The most obvious point of comparison that could be made between THE CRAZIES and anything else from George Romero’s early catalogue is to the quintessential NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and though such connections are mostly apt on a surface level, the former is more or less its own hypnotically horrific beast. Romero’s obsessions lie in the ramifications of claustrophobia – in both smaller communities and the country at large – and communication breakdown; he possesses a natural talent for melding characters with their respective environments. Here, that very relationship seems more detrimental than ever, as if regressing to animal instincts is our only hope of escaping from a grotesquely testosterone-fueled reality.
Coming out the gate with a bang, this allegorical tale of small-town terror begins with a pair of young siblings running around the house, trying to scare one-another, only to discover that their father has gone mad and killed their mother. This is soon revealed to be the first case of a virus, known by government officials as “Trixie”, which has spread throughout the town (Evansville, Pennsylvania to be precise) via its water supply and turns all those infected into hollow, bloodthirsty shells of their past selves.
Generally speaking, two narratives unfold simultaneously, and they rarely overlap in the more obvious and expected ways. The first concerns firefighters David (Will McMillan) and Clank (Harold Wayne Jones), the former’s nurse girlfriend (Lane Carroll), father and daughter (Richard Liberty and Lynne Lowry, respectively) as they attempt to make it out of town alive. The second oversees the military’s arrival, take-over, and subsequent research into the origins of Trixie. Everyone’s just trying to survive in their own way(s) – and as can be expected, desperate measures often lay bare the ugliness of the human spirit for all to see.
This motif is compelling in its own right, but Romero has enough intuitive gifts as a storyteller to understand that it shouldn’t – and doesn’t – make up the whole of the film’s thematic backbone. Even so, the way in which the tight-knit community receives this mysterious outbreak is genuinely chilling; with farmers, a priest and even a grandmother embracing the hysteria in their own madcap way. Hazmat suit-wearing soldiers burning a wife directly on top of her husband says as much as civilians hiding their infected loved ones in the upstairs of their houses.
Of course, it’s the precision and ardor with which the Pittsburgh native stages the chaos that makes it so utterly unforgettable. Romero cut everything from his legendary debut in 1968 to 1982’s CREEPSHOW himself, and his unmistakable eye for borderline experimental editing serves his apocalyptic visions well. At first sight, it’s just messy; and yet, manic as it ultimately is, Romero (with the aid of DP Bill Hinzman, who fans might know better as the first zombie in the cemetery from NOTLD) maintains steady tension throughout on a relatively low budget, never surrendering to his own more illogical indulgences. Sure, there’s some shoddy lighting during the nighttime scenes, and those edges are arguably rough, but it seamlessly achieves the ambiance of a terrifying, wholly unpredictable anxiety attack – a considerable feat, indeed.
The so-called Godfather of the Dead is seldom very subtle in regards to who, what, and where his social critiques are aimed at, but when he feels the need to be louder (the on-and-off patriotic score) in certain respects, he knows when to simmer down in others. THE CRAZIES excels as much in unapologetic anger as it does in individually compelling moments of near-absolute silence, soaking in its surroundings so thoroughly to the point where one feels that it is truly inseparable from the human life is sustains. As can be expected, it isn’t devoid of the Romero’s typically pitch black sense of humor, but its lingering paranoia has aged like wine; mighty fine. If nuclear holocaust is in the cards, we can’t say we weren’t warned – so explicitly, exquisitely warned.