Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Crazies (1973)

The ideal way to experience George Romero’s 1973 film The Crazies would be projected onto the side of a building in the middle of a riot, tear gas obscuring the already murky picture while distant gunfire blends into the soundtrack and you snack on popcorn roasted over the burning husk of a Honda Civic.

Failing that, I’ll settle for the worn-down print I saw the other night, the sound blaring in my ear the entire time like a fire alarm. The theatre was packed with horror fans and the lobby with beer, making for a soused, ecstatic crowd that laughed loud at every joke and even louder at everything serious. Glass bottles periodically rolled down the sloped concrete floor of the theatre. Several fans dressed for the occasion like the film’s military personnel—white coveralls and gas masks as per regulations, although the guy who held together the torn seat of his outfit with yellow caution tape probably would have been chewed out by his sergeant and sent to clean the latrines.

In other words, mind yourself, because the army is not your friend (as one character in the film helpfully sneers). Most zombie horrors have an ambivalent attitude towards the military—and this siege horror-farce is certainly a missing link in Romero’s great chain of zombie movies—but rarely do any of these other films employ such a savagely anti-militaristic tone. (Perhaps the timing of this film, coming as it does near the end of the Vietnam War, has something to do with its rage.) Typically, the threat of the army competes with the undead menace, but rarely does it supersede the danger of being devoured by zombies.

However, the zombie stand-ins in The Crazies—people driven to violent mania by Trixie, a biological weapon seemingly named for a particularly venereal prostitute in a cheap hard-boiled novel—tend to recede into the background, while the military threat takes precedence. After Trixie infects the populace of Evans City, the military essentially invades the small town. It becomes unclear if the ensuing violence is the result of the disease or people simply resisting martial law. Force breeds resistance; oppression is a violence that begets itself.

Not that us civilian types are spared in Romero’s acidic film. More than anything, The Crazies is a riot against the tyranny of good taste. There’s an unstable, anything-goes-quality here that’s enforced by Romero’s jittery, often hilarious montages. During one gonzo bit of weirdness, he cross-cuts between someone idly tapping chimes in an abandoned house while in another room a father forcibly deflowers his daughter. The somber sound contrasts with the violence and depravity, lending the moment an air of ritual that makes it even more surreal (to say nothing of gag inducing).

There’s a wealth of acerbic details grounding the film’s bizarre images. When soldiers wearing gas masks storm into a house to quarantine the residents, one pauses to steal a fishing rod off a rack on the wall. When a stab-happy grandmother goes after a soldier with her knitting needles, the man crawls away trailing yarn. As political and military leaders debate the fate of Evans City, our attention is drawn not by the high-stakes discussion, but rather by the orange one of the generals is conspicuously peeling (later scenes show the men digging into some sandwiches, the prospect of nuking a small town apparently not enough to put them off their lunch). These pointed details always bring us back to earth, even as the film flies off into stranger and stranger realms—call it the Romero touch, that little offhand curlicue that personalizes even throwaway characters. And given the goriness of the film, there are a lot of characters to be thrown away here.

Considering the antic frenzy he’s aiming for, Romero probably would have been delighted to see his film’s volatile atmosphere spilling onto the pockmarked theatre floor like so many spilt beer bottles. This satire is strictly of the scorched-earth variety, and no one should be allowed to feel aloof from its escalating hysteria. The Crazies is a dizzying pleasure, as contagious as any disease. It’s a Molotov cocktail thrown at parked cars. Bring some popcorn and watch it burn.

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