Saturday, February 9, 2008

Overlooked Classics: The Crazies (1973)

I’ve always though that George A. Romero’s 1973 film The Crazies would be an absolutely ideal one to show in a class on how to shoot a low budget and independent film. Economical, brilliantly cut and downright visionary in its execution, The Crazies remains one of the high water marks in American independent cinema. The fact that it has never completely gotten its due makes a celebration of it all the more in order and necessary.
Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead is so famous at this point that it seems hard to believe that he had trouble getting more productions off the ground in the five years after its release, but indeed the fiercely uncompromising and independent minded Romero certainly did. Two disappointing productions, There’s Always Vanilla and Season Of The Witch, followed Night Of The Living Dead but it was The Crazies that really proved that Romero wasn’t a one hit wonder. The Crazies would continue many of the themes Romero had explored in Night Of The Living Dead but it was more expansive and in some ways more ambitious.
Centering on a small mid-western town that is infected by the Us Governments mishandling of a germ warfare bacteria called “Trixie”, The Crazies is one of Romero’s most biting and subversive productions as well as one of his most satisfying. With his overwhelmingly sharp cutting style (Romero wore the hat of editor as well as director and screenwriter here) The Crazies moves along at a ferocious speed as it satirizes a number of problems that were plaguing America in the early seventies, namely issues with the government, our environment and an oozing open sore distrust that was infiltrating every home in the country…basically the same things that are still haunting us to this day.
Working with a terrific cast, including Lane Carroll fresh from There’s Always Vanilla, lovely Lynn Lowry and several familiar Romero faces, The Crazies is still as fresh, challenging and as invigorating as ever. Feeling like a major warm up to Dawn Of the Dead’s stylistically and thematically, The Crazies works as one of the most potent anti-establishment pieces of the Vietnam era. It is also one of the most understanding as ultimately the villains in the film aren’t the storm trooping like soldiers who declare martial law on the small unknowing town but the invisible big boss government officials who have declared it.

Romero is fiercely intelligent and that comes out in all of his films. The Crazies is no different and the film’s script is remarkably perceptive about what it is that marks people in siege like situations. The film is filled with wonderfully eye opening asides, such as the soldier stealing a fishing pole from a terrorized family or a housewife attempting to sweep up some bloody grass after losing her home, that makes the mental strains of a war like Vietnam (or any other ill advised war you care to name) seem all the more horrifying. Romero never comes across as senseless or overtly self righteous in his criticisms though like any other number of ‘important’ filmmakers. Instead, he dares to pose questions that don’t have simple answers and never will. As the tag line of The Crazies stated, “Why Are The Good People Dying?” Romero doesn’t offer an easy solution but he recognizes that the question needed asking.

Like the best of his films The Crazies also has no problem working humor into its thrills. Its not a cheap gag like humor though, instead Romero allows his characters to occasionally see the ridiculousness of what is an overwhelming bleak and hopeless situation. Like Dawn Of The Dead and Martin, Romero’s characters feel like people we might know caught up in a horrifying set of circumstances, and he gives them the good grace to occasionally laugh about it, if just to help get them through.
With the raging satirical moments in place The Crazies also manages to work as a very exciting thriller just in the same way Night Of The Living Dead had worked as an incredibly effective horror film. From the eerie shots of the soldiers rading people’s houses to some of the most chilling images Romero has ever filmed (including one hair raising sequence involving an elderly woman and her knitting pins) The Crazies is never less than gripping and at its is downright terrifying.

I find the look of the film to be incredibly evocative as well. While it is a very low budget production, first time cinematographer (and actor in the film) S. William Hinzman does a fine job with the films look with the sunny outdoor sequences providing an excellent counterpoint to the claustrophobic and crowded indoor shots. The Crazies is an extremely packed and busy film and it rarely lets up its rather fierce grip and the balanced and memorable look Hinzman provides is very noteworthy.
I am also really taken with the performances in the film and am so impressed with the work Romero can pull out of sometimes really inexperienced performers. Lane Carroll is a perfect example as The Crazies was just her third film (and her last according to IMDB) and she is really spellbinding and delivers a performance that is alternately strong, vulnerable and finally moving. Lloyd Hollar also does exceptional work here with his last shot (and the film's) being one of the most memorable in Romero's canon. The always unforgettable Lynn Lowry had a big year in 1973 as she is fine in Romero's film and also appeared in Theodore Gershuny's interesting Sugar Cookies and Radley Metzger's awesome Score. She would continue to endear herself throughout the mid seventies to early eighties with quality work in films for directors ranging from David Cronenberg to Paul Schrader.
The Crazies was, like most of Romero's best work, shot on location in and around Pittsburgh. Everything seems carefully designed in a compellingly free-wheeling way and to my eyes The Crazies never falters and is one of George Romero's greatest achievements. Budgeted at under 275,000 dollars The Crazies would find its way into a handful of theaters and drive ins in the spring of 1973. It played in some cities under the delightfully absurd but fitting title Code Name: Trixie and even on the lower half of certain drive in bills called The Mad People. It made its way throughout America and
finally Europe throughout the seventies before appearing on VHS in the early part of the eighties.
It has had several DVD releases with the newest on Blue Underground's label to be the best. Here the film can be viewed in a solid widescreen print along with a very memorable audio commentary featuring Romero. Also great are some of the promotional material Blue Underground dug up to go along with the film. It is a great disc and highly recommended.
The Crazies will never have the audience that Romero's Dead films have but it is a really striking and important work from one of our most visionary directors. On the eve of Diary Of The Dead, have a Romero film festival and include The Crazies as it is often left out.


Robert Monell said...

THE CRAZIES was made a few hours drive from where I lived at the time and I got regular reports on the making of it from one of the actors who I would go out for a few drinks with once a week. He gave me some onset photos he took and always seemed amazed at Romero's intense way of directing. He was also involved in a local theatrical group and I did an interview with him for a local newspaper entertainment section where they actually used some of the shots of white suited soldiers he gave to me. This was as the film was still being shot early in 1973. He later told me "George liked your article" and that I was invited to come down and watch them shoot. Unfortunately I couldn't make it. Didn't like the film when I finally saw it. Maybe I would now.

Rogue Spy 007 said...

I saw this movie years ago on video. We were renting a whole bunch of 70's horror films on video when we got our first VCR. I did really enjoy it. While I think Romero will always be better known for his zombie films, this one shouldn't be forgotten. I do like the social commentary in this one as well. I think it's so true even today. We can't trust the government. It doesn't matter which party you belong to. Neither of them are really looking out for you. I could only imagine what our government, no matter who is in the White House, would do to us if something like this happened.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Robert for the vivid and fascinating memories. What a great thing to have experienced...I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on the film now if you choose to rewatch it. Thanks again...

Thanks Keith...agree and the film raises all kinds of thought provoking and frightening questions...