[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]
A hand unscrews a series of lightbulbs. A switch is flicked on and the room stays dark. Shadows and forms dart out of vision before they can be made out. A pretty little girl clutching a stuffed toy protests, “Billy, you’re trying to scare me!” Then there appears on the wall the shadow of a man lifting a tire iron, about to strike, and we are suddenly back in that riveting, unpredictable world of Night of the Living Dead, where make-believe horrors quickly give way to unspeakably real ones. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last. For the first couple reels George A. Romero’s The Crazies builds overwhelming suspense, and teeters its audience breathlessly on the brink of the kind of shock orgy that made Night of the Living Dead so memorable. But what is threatened never actually materializes—at least not in any way that makes The Crazies a successfully affecting horror movie.
The small town of Evans City, Pa., falls under martial law when an aircraft carrying a deadly bacteriological weapon crashes nearby, exposing the populace to an incurable virus which leaves its victims dead or hopelessly mad. The Army works feverishly, not to save the people but to round them up and keep them inside an invisible perimeter in hopes that the infection of the entire country can be averted. Above Evans City circles a Strategic Air Command bomber armed with the Final Solution, ready to cauterize the entire infected area upon a word from the President.
It’s a promising idea and, considering the premise and the ghoulish success of Romero’s previous film, the most curious thing about The Crazies is its utter inability to be scary. It happens partly because of the frustrating lack of specifics we are given about the effects and symptoms of the virus. Romero is interested mainly in pursuing the idea he posited at the end of Night of the Living Dead: when inexplicable behavior becomes the norm and panic becomes the standard reaction, it’s impossible to tell the infected from the merely frightened. But watching The Crazies, instead of being scared of everyone (as Romero clearly intends), we are scared of no one. That hall full of screaming crazies is too obviously a mess of high school kids having a good time acting wild in front of a movie camera. Too many things about the film are faked in ways that even the fastest Potemkin montage can’t disguise and the most relentless Dr. Strangelove pace can’t assimilate. The willingness to suspend disbelief is there, but the film can’t stop reminding us how phony it all is. The use of blood squibs is especially poor, and even the blood itself is usually the wrong color, more the rose tone of red paint or nail polish than the copper tone of real blood. Oh for the black-and-white Bosco blood of Night of the Living Dead, not these contrasty toy-store colors! The use of black and white, in fact, was one of the things that gave Night of the Living Dead‘s far-fetched story its chilling credibility; for, color TV notwithstanding, in the collective unconscious of several generations of Americans, black and white is the color of truth: In the morning paper or the evening newscast, black and white = reality. Polychrome is the stuff of romance and fantasy. Robin Hood was in color; the newsreel which ran with it was in black and white.
Where Night of the Living Dead was a tight, effective horror movie which dared to step, almost as an afterthought, into allegorical territory, The Crazies abandons both skillful narrative and moral subtlety to become simply a tract. This time out, Romero is all too willing to compromise his premise for the sake of the message, as when he suggests to us that his rebellious “good guy” David has a “natural immunity” to the virus—a clumsy and contrived bit of expository dialogue without the satirical saving grace of the “sunspots” explanation in Night of the Living Dead. This preoccupation with message rather than the natural terror of the tale yields returns considerably diminished from those of Night of the Living Dead. Where the earlier film served up incestuous, parricidal cannibalism as its ultimate horror, The Crazies offers only a ham handed attempt to recreate the shock of incest itself, as an infected father—protesting that “kids these days are pigs”—decides he alone is worthy to take his daughter’s virginity. Romero is embarrassingly unsure of himself—and his audience—and keeps hammering on his point in scene after scene. The Army colonel who is the film’s focal point of order says, “Anyone obviously infected or resisting is to be treated as an enemy.” The brash pathologist laughs. “Can’t you see? The whole thing’s insane! How can you tell who’s infected and who isn’t?” The pathologist eventually isolates the virus and makes the breakthrough to an antidote, but before he can communicate his discovery he, too, is mistaken for a crazy and ends up dead in a hall full of screaming loonies (I wouldn’t have revealed that, but since it’s so obvious from the first that the scientist character is in the film for just that reason, revealing it doesn’t spoil anything).
There is, however, a crucial difference in the viewpoint of Romero’s two horror movies. In Night of the Living Dead, the authorities didn’t know the hero they shot down at the end of the film wasn’t just another of the zombie-ghouls; but we did. In The Crazies, however, with very few exceptions, we can’t tell the difference either. Romero’s complacent critical vantage lacks the courage to examine fully the morass of his position. For if the sane are lumped with the crazy because those whose duty it is to distinguish between the two do not take the time to do so properly, then the release of that ominously circling Bomb is inevitable; but if one can’t tell the “naturally immune” from the crazies because we are all really more or less infected, then the Bomb probably isn’t such a bad idea.
But if The Crazies insists on being a tract, what is its subject? Authority? Perhaps. Romero gets off some easy, cheap shots at the military (including a preposterous sequence in which soldiers rounding up the citizenry as martial law is declared become Gestapo-like Heavies, brutalizing candidates for the gas chambers and looting their homes), without ever suggesting what organization besides the Army could effectively handle a situation like the one the film depicts. A few words are spoken against guns and weapons in the film, but that isn’t what the tract is about either. The gun is defensive as often as it is offensive in The Crazies, and it frequently means the one hope of survival for a sympathetic character. Is the film an extension of Night of the Living Dead, an attack on mindless violence? Possibly in intent, for in both films Romero views the orgy of violence, in which life becomes cheap and values meaningless, as the ultimate debasement of humankind. Yet at the same time Romero has clearly not admitted to himself what is obvious to anyone who watches The Crazies: in spite of how he may seek to justify himself by railing against mob violence, it’s the depiction of that violence that he enjoys most. That is evidenced by his unrestrained tendency to keep turning The Crazies from a horror-and-suspense film into a combat film. The movie is filled with irrelevant and unexciting scenes in which people keep shooting at one another from behind trees, a concept of human debasement and extremity that, next to the elemental conflict of Night of the Living Dead, comes off as simply naïve.
No, what The Crazies basically attacks is the human condition—a futile effort, of course, but hardly one to be disrespected were it not for the lamentable ineptitude with which it is brought off.
Screenplay and direction: George A. Romero. Original script: P. McCullough. Cinematography: W. Hinzman. Editing: Romero. Production: A.C. Croft.
The players: W.G. McMillan, Lane Carroll, Harold Wayne Jones, Lloyd Hollar, Lynn Lowry.
© 1976 Robert C. Cumbow
Afterthought (2012): The movie’s not quite as bad as all that, certainly not inept; but it doesn’t hold up well, and it’s mostly because Romero has relied too much on amateurish actors, and hasn’t taken as firm a hand with them her as he did in Night of the Living Dead, and as he would in subsequent films. – RCC
A pdf of the original issue can be found here