failings are wonderfully captured in Errol Morris' documentary The Fog Of War (2003).

The Crazies can be seen as a response to this image of the US Military as an intensely rational and efficient machine. Romero's soldiers are incompetent, under-resourced and utterly unprepared for the mission they have been assigned suggesting that these same inefficiencies and failings might well have been behind US failures in Vietnam. After all, if the US military cannot contain a disease outbreak in the middle of Pennsylvania, how can it possibly hope to stop the spread of communism through south-east Asia?

This is undeniably strong stuff, but it is also quite a complex point to make in a metaphorical manner. Indeed, The Crazies' biggest problems are at the level of script as despite being a horror film, nothing very much horrific actually happens. There is also very little action and the obsession with lampooning the military through a series of running jokes leaves the townsfolk characters stranded as a failed attempt at humanising an abstract argument at best and a distracting sidebar at worst. It is almost tempting to see The Crazies as a kind of dry run for Romero's masterpiece Dawn Of The Dead, which would appear five years later.

In that film, Romero managed to make his social satire broad enough to sit happily in the background while human characters and dramas occupied the zombie-filled foreground. Whether or not one buys into such a whiggish image of filmmaking is entirely up to the reader but there is no denying the fact that The Crazies is a profoundly flawed film.

The Crazies on DVD

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The Crazies remake

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