Returning to the horror genre after a detour into romantic comedy, Pittsburgh-based indie icon George A. Romero cranked out two shockers in 1973, including this bio-terror flick and the quasi-supernatural melodrama Season of the Witch. Neither represents the filmmaker’s best work, although it’s easy to spot within The Crazies many tropes that fans adore in Romero’s zombie flicks. Like The Night of the Living Dead (1968) and its sequels, The Crazies focuses on a small band of survivors who find themselves caught between a mysterious plague and the overzealous military personnel assigned to contain the plague. The cure, as the saying goes, is worse than the disease.
Shot throughout rural Pennsylvania, The Crazies begins with a gruesome scene of a crazed man murdering his wife and burning down his house with his children inside. Next, the picture cuts to a local clinic, where a small-town doctor treats the crazed man even as soldiers show up at the clinic door. It seems an experimental biological weapon was accidentally released, and that most people exposed to the chemical agent will become psychotic. Our heroes include the nurse and several other people with natural immunity. Using local actors instead of Hollywood players, Romero creates a sense of documentary-like realism, an effect accentuated by his unglamorous camerawork.
At its best, The Crazies feels like a newsreel capturing the end of man. However, the use of semiprofessional actors frequently backfires, with many scenes falling flat due to inert performances, and Romero spends so much time cutting back and forth between underdeveloped characters that The Crazies unspools more like a series of loosely connected vignettes than an actual story. Some of the stuff in the movie is effective, some is merely gross, and some is genuinely disturbing, but the sum effect is less than Romero could have achieved by applying more discipline to his storytelling. Even the juiciest subplot, stemming from the realization that one of the “immune” survivors has turned psycho because the virus took a while to infect his bloodstream, feels predictable.
Still, this subject matter exists solidly within Romero’s wheelhouse, and the notion of an airborne toxin changing normal people into murderers is unsettling no matter the context. And despite failing to cause a stir during its original release, The Crazies eventually gained enough stature to earn a 2010 remake starring Timothy Olyphant.
The Crazies: FUNKY