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.
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.
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.
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?