This was Romero’s second attempt at a horror thriller, a genre to which he was reluctantly forced to return after a couple of domestic dramas failed financially. Unfortunately for him, The Crazies didn’t have much more success, despite being stronger in many ways than Night of the Living Dead. In fact it turned up on the BBC just a couple of years after it was made, at a time when movies were normally held back from TV for five years after their initial release. So it was my introduction to Romero, as Night of the Living Dead was banned for a few years in the UK. Consequently, I’ve always had a soft spot for it. Even with its many faults, it’s still a neat distillation of what Romero does best.
First, the faults: as is usual with Romero, the standard of acting varies wildly. The nominal heroes are a couple of firemen played by W.G McMillan and Harold Wayne Jones, and their role seems to be to provide an identifiable centre to the movie while everything goes nuts around them, but they’re given so little to go on, it’s almost as if Romero is defying you to regard them as heroes. Despite this, McMillan in particular turns in a creditable performance, which is more than can be said for some of the bit-part players.
Secondly, the budget doesn’t really stretch to giving the movie the sheen that is demanded by lots of audiences today, although that’s not really a problem for me. It was finally released on video in the UK at the same time that the massively expensive Outbreak was in the cinemas, and it’s an instructive exercise to sit down and decide which movie is more effective. In fact the low budget and lack of stars gives The Crazies an edge, as you’re never quite certain that any of the heroes is safe, or indeed who the heroes are supposed to be. Romero seems to have spent most of the budget on white uniforms and bright red fake blood, which have a terrific shock value in combination. On the other hand, all of the stock footage looks completely out of place and adds an unintentionally comic touch to some scenes.
Another fault is the eternal curse of movies made in the seventies: fashion. No matter how hard Tarantino tries to make it all hip, there’s something fundamentally hopeless about big collars and flared trousers, especially in a hard-edged cynical movie like this. One of the cast, Richard Liberty, is a fine actor and his part here is tragic, but he’s saddled with a pair of orange crimplene flares that take a lot of getting over. It’s the same problem as suffered by Gene Hackman in Night Moves, who gave one of his best performance despite being hampered by brown suede lapels.
The Crazies was also released under the titles CODENAME:TRIXIE and THE MAD PEOPLE
Still, the strengths of The Crazies far outweigh its weaknesses. As well as Liberty, there’s another familiar Romero figure, Richard France, who was to play the mad TV scientist in Dawn of the Dead. Here he plays the slightly less mad scientist charged with finding an antidote to the chemical, and again he chews the scenery to memorable effect. And Lloyd Hollar is good as the colonel who is put in charge of containing the outbreak.
Despite all this, it’s very much Romero’s movie. The atmosphere of complete chaos is perfectly conjured up by bizarre editing, terrific production design and a deafening soundtrack, as well as the story which is never predictable and has the courage to kill off most of the cast at unexpected times. You get the expected shock ending (not the least of which is a Carole Bayer Sager song over the end titles) but more importantly Romero seems to have found a way of getting a coherent political viewpoint into an action movie. In this way The Crazies is as much a forerunner of Day of the Dead as an unofficial sequel to Night of the Living Dead, as it’s often portrayed, especially in its anti-military stance. In terms of action and style, it contains a lot of ideas that Romero would expand on in Dawn of the Dead.
I’ve made it sound like a jigsaw made up of essential Romero elements, and while it is that, it’s got an angry tone and a number of set-pieces that make it unusual for Romero, and unique anywhere. And it’s got a great tag line on the poster (see above), which sums it all up nicely.