In honor of George Romero’s birthday today, here’s a review of an underrated film from his catalogue.  See the remake, which is good, but check out Romero’s THE CRAZIES for a potent social commentary that plays out in Evans City, PA, a poor town that never gets a break.


Between NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and his next zombie film, DAWN OF THE DEAD, George Romero’s career followed a frustrating path.  NIGHT was a critical and financial success that would one day be considered a classic.  His next three films, however, were not greatly lauded and, for various reasons that include poor distribution, went largely unseen by his fans.  The third of these was THE CRAZIES, and though it has the name value of neither NIGHT or DAWN, it is one of Romero’s best.


The film starts off with two children in their pajamas who find their father destroying the house.  He’s already killed their mother, and soon sets the house ablaze.  As the film progresses, the audience discovers that the military has accidentally infected the water in Evans City, Pennsylvania, and its citizens are going quickly insane.  The story then follows five uninfected people who try to escape not only the crazies, but the soldiers as well.


Thematically and structurally, THE CRAZIES strongly resembles NIGHT:  survivors from a plague hole up to escape once-normal citizens who are now a threat;  the authorities botch their handling of the situation, and offer little protection to those they’re upheld to protect;  and in the absence of sound-minded authority, society goes screaming into total chaos (During the film’s commentary, Romero even draws attention to the opening of the film, in which a brother and sister are in a normal situation that goes suddenly awry).  The films are so close, in fact, that THE CRAZIES acts as a perfect if unofficial bridge between NIGHT and DAWN.  If there’s one difference here, it’s the focus of the commentary.  Romero’s key note comes in the question, Who is really crazy, the unbalanced masses, the abrasive scientists who developed Trixie, or the destructive military?




Another dreadful day in Evans City, PA



There’s ample evidence to argue for all three.  A brilliantly edited scene with an old lady and her knitting needles shows the insidious effects of Trixie, as does a later scene involving Artie and his daughter.  The scientists bicker back and forth, especially Trixie’s creator, who seems more peeved that it got out than that he invented a drug that drives normal people insane.  The military leads struggle impotently to contain the strain’s effects, while the white shrouded foot soldiers blast away at everyone, including those who are clearly not infected.  The crazies may lack sanity, but the powers that be, as represented in the film, lack conscience and any moral center.  This is most obvious toward the end of the film, when the military obliterates a possible cure and character who’s potentially immune.




Liberty and others try to escape the crazies



Romero’s greatest tool to propel that social commentary is his visual palette.  No longer restrained by black and white, the director presents a world colored by the lush, green forests of Evans City and the blood red of those mowed down.  The omnipresent white-suited soldiers with their black masks and assault rifles are like angels gone wrong.  Romero’s burgeoning editing is also on hand here, favoring quick cuts over lots of camera movement.    The plot is often disturbing, making the film hard to watch at times, but that only makes it more potent;  because the movie’s subjects are not zombies but people, it’s a frightening prospect that this could actually happen.


If I have one criticism, it’s one I have with many of Romero’s films: the performances.  Shouting often replaces nuance, and scenery seems to exist solely for actors to chew.  I understand that in crisis, people would likely take to arguing, but Romero far too often lets his actors engage in unparalleled histrionics (think Joe Pilato in DAY OF THE DEAD).  But Romero is such a craftsman that I can forgive him.  And THE CRAZIES offers an early glimpse at DAY’s Dr. Logan himself, Richard Liberty, who plays unhinged with the best of them.


Blue Underground hinged together a nice package of extras for the DVD, the first and best of which is a commentary with George Romero.  The company’s head and a fellow filmmaker himself, William Lustig conducts the discussion, and it’s a great one.  The two cover all sorts of background material, the plot and how the film influenced Dustin Hoffman’s film OUTBREAK.  All the while, they put on a school for low budget filmmakers.  I generally love Romero’s commentary, but I find that sometimes he plays down to his company;  here there’s no fear of that, as Lustig, who also started out directing on meager budgets, keeps him on his toes.  This may be the best commentary Romero has ever done.




Is Lynn Lowry in regular life crazy? Hmmm...



The other main feature is “The Cult Film Legacy of Lynn Lowry,” a 14 minute discussion with her that covers her career.  Lowry is, to be polite, quite a character, and her film career is a series of oddities during which she acted for both Romero and David Cronenberg.  And you even get footage of her lounge act toward the end!  You have to see this one.  Two theatrical trailers and a pair of degraded TV spots that are a little more tame do a great job at presenting the film’s crazy microcosm, and a robust stills gallery and bio of Romero round out a deep, high quality set of special features.


THE CRAZIES came out in 1973, five years after NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and five before DAWN OF THE DEAD.  Though not many people saw it then, it’s a crucial tie between the two that also stands alone as one of Romero’s best.  Essential viewing.


-Phil Fasso

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