There is something to be said about exposing ourselves to our greatest fears, cinematically speaking. Movies allow us to evoke and examine what terrifies us in a totally safe, controlled way. Flooding ourselves with horrific images allows us to conceptualize and classify the amorphous terror running around in our head. Film can be therapy. That is the reason why, as the global populous is holed-up in our houses, keeping our social distance, movies like Contagion and Outbreak are the most popular picks on the streaming services. They show us that things could be worse, that there is hope, and that someone is fighting to save us all. Even if the ending is grim, it is still an ending, and that alone can be comforting. As illogical as it seems, watching pandemic movies during a pandemic can leave you feeling reassured. Unless you’re watching George Romero’s 1973 doomsday downer, The Crazies, which will, instead, leave you hyperventilating in a corner.
The story is about the U.S. military’s attempt to contain the situation caused when one of their planes accidentally crashes near the small town of Evan City, PA, unleashing a deadly virus codenamed TRIXIE (note to the military, if you are trying to make an intimidation bio-weapon, don’t make it sound like a 12 year-old girl). Exposure to TRIXIE leads to either death or homicidal insanity, making it even harder for the film’s hazard-suited soldiers to round up all of the town’s inhabitants. In the confusion, a local fireman named Peter (Will MacMillan), his meathead pal, Clank (Harold Wayne Jones), and his fiancée, Judy (Lane Carroll), break away from the quarantine. Tensions run high as they try to avoid the increasingly trigger happy soldiers, murder-minded townsfolk, and the virus itself.
I’m not going to lie, The Crazies is a hard watch even in the best of times. As opposed to the self-contained, pin-point focus of Night of the Living Dead, The Crazies is a bit of a hyperactive mess. The narrative ricochets from the hunted survivors, to the frustrated commanding officer, to the shouting scientists, to apathetic soldiers, all at a breathless pace. This is one of the few movies where I much prefer the modern remake. The 2010 version starring Tim Olyphant explores the same territory, but in a far more entertaining way. It limits the scope to just a few main characters, slowly doles out the information, and takes the time to build the white-knuckle tension.
Romero’s original, on the other hand, is an explosion of chaos right from the opening credits. We enter the crisis already in progress, witnessing a deranged father setting his house on fire with his kids still locked inside. Don’t worry, the children survive the fire, but are horribly burned… and the little girl succumbs to the trauma thirty seconds later… and the boy is hopelessly insane. Yes, Romero tells us exactly what we’re in for in the first five minutes.
In the remake, the government goons are in the shadows, coldly pulling the strings outside of the main characters’ view. Here, the military are front and center. In fact, they are arguably the main characters, with the plucky escapees playing the side plot. The Army already has a command center running, monitoring the situation and ready to lock down the town at a moment’s notice. And by locking down the town, I mean soldiers in Hazmat suits bursting in the door and yanking sleeping children from their beds at gunpoint. For this movie, Romero tips his hat to subtlety and says, “Your services will not be required here, sir.”
Despite the blatantly Gestapo tactics, the military aren’t portrayed as evil, only hopelessly incompetent. Not solely on an individual basis, either. This is a centralized, top down, bureaucratic cluster fuck. Many of the team leaders are sympathetic, especially Col. Peckman (Lloyd Collar). He and his team want to avoid as much harm as possible, but they are constantly snagged up in red tape like struggling insects caught in tree sap. This is most evident with the lead scientist, Dr. Watts (Richard France, the irate expert arguing on TV at the beginning of Dawn of the Dead!). He spends practically the entire movie screaming in an apoplectic fit about the equipment he can’t get, the approval no one can give, and the clues no one else seems to have. This approach is less cinematic and polished than the remake, but depressingly more realistic.
Romero keeps the moral lines fuzzy here. The identically dressed, masked soldiers seem like the standard faceless villains at first. Under those masks, though, they are just regular people. They are sometimes callous, sometimes bored, mostly scared, and progressively more eager to shoot first, forget the questions. Some of them are straight-up jerks, like the guy who steals a dad’s fishing rod while his squad are marching the family into quarantine, but none of them want to be there. They also die in huge numbers once the crazies start coming, ruining their crisp, white jumpsuits with bright red blood.
Making matters worse, it’s not always easy to tell the TRIXIE-fied crazies from the understandably pissed off townsfolk just trying to protect their families. This uncertainty even extends to what should be our protagonists, the group of escapee civilians on the run. David is acting rationally, and his nurse wife Judy had an antibiotic shot, but Kathy (a perfect, hippy-dippy Lynn Lowry) is clearly under the virus’ influence and her dad (Richard Liberty, Dr. “Frankenstein” Logan from Day of the Dead!) eventually follows her lead (tossing in a little incest in case we weren’t suffering enough). Then there’s David’s buddy, Clank, who looks like an unfinished clay sculpture come to life. Is his heightened aggression a sign that he’s infected, or just a normal day for a lumpy bruiser named Clank? Even as his actions became more extreme, a part of me still wondered. His scariest moments are not when he’s flying into a rage and shooting down helicopters, but those brief moments of clarity where he is self-reflective enough to understand something is wrong with him and it’s probably not going to get better. Again, no bad guys, just people in shitty situations.
Born on the tail end of the Vietnam War, ‘70s cinema dripped with cynicism, and you would be hard pressed to find a bleaker example than The Crazies. The tone tells you right up front to kiss any hope of a happy ending goodbye. Within the first ten minutes, a group of bureaucrats in Washington order a bomber to circle the city as a nuclear failsafe and then calmly discuss the best way to spin nuking an American city. David says the Army “can turn a campus protest into a shooting war,” a not-too-veiled reference to the recent Kent State Massacre. A crazed priest reenacts the famous footage of the monk immolating himself in objection to the war. It doesn’t quite hit the nihilistic heights of Threads, but it lives in the same depressing neighborhood. The cruellest moment comes when Judy suggests that David might have a natural immunity to the virus. The movie audaciously baits you to hold out a tiny sliver of hope, before plunging you into an almost von Trier level of tragi-porn.
Obviously, the current state of our real-life outbreak is nowhere close to the conditions shown here, so that is some comfort. There are, however, a number of uncomfortably similar comments that will do nothing to lower your anxiety levels. When the mayor complains the military “knew about it for days” without springing into action, Major Ryder explains “We never thought it could happen.” Then he downplays the situation, assuring that the virus will “all be in control in a few hours.” The scientists, who the Army refer to as “you think-boys” (ooo, sick burn), warn of asymptomatic carriers who can spread the virus without realizing it, and that they are “not dealing with the flu” here. Sure, the President doesn’t push to reopen Evan City early and no one mentions him firing his Bio-weapons Response Team, but otherwise the comments sound disarmingly close to some recent press conferences.