The early 1970s was a wild time. American confidence in the military was hugely eroded thanks to the war in Vietnam. Our opinion of government had been shot to shit by years of political failure regarding the war, the Cold War, and Nixon’s illegitimate reelection tactics. The Civil Rights movement had ended in perceived victory and then given way to the realization that racism is not simply ended by a signed legislative document. In short, the perception of the American fabric was tearing apart. That’s where a savvy mind like George A. Romero comes in and goes, “Hey, let’s make a freaking movie about this.” God bless George A. Romero.
The Crazies is the story of government ineptitude, military ineptitude, Cold War fears, and the annihilation of the glorification of small town American life by the greater truth of the influence of the world that is always pressing down on it. It’s not the individuals that are necessarily failures, but the system that they have to adhere to creates failures that they then have to own. Lurking over it all is the potential threat of nuclear holocaust too, though this time it’s a self-inflicted potentiality, not some kind of Soviet plot.
Evans City, Pennsylvania, is your typical American town. It has a volunteer fire department, a small doctor’s office, a single school, and its own hometown hero. Yet out of nowhere, the military shows up and imposes martial law, rounding up citizens wherever they appear, raiding homes, and seizing weapons. Unbeknownst to the people, Trixie, a biological or viral weapon, has accidentally been unleashed, and the military is trying to contain the outbreak before it spreads across the US.
Since this isn’t fully explained to the citizens, and with the new weapon infecting almost anyone who drinks the local water, the new martial law doesn’t sit well. In particular, it doesn’t sit well with former Green Beret David, his pregnant girlfriend and local nurse, Judy, and his buddy and enlisted veteran Clank. They join up with a couple of other survivors and try to escape. Meanwhile, the government sends in Dr. Watts to create a cure, but due to transit problems, he lacks any equipment to work. Colonel Peckem, the man in charge of the local military, is stuck trying to get the job done and the materials shipped in, but he has regulations he must attempt to follow to prevent Trixie’s spread. It works about as well as you think.
By the end of this movie, nearly everybody is dead or insane, and Colonel Peckem is shipped off to another town where Trixie has spread to bullshit promises about how he knows how to handle the problem, despite the problem being the total lack of resources to actually get the job done and the inability to explain to people what is happening in the hopes the damage can be prevented. Peckem ends up in an incredible catch-22 while the feds basically tell him, “Better luck next time.” You get the feeling he’s as disgusted as you are. The Crazies is roughly edited and features amateurish acting, but you really get what actor Lloyd Hollar is conveying about his own sense of failure. His struggle to handle the problem with both hands tied behind his back is a high point.
What’s not? Well, while the film shows its characters unable to explain things, the film itself also fails to explain important things about Trixie…like whether it’s a biological agent or a virus. It goes back and forth on this. It also adds in scenes of military massacring and being massacred by the locals at intervals, but the crazed locals seem occasionally well organized, occasionally full on stupid, and swapping emotions and moods at the drop of a hat. In short, the lack of consistency makes the film seem more implausible. The thing that makes some people murder their families also makes one girl run around laughing, one guy rape his daughter, one lady go paranoid, one guy become a killer with a big ego… It’s a hodgepodge of the worst things possible, but it’s all wrapped up in an awkward ball that isn’t helped by a lot of bit players not actually knowing how to act. At least in Night of the Living Dead, they only had to stumble around. Here they have to show some kind of emotion, and they mix them up or completely fail to do anything beyond running around and looking silly.
There is a remake. It’s more consistent in its approach, and it has a bigger budget, but it also changes enough points about the leads that I don’t really want to compare the two. Think of both of The Crazies as separate animals, not to be viewed as the same thing. And enjoy the original for what it is: a product of its time, a commentary on the malaise in the 1970s, and, above all, cheap.