04 March 2009

Movielog, The Crazies

The Crazies, 1973
Written by Paul McCullough and George Romero
Directed by George Romero
103 minutes

A few years after inventing the zombie movie with Night of the Living Dead (and making a shitload and a half of moolah for his film distributors on the process) George Romero gave us his commentary on the Vietnam War with The Crazies. In 1973 the war was beginning to wind down and ex-soldiers were coming home completely changed by their experiences. Two of the leads of this film are Vietnam veterans, and much of the film deals with military culture in general and the problems of Vietnam in particular, just in that skewed metaphorical-but-not-really way that's such a Romero trademark.

One morning a small town in Pennsylvania is quarantined by the US military. Martial law is declared, and the population of the town is herded into the high school for "processing." We quickly learn that a bioweapon was onboard a plane that crashed near the town, and that the substance has leaked into the water. The bioweapon (codenamed "Trixie") causes permanent insanity in persons who ingest it, which means that the entire town is filled with, well, "The Crazies."

Romero gets a lot of out this premise, not really from the activities of the crazies themselves (although the violent behavior of a small number is terrifying and amazing) but through the actions that the military takes in containing the threat. In a clear parallel to Vietnam, solider dressed in isolation suits that make them look like alien invaders swoop into every house in the city, forcing everyone out of their homes at the point of machine guns. What information is shared with the people being herded is sporadic and fragmentary. Even assuming pure motives, who can blame those with the ability to avoid the dragnet for doing so?

And it's one of the other brilliant aspects of The Crazies that we can't really ascertain the real motives of those doing the cordoning-off. What we see of the top echelon persons making the decisions seems to imply that they are acting in good faith, but with their own reputations first in mind: they make some good decisions, but also some shortsighted ones, and Romero is honest enough to present them as they would have seemed at the time, without the benefit of later hindsight. The military men who are working on the ground are generally good people, but are hampered by security and by the bureaucracy of the military machine and cannot easily solve their problems. The individual solders? Mostly just want to get the hell out of there, and are told nothing about their mission.

A scientist who helped develop Trixie works tirelessly to find a cure, but cannot do his best work with only the equipment he can find in the high school science lab. He wants to escape the town and work from his lab, but until he can be "cleared" of exposure to the weapon he cannot be allowed to leave the quarantine. His story is one of the most tragic, for the ending of his story is probably the most unnecessarily wasteful of all.

A group of loosely-affiliated members of the town attempt to escape the military's dominion, and it's this group that we follow through most of the film. One by one, they begin to succumb to the power of the drug, some violently and some not, and the actions that they take as they descend into madness is some of the most horrifying stuff in The Crazies. In particular, a sequence towards the end of the film involving a young woman and her father is disturbing even without the ultimate denouement.

I realize that I've gone this whole time without mentioning any of the actors. Well, what do you expect? Romero was indie before indie was indie, and most of the performers will be unfamiliar to even the most dedicated fans of the movies. No one really stands out performance-wise, but the acting is decent enough all around, which is about par for the course for a Romero film -- he's a lot more interested in concept and story than performance and character. Love it or hate it, that's the way of his films, and this one is no exception.

Should you see The Crazies? It's not the best of Romero's work (that would be Dawn of the Dead) but those who are fans of insightful social commentary masked as genre will probably get something out of this film. It's a fascinating film while it lasts, and if nothing really sticks out in the mind later on, it's at least worth the ride.

Rating: B+

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