The Crazies (1973)

The Crazies first published by

The first sound heard in George A. Romero’s The Crazies is a cuckoo clock. It is nighttime, and in the interior shadows of the Mitchell house, a giggling boy is playfully trying to frighten his even younger sister. It is a little like the opening to Romero’s earlier, ultra-influential Night of the Living Dead (1968), in which a couple in a graveyard clowned with hoary old genre tropes (“I’m coming to get you, Barbara”), only for a new kind of horror (the modern zombie in its first appearance, though it was then called a ‘ghoul’) to step in and take over. For here, too, the children’s game is interrupted as their father, who has just quietly murdered their mother in bed, starts smashing up the furniture and sets the place alight. The sound of that cuckoo – a creature synonymous with madness – presages the insanity to come.

Set in and around Evans City and Zelienople in Pennsylvania – where it was also shot, apparently with the full cooperation of the communities – The Crazies shows a small town in rapid collapse after an active bacteriological weapon accidentally leaks into the water supply, causing irreversible madness or death in practically all who are exposed to it. That, however, is only half of the story, while the other half involves the attempts by the military both to contain and to keep secret a disaster which is escalating faster than it can be managed. Once brought together, these two narrative halves interact in chaotic and unpredictable ways. Soldiers, themselves uncertain of the situation and ‘just following orders’, grow increasingly violent and loot-happy while rounding up the Evans populace. Locals, alarmed that NBC-suited strangers are entering their homes without explanation and taking them at gunpoint, begin rallying and retaliating with their own firearms – and dynamite, and pitchforks, and knitting needles. There are growing numbers of infected individuals on both sides, although, as Dr Watts (Richard France), a perplexed specialist in the Trixie virus who has been shanghaied into town without support or equipment, observes: “How can you tell who’s infected and who isn’t?”

There’s the rub. In The Crazies, it is not just the virus that is highly contagious, but also the high-pressure madness of a snafu spiralling out of control and making everybody behave in extreme ways just to cope with the crazy events unfolding all around them. While some characters are clearly affected by the virus, it remains unclear whether the aberrant, manic conduct of others – including Watts himself – is a result of infection or of the immense strain of evolving, impossible circumstance. This is a point entirely missed by Breck Eisner’s 2010 remake, which for all its updating of the horror, gave its ‘crazies’ the voguish appearance of zombies, so that they were all too easily distinguishable from the uninfected. (A much better reimagining of Romero’s film can be found in David Bruckner, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry’s genre-jumping descent into madness The Signal, made in 2007).

Perhaps it is a question of timing. Things really were crazy in the era when Romero was making his film, and real-world events like the 1963 self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức, the 1970 shootings of unarmed student protesters by National Guardsmen at Kent State, and the ongoing, intensely controversial campaigns in Vietnam and Cambodia, are all overtly referenced in the microcosmic textures of Evans City. Indeed, the ‘Nam imbroglio leaves its stamp all over the film. There’s the focus on a military chain of command where the top brass are out of touch and removed from the repercussions of their often clueless decisions, where the middle-ranking officers in situ – like Colonel Peckem (Lloyd Hollar) and Major Ryder (Harry Spillman) – are severely under-resourced and constantly slowed from above in their ability to respond to the situation on the ground, where the grunts have little grasp of what is going on and are only too happy to run riot, and where everyone is adversely affected by poor communications and paranoia about leaks. Then there is the use of flamethrowers and helicopters, the massacres of civilians, and the invisibility of the ‘enemy’. Meanwhile the film’s putative heroes, local volunteer firefighters David (Will McMillan) and Clank (Harold Wayne Jones), are expressly Vietnam veterans who soon find themselves engaged once again in guerrilla conflict and the fog of war, only this time on their own turf. David may be immune to the virus, and therefore potentially key to the development of any vaccine – but after the traumatic experiences that he endures trying to protect his pregnant partner Judy (Lane Carroll), by the end he looks just as crazy as everybody else.

The Crazies is a film totally of its time, but also, in its depiction of a divided America whose madness begets ever more madness, totally relevant today.

Summary: Putting the gory in allegory, Romero’s film shows the madness of the Vietnam war in all its viral contagion.

© Anton Bitel