Taken by many viewers as little more than a retake on Night of the Living Dead, The Crazies is a much broader film that aims itself squarely at the mainstream horror audience rather than the esoteric viewers Night attracted. Perhaps this is as much to blame for its lack-lustre reception and continued dismissal among Romero’s cannon of films as its muddled narrative.
Made in 1973 after the joint disasters of There’s Always Vanilla and Season of the Witch (which was filmed as Jack’s Wife) it doesn’t take much thought to understand why Romero decided on this approach. He needed something that would be well received and a mainstream reworking of his debut hit seemed a good idea.
In many ways The Crazies is a return to something like form for Romero, at least this puts him back “on track” after his attempt to break free of genre trappings. This is not so say that The Crazies is a better film than its predecessors, far from it, but rather that it does not strive to pull the viewer too far out of their comfort zone.
Sometimes familiarity can hide many a flaw, and with The Crazies there is a great deal of reliance on this fact.
The film follows the outbreak of a biological agent designed for germ warfare. Codename; Trixie, as it is called (and as the film was briefly called itself), causes a complete breakdown of a persons inhibitions, driving them into a homicidal frenzy that result in chaos.
Whether this outbreak is accidental or deliberate is unknown, as it is hinted that the small town is little more than a test subject that has become out of control.
Two years later David Cronenberg trod the same path, setting his outbreak in an apartment block and calling his film Shivers. Cronenberg’s much better film lends, either intentionally or not, a great deal from The Crazies. He drops the military subplot and centres his film more about the populaces’ sexual urges, but otherwise the film could be a direct sequel to Romero’s movie.
One other important point that ties in the two films is actress Lynn Lowry who plays a similar innocent seductress in both in both of them.
Unusually for Romero he also included a moment of sexual depravity in The Crazies. The romanticised angle he usually takes becomes a parody of itself when a father shows more than paternal interest in his daughters’ well being; and the daughter seems either oblivious or passively willing in the encounter.
This is the tip of the iceberg in The Crazies, though this is the only overt moment of sexuality in the film much of the character motivation seems linked with their repressed sexual feelings towards other characters. The violence that erupts when the Father is caught molesting his daughter seems less about the insidious act itself and more about the desires the rescuer himself wishes to bury.
A viewer can’t help but think there is too much protesting going on.
In typical Romero fashion nothing goes right for any of the characters, the containment is a bust, each character meets with either an untimely end or worse and we are left with the promise of more of the same for those who survive.
The Crazies marked the end of an era for Romero. The film taking the dubious honour of the last of his attempts to find his voice.
As such his trilogy of failures comprising of There’s Always Vanilla, Season of the Witch and The Crazies are important entries into Romero’s cannon of work. They represent an evolution of Romero’s philosophy rather than the devolution from Night that they appear.
Night of the Living Dead is a symbolic movie that harkens back to the German expressionist films of the 20’s and 30’s whereas Romero’s future films are firmly characterised as social commentaries that spurns heavy symbolism in favour of a more direct approach.
Romero’s Trilogy of Failures are the stepping stones necessary to transform from one to the other, and as such they sit firmly at the birth of what became known as “A Romero Film”.
After the release of The Crazies Romero took the first of his absences from film. Without doubt there were many failed projects in the five years he was away but the break itself tells us something unique about Romero.
Something had gone wrong and something was needed to fix it.
It is very telling that in 1978 he returned with the film many critics believe to be his masterpiece, Martin, and as such the film that would usher in the film maker that became a modern legend.
It is no coincidence that many of Martins strongest moments had already had their dry-run’s in one of Romero’s failures, most notably in Season of the Witch, and it would not be coincidence that many ideas in Dawn of the Dead would also be seen in one or more of these films.
Dawn of the Dead appeared directly on Martin’s heels, both of them released the same year, and even this is interesting.
Five years earlier Season of the Witch and The Crazies were released at the same time, and there are more than a few resemblances between this duo of films and Dawn of the Dead and Martin.
The 1973 duo can easily be seen as a dry-run of the 1978 pair, or more accurately the 1978 films worked as expansions and perfections of those earlier failures.
Martin takes Season of the Witches social alienation, dubious magic and some possible delusional illness to create a story about one person trying to make sense of their world; it does little more than replace witchcraft with vampires do to this.
Dawn of the Dead on the other hand is a clear variation on The Crazies; each portrays a family, one of which is pregnant, on the run from the illness. Much like Cronenberg’s Shivers, all Dawn does is force the characters into a closed location and play out the scenario sans any military involvement.
An artists failures are no less important than their successes, and how the artists deals with failure is as important, perhaps more so, than how they deal with those success.
When viewed in context the trilogy of there’s Always Vanilla, Season of the Witch and The Crazies shed a great deal of light on where and how his future films came into being. The creation of art does not happen in a vacuum and as Night of the Living Dead was influenced heavily by Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend it is clear that much of what occurred in Romero’s Golden Age of films were influenced by his own films of the early 70’s.