For more than four decades, George A Romero has been one of the unassailable giants of the modern horror film, particularly the independent variety. In 1968, his NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD quite literally changed the game; besides kicking open the door for many to independent film (NIGHT was financed and shot in his beloved Pittsburgh) it pushed the limits of what was then considered acceptable levels of violence and was simply light years ahead of the then-current state of horror. For the uninitiated, Romero’s career seemed to descend into a kind of sleep mode between the release of NIGHT and its semi-sequel (really more a continuation of the theme) DAWN OF THE DEAD 10 years later, but Romero actually made 4 films in that period (and those who can name check the forgettable THERE’S ALWAYS VANILLA or SEASON OF THE WITCH can consider their geek test passed). But Romero’s other two films of the era stand among his most important works; 1978’s MARTIN, a story of a severely troubled youth (John Amplas) whose delusions of vampirism result in tragedy, was released a few months before DAWN and still stands as one of Romero’s most personal and fully realized films (and his own favorite résumé bullet point) and 1973’s THE CRAZIES, available this week in high definition from Blue Underground.
Rebounding from the frankly awful Vanilla, Romero returned to exploitation, if not outright horror for his third film. The Crazies centers around the rural town of Evans City, PA, whose residents are beginning to exhibit decidedly strange behavioral ticks, like murdering loved ones and setting their homes ablaze. These extreme acts perpetrated by otherwise normal members of the community doesn’t escape the notice of local firemen David (W G McMillan) and Clank (Harold Wayne Jones) – particularly when a large military force, resplendent in gleaming white HazMat suits (a lovely, ironic touch) sets up camp as an occupying force. It turns out that an experimental biological weapon – code named ‘Trixie’* – has been accidentally dumped into the town’s water supply, igniting a murderous – even suicidal – rage in all the townspeople who come in contact with it. While Col. Peckam (Lloyd Hollar) attempts to enforce a quarantine of the town, a scientist close to the Trixie project(Richard France, who Romero used again in a small role in Dawn of the Dead as an eye patch-wearing TV commentator) works round the clock on an antivirus. Meanwhile, David and Clank – along with David’s pregnant girlfriend, Judy (Lane Caroll) – attempt to beat cheeks out of the infected area before either their Trixie-infected neighbors or the military killing them, along the way teaming up with another local man, Artie (Richard Liberty, who also worked for the director again as the memorably demented Dr. Logan in Day of the Dead) and his teenage daughter Kathie (the famously feline-featured Lynn Lowry, fresh from a brief appearance in I Drink Your Blood and fast becoming an exploitation mainstay with a lead role in Radley Metzger’s Score and a drop-dead sexy turn for David Cronenberg in Shivers on her horizon).
Romero rewrote Paul McCollough’s original script, giving equal emphasis to the military’s attempts to isolate Evans City, almost as if he realized how much stronger those scenes would play. As with Night, Romero’s color blind casting of a black actor in the central, heroic role of Col. Peckam pays off hugely, and the scenes of the military implementing martial law are effectively stark. In this way, The Crazies is a near-perfect showcase for Romero’s strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker: sometimes, George just can’t get a handle on performances – particularly with less experienced actors – allowing some (like nearly the entire cast of Day of the Dead) to drift into a shrill flatline. The non-military protagonists (with the exception of Liberty and Lowry) simply aren’t very interesting, and there isn’t enough on the page – or in Romero’s direction – to incite a spark.
Fortunately, The Crazies is also a prime showcase for Romero’s keener skills; even when his own words as a screenwriter fail him, he manages to imbue his characters with an emotional honesty that is not typically seen in low-budget exploitation fare. Romero is also particularly good at staging violent civil unrest, and scenes dealing with the military takeover of the town are the obvious antecedents of Dawn’s nerve-shaking opening movement. As the Trixie virus penetrates deeper into population, Romero has a lot of fun with the spreading insanity, including a kindly grandmother who calmly rises from her chair and stabs a soldier in the heart with a knitting needle, and a woman attempting to sweep blood off of grass with a broom in the middle of a pitched gunfight between the army and townsfolk.
These grace notes will be familiar to Romero’s fans, as will the socio-political subtext that runs through many of his films. The documentary-like camera work is deliberately evocative of the TV news footage of Vietnam – a grim reality to most American in 1973 – and Romero smartly exploits the rampant mistrust of the military with scenes of the martial law imposed on the Evans City. We suspect much of this will be lost on younger generations, particularly a sequence of a priest overcome with Trixie immolating himself in the middle of the road.
Blue Underground’s new Blu-Ray disc is a direct port of their fine DVD edition of a few years back. Early VHS releases were a dark, muddy mess that didn’t do the already low-budget film any favors. BU’s visual renovation of The Crazies is nothing short of miraculous, and the Blu-Ray allows us to see just how good their high-def master really looks. The colors are bright and deeply saturated; there’s a definite pop to the presentation, and the level of detail belie the picture’s low budget.
Some fans with intricate sound systems might balk at the 1.0 DTS mono, but it was probably best not to stretch the soup too much. Extras are identical to BU’s DVD and remain in standard definition, including one of Romero’s always genial, informal commentary tracks (this time sitting with BU founder and cut filmmaker extraordinaire, Bill Lustig)’ a nice featurette, “The Cult Film Legacy of Lynn Lowry” (who has a cameo in the remake); and a sampling of theatrical trailers.
- “Code Name Trixie” was in fact an early title for The Crazies.