Though George Romero can’t seem to make anything but zombie movies these days, he has directed some interesting films that don’t involve the living dead. One of them is The Crazies, a little-seen 1973 Romero film getting a new DVD and Blu-ray release thanks to a new remake. Though now, it looks like a zombie movie in all but name. In each of his Dead movies, Romero used masses of lumbering corpses as stand-ins for rising tides of anxiety, from the protest-stoked unease of 1968’s Night Of The Living Dead through the haves-vs.-have-nots conflict of Land Of The Dead and beyond. Romero always treated zombieism as an infection, a threat that multiplies as it spreads. Much of the horror of a Romero zombie movie comes not from the possibility that a monster might kill you, but that you might become a monster. With The Crazies, in which a bio-weapon infects a small Pennsylvania town with an insanity-provoking disease, he simply eliminates the corpses and keeps the epidemiology horror.
He also keeps the notion of unrest as a disease, a concept at the heart of the Dead movies. While drawing on images like the self-immolation of Vietnamese monk Thích Quang Dúc and the Kent State shootings, Romero pits masses of flipped-out ordinary people against faceless soldiers in Hazmat suits and gas masks. What makes the film interesting is that he doesn’t draw any clear lines between good guys and bad guys. The military is cruel and violent. The crazies are, well, crazy, consumed by a madness that at one point has a father forgetting he can’t sleep with his daughter. One side wants order at all cost; the other knows only chaos.
The film knows a bit of disorder, too. Extremely pokey and home to performances that can charitably be called variable even by Romero’s standards, it’s often more interesting as a Polaroid of early-’70s unease than as a film. The absence of good guys and bad guys or well-developed characters makes it hard to develop a rooting interest, and the film is driven less by a plot than a widening gyre of violence and insanity. That makes it harder to enjoy than a top-rank Romero movie like Dawn Of The Dead or Martin, but it also makes it a pure expression of its era’s discomfort with changing times. Romero doesn’t have the best handle on the film as a whole, but he still manages some perfect moments that bring the era’s potential horrors into the heart of America, like a man losing his mind, then his life, against the misty backdrop of a small-town bridge at dawn. The suggestion is inescapable: one small push, and this could be your life.
Key features: A Romero commentary, trailers and TV spots, and a short documentary on baby-faced cult-movie sweetheart Lynn Lowry.