Between his legendary 1968 horror debut NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and that film’s 1978 follow-up masterpiece DWAN OF THE DEAD, George A. Romero made a lesser-known but no less intriguing flick called THE CRAZIES. The story begins in Evans City, Pennsylvania where a military plane has crashed unleashing a dangerous virus into the city’s water supply. The virus, which goes by the code name “Trixie,” is an experimental bio-weapon that causes extreme murderous derangement and eventual death in everyone it infects. As sick citizens begin to lose their marbles, the military steps in to quickly quarantine the town while a jet carrying a nuclear warhead is ordered to standby just in case, because dropping a nuclear bomb is always the best way to cover up a government mistake if all else fails. While one portion of the plot follows the fumbling military as they attempt to clean up their mess, the other half is devoted to five people who manage to escape the quarantine and wander through the Pennsylvania countryside, eventually taking refuge in a farmhouse where they must defend themselves not only from soldiers searching for stragglers, but also from each other as the infected slowly descend into madness.
Various elements from a number of Romero’s “dead” series can be found in THE CRAZIES and, as all but one of the immensely popular and highly influential zombie flicks had yet to be made at the time of THE CRAZIES’ release, it’s interesting to see such an iconic director playing with themes and cinematic techniques that will eventually become the base of some of the greatest horror movies ever made. For instance, the same mounting tension in DAWN OF THE DEAD that takes hold as soon as soon as the film begins, building suspense and an expectation that something massive and messy is about to hit the fan, is present at the start of THE CRAZIES. Truckloads of soldiers suddenly swarm the quiet town while high ranking military personnel argue over tactics and proper “clean up” procedures as Evans City is placed under marshal law. Paranoia spreads as citizens, kept in the dark about the situation by government officials, begin to resist the quarantine with some even taking up arms against the soldiers. Yet, at this pivotal point in the film, where Romero would allow a movie like DAWN OF THE DEAD to suddenly erupt into violence and mayhem beginning with the infamous “SWAT Team versus the housing project” scenes, tension in THE CRAZIES rises high only to fizzle out without any such payoff. Instead we leave the chaotic town behind to follow five fugitives to a farmhouse where they gradually slip away from sanity.
Romero’s trademark social commentary is also laced throughout THE CRAZIES and follows many of the same themes as DAY OF THE DEAD. Close minded military officials muck up an already messy situation while ignoring input from scientists. Gun happy soldiers give in to power and mob mentality as they soon begin stealing and killing without conscience. Through all of this madness, one wonders who the title “THE CRAZIES” is actually referring to and, along with the question of whether living humans are actually worse than zombies, this is really something we’re supposed to be asking ourselves. All of this adds up to a pretty pessimistic ending that even leaves room for a sequel that never was.
The acting is adequate and the action sequences are well done. It’s always amazing to see how much Romero can pack into a film with such little funding and, despite the obvious absence of Tom Savini in the special effects department, the movie does sport at least three memorable moments including a psychotic granny, an extremely disturbing sequence involving a father and his daughter, and a pretty grisly head shot toward the end. Still, this movie provides nothing that Romero doesn’t offer in bigger and better doses in his dead films.
Overall, I’d call THE CRAZIES a film that’s fun to watch but is a definite let down for anyone expecting a picture on par with anything from the dead series and, since the plot is so similar to those movies, comparisons just can’t be avoided. Nevertheless, with such a compelling plot and a remake slated for a 2009 release, it should be interesting to see if this one can reach its true potential the second time around.
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