After the lessons of There’s Always Vanilla and Season of the Witch, The Crazies (also known as Code Name: Trixie) brings George Romero back to familiar territory: the towns surrounding Pittsburgh and how they deal with the collapse of society in the wake of a science fiction-related calamity.
Shot on location in Evans City and Zelienople — 30 miles north of Pittsburgh and within minutes of the hometown of this author — The Crazies feels like a companion to Night, albeit one that has an explanation and less of the dread of having no clue as to why the world is ending.
Where Night of the Living Dead speculates that a Jupiter probe is the cause and Dawn of the Living Dead claims that perhaps Hell has run out of room, The Crazies leaves no question as to why things are falling apart. The government has created a bioweapon called Trixie that causes its victims to either die instantly or become homicidal; this weapons has ended up in the Evans City (home to the opening graveyard of Night) drinking water.
Also, the film tries to see things from the side of the individual and the government that struggles to contain the epidemic that it has accidentally started. The full fear and chaos of Vietnam and Watergate are on display here; the military men and women may be individuals, but en masse they are a frightful and faceless force that are ordered to kill American citizens — on American soil — on sight, simply because they have become infected.
The Crazies begins by subverting one of the central themes of Night of the Living Dead. Instead of children rising up to kill and devour their parents, parents are killing their children. A girl and her brother wander their house. She’s convinced he is messing with her, but it turns out the father is dousing the house in kerosene. The daughter finds him, only for him to set the house ablaze. Cue opening credits as we watch the house burn.
We find David in bed with his girlfriend Judy as fire alarms go off and the phone rings. They’re both called into work to deal with the fire that opens the film, but not before setting up that she’s pregnant. Judy drops him off at the fire station, where we meet Clank, our third main character.
There are troops all over the hospital where Judy works, led by Major Ryder. There’s a press blackout and incredibly secrecy, as a plane has crashed in the hills near the city containing the Trixie bioweapon. Colonel Peckem is ordered to contain the virus while Dr. Watts is brought in an attempt to cure the virus, which doesn’t seem like a certainty, what with nuclear bombers in flight to nuke the town and soldiers that shoot anyone that tries to escape.
When I used to see photos of The Crazies, I always assumed that the white suited, gas masked soldiers were the bad guys. But the truth is that there are no real good guys or bad guys in this movie — just the infected and the uninfected.
As soldiers move the townspeople into the high school, all hell breaks loose. The parallels between Evans City and Vietnam (and today’s wars with the house to house searches) are incredibly obvious. Western Pennsylvania is packed with farmers who are used to taking care of themselves and used to having tons of weapons. The government doesn’t have the protocol and supplies to handle this, much like how fighting the Viet Cong confounded our troops at times. The mayor complains, demanding to see someone in charge. He meets Col. Pecken face to face — realizing he’s black, he’s taken aback (as is the sheriff).
In short order, violence reigns. The army takes control, shooting the sheriff with his own gun, as his blood flows neon red against the white suits of the soldiers. The well-armed townsfolk and soldiers engage in a gunfight, while the soldiers face the crazies face to face. Some of them are content to simply play piano during the chaos. Others are surprisingly murderous, like the kindly older woman rises from her chair to stab a soldier with her knitting needles before returning to making a sweater. Even a priest douses himself with gasoline and sets himself on fire to protest the military — another over the top reference to Vietnam.
The military and government only communicate via speakerphone. There’s no way to tell who is affected and who isn’t. The soldiers may even revolt when they find out what they have to do. And any bodies have to be burned. It’s much like Night, except the zombies couldn’t communicate. The best case scenario is that Evans City becomes a testing site with 3,000 chances to find someone with an immunity to the virus.
David, Judy, Clank, Kathy (Lynn Lowery from the remake of The Cat People and Shivers), her father Artie (Richard Liberty, Logan from Day of the Dead) and an old man are confined to a van by the soldiers. The crazies attack and in the battle, nearly everyone is killed but our heroes. In vain, they try to escape the town before hiding in their local country club — societal classes have broken down and anywhere for shelter is fair game.
Slowly, we realize that everyone in the town is affected. Trixie has been in the water supply for six days, so it’s only a matter of time before everyone descends into madness. In fact, the action star heroics that have David and Clank shooting down a helicopter and killing soldiers that occupy a farmhouse may as well be them showing the first signs of the Trixie virus (or Clank, as we will learn). David confides in Kathy, telling her that the disease is in all of their systems (a previous revelation that he went from a football hero to a Green Beret who wanted adventure to a broken man is a potent allegory for America from 1950 to 1973).
The virus finally claims Artie, who rapes his daughter, who he believes is his dead wife. Clank finds them and beats Artie, who hangs himself. Kathy wanders away and is shot be soldiers. In response, Clank kills several of the soldiers before being killed himself.
Judy is now infected and is killed by some of the non-infected civilians and David cannot save her. The military captures David, who realizes that he is immune to the virus, a fact that he keeps to himself.
Meanwhile, despite the elementary chemistry lab he has to deal with, Dr. Watts finds what could be a cure…or he could be infected and showing the first signs of the disease. It doesn’t matter — the crazies attack the area and the cure is destroyed. The film closes on Colonel Peckem being relocated, sadly watching the town of Evans City disappear.
Where The Crazies shines — in comparison to the last two Romero films in this review — is in the story. It’s also worth noting that the acting is miles beyond anything since Night of the Living Dead, with much less overacting. And the houses, buildings and high school of Evans City provide realistic looking sets in spite of the small budget.
It’s a rough film — in a good way. Children scream as their parents are killed and burned in front of them. Polite society breaks down. And even science and the military can do nothing to stop the end.
While nowhere near the look and language of Dawn of the Dead’s evocative ad campaign, the posters for The Crazies hint at the overall package that Romero’s films would become. The tagline, “Why are the good people dying?” does what I feel the finest of tags do: it makes you say, “And then?” You crave hearing the next part of the tale. It’s no “Who will survive and what will be left of them?” but it’s rather good.
It would be three years before Romero would complete another movie and five years until it would be released. This time, he would fully embrace horror once again to find artistic, if not commercial, triumph with Martin. But that’s a story for another day.
PS – The Crazies was remade in 2010 by Breck Eisner (son of former Disney chair Michael Eisner and director of The Last Witch Hunter, coincidentally shot in Pittsburgh). It has a cameo by Lynn Lowry and was seen by probably 300% more folks than ever saw the original.