Special Article: Year of ‘The Crazies’: 1973

With Breck Eisner’s brave new version of “The Crazies” in theaters, quite naturally there’s been some renewed interest in the seldom-seen 1973 original film directed by George A. Romero. One of the legend’s lesser known works, speculations abound regarding the true nature of the remake (*is* it a zombie movie?), and the average moviegoer probably isn’t even aware that it’s a remake at all. While it’s always hazardous to judge a movie by its trailer, so far I’m extremely encouraged that this new version will be superior to the original film, which I believe was not only one of Romero’s weakest — but also a film that came unbelievably close to destroying its creator.
Although his body of work is common knowledge to most horror fans, many of those fans may be unaware that some six years before the huge success of “Dawn of the Dead”, George A. Romero had plummeted to the absolute lowest point of his entire career. His credibility as a filmmaker was collapsing after directing three painful financial failures in a row, and his reputation among the Pittsburgh businessmen who had risked large sums of money to finance his early work was at an all time low. Hollywood, which had initially offered him a number of horror projects in the wake of his first film’s success, was no longer calling. “George,” his future partner Richard Rubenstein remembers, “was in deep shit.”

This is the overlooked tale of a dark time in George Romero’s life when he suddenly found himself at a personal and creative Dead End — a moment when he found himself surrounded by the hungry consequences of his own risky decisions, a time when failure followed him like a zombie from project to project, determined to consume him and everything he worked on. This, then, is the untold story of “The Crazies”.

George A. Romero. Few names carry as much weight in the history of horror movies. Any self-described horror fan who doesn’t respect the significance of this man’s accomplishments should get caught vandalizing cars in Singapore. Romero’s richly deserved reputation as one of the greatest directors of all time was cemented with his very first film in 1968 — the uncontested classic “Night of the Living Dead” which arguably is the single most influential horror movie ever made. Any possibility of it being a fluke was obliterated in 1979 with the delivery of a second masterpiece: “Dawn of the Dead”.

But this acknowledgment of genius comes with a question: why did it take him *ten years* to give us a movie that could live up to the quality of his inaugural effort? This puzzling observation inevitably confronts any comprehensive appraisal of Romero’s abilities.

Of the four films made between “Night” and “Dawn”, most fans consider only one to be a worthwhile achievement. That would be “Martin”, the brutal little story of a psychotic teenager who believes himself to be a vampire. Romero finally regained his artistic footing with “Martin” which can be seen as a prelude of sorts to the greatness of “Dawn”.

That still leaves us with three films — “There’s Always Vanilla”, “Season of the Witch”, and “The Crazies” — which no one would remember at all anymore had they not been directed by George A. Romero. Content-wise these three misfires have little in common apart from the fact they all lack zombies; an aspect that’s often seized upon by fans seeking to quickly justify their desire to disown these films. Sweeping them under the carpet with a bogus excuse is just a lot easier than dealing with the truth — which is that these films suffer not from a lack of zombies, but rather from a lack of quality filmmaking.

So what happened? After the success of “Night of the Living Dead” why did Romero’s filmmaking skills fail him so completely on his next three projects, eventually culminating with the utter disaster of “The Crazies”? In order to answer that question, one must take the Delorean back to a time *before* the conception of “Night of the Living Dead” and take a moment to carefully consider how that first film came about.

Although he was big enough to be a linebacker, young George Romero preferred the arts over sports, and he fell hopelessly in love with the art of filmmaking at an early age. Always something of a loner and a dreamer, he went to the movies a lot while he was growing up. He loved watching the great horror classics like “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” on the big screen not only because they were entertaining, but also because they were beautiful to look at.

The CRazies

Surprisingly it wasn’t a horror film that had the biggest impact on young George, but rather a 1951 British production called “The Tales of Hoffman” — considered by some to be the best example of the opera on film. All of the dialogue is sung rather than spoken. Viewing it for the first time was a religious experience for George; he was absolutely mesmerized by the balletic cinematography and the elaborately obvious set designs. This was the movie that made him dream about making movies.

He went college to study painting & design, but his pipe dream continued to nag at him. He got a job editing newsreel footage at a local TV station where he learned the scissors’n glue basics of film (the news was on film in those days). He got married. He stopped going to college. He eventually befriended a couple of other dreamers and they formed a remarkably successful little company called The Latent Image, which produced industrial films and television commercials.

George’s co-dreamers at The Latent Image included John Russo and Russell Streiner. They often spent long hours after work drinking beer and kicking around ideas for a feature film — and this is where John Russo deserves more credit than he usually receives for planting the seed that eventually became “Night of the Living Dead”. Quite possibly the result of one too many beers, Romero, Russo, and Streiner decided to make a science fiction comedy about teenage space aliens who come hot rodding to earth in a flying saucer to party with human teenagers, all the while making life miserable for a bumbling authority figure named (I kid you not) Sheriff Suck.

Russo started to write the script, which included an opening sequence in a graveyard that featured two teenagers wearing “ghoulish masks” carrying a case of beer stolen from Sheriff Suck’s back porch. They see a flying saucer streak across the sky and land in a distant field. At this point, thankfully, Russo ran out of inspiration and stopped writing. Had he continued plugging away, the history of horror films could have been drastically altered.

They decided the flying saucer idea was too expensive. They continued grinding out commercials. Romero began reading the classic Richard Matheson story “I Am Legend” each night before drifting off to sleep. Russo started writing a new script, importing the idea of an opening sequence in a graveyard. A young boy has run away from home after an argument with his sibling; as he hurries through the cemetery his foot suddenly crashes through a pane of glass. There’s a body under the glass. The idea was that ghoulish people were taking corpses and letting them “cook” in these glass coffins — softening them up for consumption. You know what a ghoul is, right? A person who eats dead bodies.

One night after work, George read Russo’s handful of pages. When he finished laughing, he lit a cigarette and started to think. Ghouls. Dead bodies. The consumption of human flesh. The vampires from “I Am Legend” taking over the world. These ideas and more were drawn into orbit in George Romero’s brain, and he abruptly announced to Russo that he was taking a few days off. Before Russo or Streiner could object, Romero was out the door. He took Russo’s pages with him.

When Romero returned days later, he brought with him a forty page unfinished story titled “Night of Anubis” Unlike Russo’s tale where the living eat the dead, Romero’s chilling narrative has it the other way around. A small group of people in an isolated farmhouse come under siege by a horde of flesh eating, animated dead people. George’s idea excited everyone at The Latent Image, and a production company called Image Ten Productions was thrown together with family and friends contributing as much money and manpower as they could. Filming “Night of the Living Dead” finally began in mid-1967 and would last until the end of that year; a long, uncomfortable, exhausting experience for everyone involved.

God knows the movie has been written about to death (cue laughter), so I’ll just say this: George realized the film represented a tremendous opportunity for him to introduce his talent to the world. He was incredibly passionate about every aspect of “Night of the Living Dead” and that passion paid off — the film set a new standard for sheer gripping intensity. These are fighting words but I’ll say them anyway: “Night of the Living Dead” is the greatest horror movie ever made.

It would take years for the film to become an acknowledged classic. Much more importantly to George and his partners, the film made its money back in fairly short order, and good word of mouth from drive-in audiences spread quickly. George had a legitimate movie under his belt now, a movie he was damn proud of, and anything seemed possible. For a little while.

The CRazies

Before I get to “The Crazies” let me briefly touch upon the other two films Romero made after NOTLD. Even he considers his second film “There’s Always Vanilla” to be an absolute mess, and for years he refused to even talk about it. When he does speak of it he doesn’t shy away from pointing out its myriad flaws, but instead of accepting responsibility for those flaws he blames the writer, whom he’s held a petty grudge against for years. “Vanilla” was based on an award winning fifteen minute short film which had itself been based on a one act play. There simply wasn’t enough material there for a feature length motion picture, but they threw a movie together anyway and it sucked. About one hundred thousand investment dollars “down the drain, so to speak” (am I allowed to quote “Last House on the Left” in a George Romero article?). Around this same time The Latent Image began falling apart, and for a variety of reasons Romero’s relationships with John Russo and Russell Streiner became strained.

Romero’s experience with the screenwriter of “There’s Always Vanilla” was so bad that he decided to write his third film entirely on his own. “Season of the Witch” is about a depressed housewife who seeks to better her life through witchcraft. I realize there are some people who admire this film, and that’s fine, but I think “Season of the Witch” is an absolute boring failure. It didn’t earn a penny at the box office. The only thing it did for Romero was put him in even deeper debt.

Meanwhile, a nasty civil war had erupted at The Latent Image, inadvertently triggered by Romero’s hiring of future “Crazies” co-producer Alvin Croft to help run the office. Russo and especially Streiner (who incidentally played Barbara’s brother Johnny in NOTLD) resented George for granting Croft the authority to make changes they didn’t agree with. This put George in a difficult spot because changes absolutely *had* to be made if The Latent Image was to survive.

Everyone hired a lawyer. Streiner and Russo stopped talking to Romero, which had to hurt him almost as badly as the failure of his last two films. Deep inside George Romero had always been the misunderstood loner with big dreams; making new friends had never been easy for him, therefore his friendship with Streiner and Russo was something he treasured. Wasn’t it just yesterday they were sitting around in the basement after a long day of filming commercials, drinking beer and dreaming out loud about the future? Good times. Good memories. Good and gone.

On top of everything else, George’s marriage was in deep trouble. Rigor mortis had already set into their relationship — the soft warmth of the early days had already been replaced by a cold stiffness. Yet they continued going through the expected motions for a while, perhaps out of “some kind of instinct” or perhaps to hold on to a “memory of what they used to do”. That’s what David “Flyboy” Emge would probably say.

The writing was on the wall and George knew it. And not just for his marriage. For his directing career, as well. Two strikes in a row so far. One more and he was out. Maybe he was already out.

Although his pride would never allow him to admit it, Romero found himself regretting the various offers from Hollywood that he’d turned down following NOTLD’s release. The offers had all been for horror movies, they all wanted another screamer, and he just had no interest at all in doing another one of those. Getting your foot in the door with a horror movie was one thing, but the idea of *staying* in the genre was an affront to his sensibilities as a serious filmmaker. You have to remember the times. In the very late sixties and early seventies, immediately before “The Exorcist” became a sensation, horror was seen as barely a step up from porn (and some saw it as a step *down* from porn — this was an era when widely distributed porn classics like “Behind the Green Door” and “Deep Throat” attracted mainstream audiences).

Paul McCollough was one of the guys Al Croft brought into The Latent Image after driving away Russo and Streiner. More of a musician than a writer, McCollough nevertheless tried his hand at screenwriting. His script “The Mad People” was about a bacteriological weapon accidentally released in a small town, and the military’s attempt to contain it. “Paul’s story,” according to Romero, “was an exploration of people’s behavior after they were affected not only by the chemical but also by the madness and chaos of the situation.”

The CRazies

“The Mad People” was a term for the townsfolk unlucky enough to have been exposed to the chemical, which theoretically caused dementia and madness. But in the midst of this intense crisis situation, many of the so-called sane people begin acting just as crazy as “The Crazies” (the eventual title of the movie — curiously, all of Romero’s early films have two or three alternate titles).

Croft was nearing the end of his patience with Romero at this point. On the days George actually came to the office, all he did was drink beer and passively observe Croft’s increasingly futile attempts to keep The Latent Image alive. Croft was almost done sticking his finger in the dyke. The commercials weren’t paying the bills anymore. Only a successful movie project could possibly save them, but financers wouldn’t come near them with a ten foot pole after George’s previous two disasters. And that wasn’t the only problem — George hadn’t written a screenplay since “Season of the Witch”. They had nothing to show to potential investors.

Enter softcore porn producer Lee Hessel. At some point Al Croft learned of Hessel’s desire to finance and produce a “respectable” movie (meaning not another sexploitation flick). Croft sent Paul McCollough’s screenplay to Hessel, who liked the action-packed first ten pages, but found the rest of it too esoteric for his taste. So Hessel proposed this: if Romero would rewrite Paul’s script to include more shootouts and chase scenes, Hessel would give them a quarter of a million dollars to go make “The Crazies”.

While the budget was miniscule by Hollywood standards, it was more than two times the budget of Romero’s previous two films. They could actually *eat* while they made this movie, and George didn’t have to operate the camera himself. “The Crazies” began filming in early 1973 in Evans City, Pennsylvania — the same place where much of “Night of the Living Dead” was filmed.

Although the event isn’t shown, we learn that an Army plane carrying a top secret bacteriological weapon has crashed on the outskirts of Evans City, releasing its deadly cargo into the community’s water supply. In the film’s opening sequence, two children are horrified to discover their mother’s dead body while their father proceeds to set their house on fire.

The Army swiftly descends on Evans City before most of the townsfolk even know anything is wrong, declaring quarantine and martial law. The film focuses on the actions of two groups of people — a handful of townsfolk who go on the run in hopes of escaping the quarantine, and a handful of Army people seeking to maintain some semblance of order while desperately searching for an antidote.

The people infected by the biotoxin (codenamed “Trixie”) manifest various difficult-to-detect symptoms in the early stages before going completely insane. They don’t become zombies. They become crazies.

The film makes a big mistake by keeping the townspeople completely in the dark regarding the threat Trixie poses to them. As far as the townspeople are concerned, the only real threat facing them is the presence of the Army. The actions of the crazy father in the beginning is assumed by local authorities to be an isolated event and not part of an epidemic. Dramatically, the film would have worked much better if the citizens of Evans City had an inkling that something was very wrong well in advance of the Army’s arrival. They should have been given a chance to deal with their fellow citizen’s mental problems on their own, but in Romero’s story everything is basically hunky-dory until the big bad Army shows up and starts stealing fishing poles.

Even when one of the main characters correctly theorizes a bioweapon is to blame for their woes, nobody seems particularly worried about getting infected. And it’s hard to tell who’s infected. I understand what Romero was trying to do — blur the line between who’s crazy and who isn’t. Unfortunately, this failure to clearly delineate a threat destroys the ability to build tension effectively.

The reason it’s difficult to determine who’s got the bug is that we aren’t treated to nearly enough examples of those people clearly infected. In other words, there aren’t nearly enough crazy people in “The Crazies”. And the ones who obviously do go crazy don’t go crazy enough — instead they act like they’re stoned, tripping on acid, or just plain drunk. None of them seem bat-shit insane, which is *exactly* what this material needed. Even an old fashioned raving lunatic or two would have been nice. WWE wrestlers routinely act far crazier than these people.

While there are a couple of bizarre murders committed by the people who go crazy, Romero totally fails to make us fear the crazies the way we feared the zombies in NOTLD. If anything, we feel kind of bad for these poor infected bumpkins. So — if we don’t fear the crazies, who are we supposed to fear?

The soldiers? Running around in their white snowsuits and black gasmasks? If a Clansman mated with a Stormtrooper, I imagine they’d produce something pretty similar to one of these ridiculous walking marshmallows.

If the crazies don’t scare us and the soldiers don’t scare us, then who does? Perhaps the bumbling bureaucrats who casually consider dropping an atomic bomb on Evans City? Sorry, but no. I hate to say this, but I’m kind of glad Romero never got a chance to direct “The Stand”. While that 1994 miniseries failed on a number of levels, director Mick Garris nevertheless succeeded in giving us a nerve-jangling quarantine sequence that’s far more effective than anything in “The Crazies”.

I think the premise of “The Crazies” is fundamentally a very strong one. The idea of everyone in a town gradually going insane, including possibly your friends and members of your family, is pretty awesome. The idea of the world going totally nuts around you, while you remain temporarily sane, has always been a potent concept — executed brilliantly in Zach Snyder’s remake of “Dawn of the Dead”.

I believe the original “Dawn” is the better film without question, but the remake certainly has its share of admirers (including my amazing editor-in-chief, Mr. D himself!). I think once the characters are ensconced in the mall, the remake slides into a recital of clichés, but I will give it this: 2004′s “Dawn” contains perhaps *the most beautifully intense opening sequence* ever filmed. EVER, folks. I mean that. I hope “The Crazies” remake contains similar intensity.

I take no great pleasure in bashing the original, and anyone who thinks I don’t respect and admire Romero’s work….well, if you think that, you obviously didn’t read the beginning of this article. His best films deserve praise. But his worst films, like “The Crazies” deserve to be bashed. A cheapness permeates the entire movie. Case in point — the scene where the priest sets himself on fire. Just watch the YouTube clip.

There’s an art to every aspect of filmmaking. That includes the art of looking cheap. “The Dead Next Door” for example looks far cheaper than “The Crazies” but there’s a dirty beauty to DND that Romero’s film lacks.

You want to talk about sound? “The Crazies” wouldn’t be quite as terrible if it didn’t *sound* so terrible. A very long book could be written about how shitty “The Crazies” sounds. “The Dead Next Door” OTOH sounds *beautifully* shitty. And God please don’t get me started on “The Crazies” drum track. Dear Lord, what a sonic sin that was. Romero should have been thrown into solitary confinement for a year and forced to listen to that drum track every day.

But the single worst thing about “The Crazies” is without question the editing. There’s a cut like every two seconds. Your eye never has a chance to get interested in what it’s seeing. The years Romero spent editing commercials really does him a disservice here.

Anyway, within 40 days filming was complete. Romero spent a little while on post-production, then delivered “The Crazies” to Lee Hessel, who didn’t have the first clue how to successfully promote a movie. Not that he didn’t give it his best shot. He purchased a huge billboard for the movie in Times Square, and even hired some guy to wander around outside the theater wearing a biohazard suit. Nothing worked. Nobody came.

The Latent Image died. George’s marriage officially ended. He was deeper in debt than ever before — all in all, he owed various unhappy people a total of one million dollars. Remember, this is 1973. One million dollars. “The Crazies” represented his third time at bat. And his third strike. He was out.

George A. Romero was done.

His wife packed up and left, as did the final few employees of The Latent Image. Opportunities that had seemed so close not so long ago were out of reach now — carried into the dark like dead leaves in a cold wind.

For the first time in his life, George considered giving in to the bitter ghost of Harry Cooper, whose disembodied voice urged him to come down into the cellar and lock the door. It was safe down there, Harry said.

Ben’s ghost reminded him that the cellar was a death trap. Fighting was still an option. Wasn’t it? George didn’t know anymore. But he didn’t go down into the cellar. Not just yet.

Hessel insisted that George do a few interviews with various people to promote “The Crazies” and George dutifully complied; he owed Lee that much. Lee had wasted a lot of money. George knew he could do a thousand interviews and it wouldn’t help “The Crazies” one bit.

The next day George went to go meet the young man who wanted to interview him. The man’s name was Richard Rubenstein, who had written about “Night of the Living Dead” and what a great film he thought it was. He and George immediately clicked. George’s depression always lifted somewhat when he began talking about his love of movies, but behind George’s warm smile Richard could sense the big man’s pain.

They went to the bar up the street, had a few beers, and talked for hours. George explained his dilemma. When Richard realized how far in the hole George actually was, he immediately advised him to declare bankruptcy. Romero said he couldn’t do that. Because for him that would mean going down into the cellar, and if he did that, he knew he’d never come out.

A few things were clear. Richard didn’t know much about filmmaking, but he did know how to raise and manage money. George didn’t know much about money, but he did know how to make a damn good movie (his last three misfires notwithstanding). If they could successfully combine their talents, something good could happen.

Nevertheless, Rubenstein recognized what an insanely huge gamble he would be taking if he helped George. They would have to proceed very carefully and very slowly. They named their partnership Laurel Enterprises and moved into the former offices of The Latent Image. Ultimately the reason Richard decided to help George was this: anybody who was capable of making a movie as fine as “Night of the Living Dead” was capable of making one even better, and it’s not every day you get to play a part in furthering the career of a genius.

With Rubenstein came other new people into Romero’s life. His second wife, Christine. His acclaimed cinematographer, Michael Gornick. And, of course, Tom Savini. They all helped pull George out of the hole he had dug for himself, and once the big man was on his feet again, he led the way forward and they followed him. They followed him out of the darkness and into the dawn. -Jonathan Dornellas