People Are Vectors: George A. Romero’s The Crazies

The George A. Romero Zombie Cycle

The Crazies movie poster


George A. Romero prac­ti­cally invented the lucra­tive zom­bie sub­genre with Night of the Liv­ing Dead in 1968, simul­ta­ne­ously trap­ping him­self within it for most of his sub­se­quent career. Romero’s zom­bies served him well enough for six films and count­ing, at least two of which tran­scended the genre and are still dis­cussed in seri­ous terms. His less famous later cre­ations the “cra­zies” only appeared in one of his films, but their influ­ence on pop­u­lar cul­ture is dis­pro­por­tion­ate to their fame. They are arguably the­mat­i­cally richer and — despite not tech­ni­cally being zom­bies, per se — exert a greater influ­ence on most sig­nif­i­cant sub­se­quent zom­bie films by other directors.

The Cra­zies (1973) may not belong to Romero’s offi­cial Liv­ing Dead cycle, but what sets it apart is mostly a mat­ter of brand­ing. Zom­bies had cap­tured the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion in a way that the more vaguely-defined cra­zies could not, at least at first. The clas­si­cal Romero-style zom­bie is sim­ply a rean­i­mated corpse with an insa­tiable ani­mal hunger in place of higher brain func­tion — in effect a sub­trac­tion of the intan­gi­ble human essence, or what a reli­gious per­son would describe as a soul. In con­trast, a crazy is exactly what it sounds like: a liv­ing per­son dri­ven to unchecked vio­lence and lust, while still remain­ing rec­og­niz­ably human.

A scene from George A. Romero's The Crazies“Peo­ple are vectors.”

The most sig­nif­i­cant inno­va­tion Romero intro­duced in The Cra­zies can be summed up in its most chill­ing line: “peo­ple are vec­tors.” In Night of the Liv­ing Dead, it was enough for Romero to vaguely drop hints of some sort of mys­te­ri­ous extrater­res­trial radi­a­tion caus­ing the dead to rise. The virus fac­tor would pre­oc­cupy sub­se­quent zom­bie auteurs for decades, par­tic­u­larly Danny Boyle with 28 Days Later. It’s a rich con­cept that touches on many sen­si­tive themes: pol­lu­tion, con­spir­acy the­o­ries, bio­log­i­cal war­fare, sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted dis­eases, and pan­demics. While now vir­tu­ally every non-Romero zom­bie movie defaults to a viral ori­gin story, it seems that Romero him­self is dis­in­ter­ested in the mechan­ics of either zom­bies or cra­zies. He’d much rather focus on randomly-selected bands of sur­vivors, on the run in a world where soci­ety has bro­ken down. Liv­ing humans are a greater dan­ger than mon­sters, and death is no longer absolute.

All the usual Romero tropes are present, par­tic­u­larly insti­tu­tional cor­rup­tion and inep­ti­tude. On the macro level, the U.S. gov­ern­ment and mil­i­tary serve their own inter­ests first, to the degree that they func­tion at all. The gov­ern­ment has secretly engi­neered and weaponized a virus with the innocu­ous code­name Trixie and acci­den­tally releases it into the water sup­ply of small town Evans City, PA (a real town, where por­tions were actu­ally filmed). As in Inva­sion of the Body Snatch­ers, the action remains in the small burb for the entirety of the film. For­get Patient Zero; this is Town Zero.

George A. Romero's The CraziesThe mil­i­tary tries to clean up its own mess

The author­i­ties swoop in and attempt to quar­an­tine the bucolic burb until the virus burns itself out. We learn they were blithely aware of the risks in trans­port­ing the virus, and remain chill­ingly apa­thetic even after the begin­nings of cat­a­stro­phe. One espe­cially cold­blooded gen­eral casu­ally munches sand­wiches while dis­cussing how to con­tain the epi­demic. Romero’s usual sym­pa­thies are for the indi­vid­ual con­science ham­strung by soul­less bureau­cra­cies. Even in Day of the Dead, where the mil­i­tary was the pri­mary source of con­flict, some indi­vid­u­als remained sym­pa­thetic. In The Cra­zies, Major Ryder (Harry Spill­man) and Colonel Peckam (Lloyd Hol­lar) strug­gle as much against their supe­ri­ors’ coun­ter­pro­duc­tive orders as they do try­ing to pacify the cra­zies on the bat­tle­field and pro­tect the uninfected.

Even the civil­ians have deep ties to the armed forces. David (Will MacMil­lan) and Clank (Harold Wayne Jones) are Viet­nam War vet­er­ans who now find them­selves in oppo­si­tion to the insti­tu­tions they once served. They spend most of the movie com­pletely in the dark as to why their town is in chaos, and in fact come into vio­lent con­flict more fre­quently with the mil­i­tary than with their now-insane for­mer friends and neighbors.

Romero also con­tin­ues his tra­di­tion of fore­ground­ing women and peo­ple of color. The ranks of Duane Jones in Night of the Liv­ing Dead, Lori Cardille in Day of the Dead, and John Leguizom­bie Leguizamo in Land of the Dead are joined by Judy (Lane Car­roll), a preg­nant nurse who ini­tially assists the military’s con­tain­ment efforts. Her char­ac­ter is far more sig­nif­i­cant and inte­gral to the plot than her equiv­a­lent in Breck Eisner’s mediocre 2010 remake, played by Radha Mitchell. It’s sad but per­haps unsur­pris­ing that a B-movie from 1973 would fea­ture a stronger fem­i­nist char­ac­ter than one from the 21st century.

George A. Romero's The CraziesLynn Lowry inau­gu­rates her career as a scream queen

But on the other hand (you knew that “but” was com­ing), the other pri­mary female role is played by Lynn Lowry as an impos­si­bly ethe­real and wil­lowy teen with a marked resem­blance to Sissy Spacek. The character’s pri­mary func­tion is to look inno­cently gor­geous and be raped by her infected father. Lowry would go on to a long career as a scream queen in sex­ploita­tion films.

The Cra­zies is largely humor­less in tone, save for ironic music cues through­out. A per­sis­tent mar­tial snare drum plays under oth­er­wise rather dull scenes of Ryder and Peckam argu­ing in a cheap office set, and “Johnny Comes March­ing Home” accom­pa­nies sequences of desen­si­tized sol­diers sum­mar­ily exe­cut­ing detainees.

The estab­lish­ment of mar­tial law and mil­i­tary occu­pa­tion of a town on Amer­i­can soil raise the ques­tion: how do you tell the dif­fer­ence between gen­uine resis­tance and mur­der­ous rage, which is to say, just plain crazy plus capital-c Crazy? Is not killing and shoot­ing other human beings by def­i­n­i­tion crazy, espe­cially when sys­tem­at­i­cally oper­ated by the gov­ern­men­tal and mil­i­tary orga­ni­za­tions that are sup­posed to pro­tect and serve life? In the movie’s most charged sequence, a priest immo­lates him­self on his church steps. In 1973, it would have been an unmis­tak­able visual allu­sion to the Bud­dhist monks that self-immolated to protest the Viet­nam War. A sol­dier exe­cutes him. Was the priest protest­ing or Crazy? Was the sol­dier mer­ci­ful or Crazy?

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