Ah, The Crazies. The original Crazies.
This 1973 film is one of George Romero’s best non-Dead films, though it never seems to get the respect that it really deserves. Even today, the original is often overlooked in favor of the remake. And don’t get me wrong — the remake of The Crazies is good and it features several effective jump scares. But the remake is a slick Hollywood film and, watching it, you always have the safety of knowing that you’re watching a slick Hollywood film. The original, though, is rough and low-budget and it looks and it feels real. As a result, it sticks with you long after the haunting final scenes.
The storyline is simple but effective. People in a small Pennsylvania town are going crazy and murdering each other. Usually, it’s impossible to tell who is infected until they’re already attacking you. The infected are just like the zombies from Night of the Living Dead with one key difference. The crazies may be as relentless as the Dead but they’re also human beings. They think. They plan. They scheme. And when they die, they die like humans and we’re reminded that, just a few short hours ago, they were friendly and, more or less, harmless.
The government, of course, shows up in the town and tries to contain the outbreak. The main image that most people will carry away from The Crazies is of men in white hazmat suits, walking through small-town America and killing almost everyone they see. As is typical for a Romero film, the so-called solution often seems to be worse than the problem. We also get the typical conflict between the scientists and the military. The military wants to destroy the infected. The scientists want to cure them. The film is bleakly cynical as the one man who knows how to cure the disease is ignored and finally killed in a stampede of quarantined citizens.
The film follows six people as they attempt to escape from the town and avoid getting sick themselves. Needless to say, it’s not as easy as it sounds. The characters who everyone seems to remember are Artie (Richard Liberty) and his daughter, Kathy (Lynn Lowry). What happens to them is perhaps the most disturbing moment in a film that’s full of them. The other members of the group can only hope to survive, even as they slowly lose their grip on sanity.
It’s a disturbing film, precisely because it’s not slick. The actors are not movie star handsome and the attacks are not perfectly choreographed. The grainy cinematography gives the entire film a documentary feel and serves as a reminder that Romero made industrial films before he revolutionized the horror genre. The Crazies works because it feel like it could be happening in your community or your back yard. And, ultimately, it offers up no solution. Mankind could save itself, Romero seems to be saying, if only mankind wasn’t so stupid.
Needlessly to say, a film as bleak as The Crazies was not a hit in 1973. But it’s lived on and continued to influence other horror makers. It’s one of Romero’s best.