Blue Underground's high-definition debut of director George A. Romero's The Crazies (1973) is well-timed: a $20 million remake will be released almost simultaneously. The original film is quite ambitious, intelligent, and well crafted considering its low ($275,000) budget. It lacks the raw power of Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) and the polish of Dawn of the Dead (1978), but in many respects plays like a warm-up to the latter film; the breakdown of societal order into disturbing pandemonium in The Crazies anticipates the terrifying first act of Dawn of the Dead. It's an interesting film in other ways too, especially in its social commentary and editing. Romero has always been much more than a director of low-budget horror movies; his films are much too intelligent and unique, regardless of budget and genre demands.
Blue Underground's region-free Blu-ray presents the film in the best possible light, and includes a modest but worthwhile selection of extra features.
The picture is both set and filmed in and around Evans City, a small borough in western Pennsylvania. In the middle of the night, armed troops dressed in HAZMAT suits and gas masks arrive to quarantine the population and contain a newly created but untested biological weapon accidentally unleashed when the military jet transporting it crashes in the hills nearby. The effect of the bio-weapon on the populace is established in the opening scene: a local farmer goes nuts, murdering his wife and setting his house afire, burning his children alive. The germ either kills you outright or drives you irreversibly insane.
A local nurse, Judy (Lane Carroll) reports to the small clinic where she works, which the military establishes as its base. Her boss, the local doctor, aware that Judy is pregnant by her volunteer-fireman boyfriend, former Green Beret David (W.G. McMillan), provides her with some antibiotics and urges her to get out of town. She and David are soon joined by another fireman, ex-infantryman Clank (Harold Wayne Jones), along with local man Artie (Richard Liberty, later memorable as the insane Dr. Logan in Day of the Dead) and his teenage daughter, Kathie (Lynn Lowry). Kathie is already showing signs of going crazy.
The film follows their efforts to elude the soldiers, who become increasingly bloodthirsty and begin casually shooting and looting local residents, stealing their trading stamps (a national obsession in 1973), money from their wallets, etc.
Meanwhile, a subplot follows the increasingly desperate efforts by Col. Peckem (Lloyd Hollar; like many of Romero's films, an African-American in a take-charge leading role) and the pessimistic Severn Dardenian/Orson Wellesian Dr. Watts (Richard France, who'd play a similar role in Dawn of the Dead) to isolate the virus and maintain law and order through marshal law.
The Crazies isn't so much as scary as it is unnerving. Not even the scientists understand what is happening or how to stop the spread of the virus; foot soldiers have no idea what's going on and the public is deliberately kept in the dark. Perhaps what's most disturbing is how quickly yet believably everything unravels into total chaos. Their faces hidden behind gas masks, the troops look like an invading army from Mars while the townsfolk are similarly dehumanized, their bodies unceremoniously burned, the crazies herded like cattle into the local high school gymnasium. In light of recent natural disasters and the tragic disorganization following Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti, The Crazies seems almost prophetic.
The flight of the protagonists is suspenseful because they don't know if they're sick, which way to turn, or what will happen to them if they're captured. This sense of helplessness and the innate urge to escape and survive was similarly captured in Steven Spielberg's later Close Encounters of the Third Kind in too many similar vignettes to be merely coincidental; I suspect The Crazies was a major influence.
Obviously, the film reflects the growing disenchantment with a government and military always thought to be our protectors, but who after Kent State, the race riots, and My Lai, could no longer be held in such high, unquestioning regard. (In an obvious but powerful direct reference to Buddhist priest Thích Quang Đuc's self-immolation, a local priest stricken by the bug douses himself with gasoline and sets himself on fire as his parishioners watch helplessly.)
The real locations and use of local and non-actors offsets the low budget to some degree. Romero's superb editing is another major asset. He's never really been given his due as an editor; in The Crazies his quick, increasingly nervous and edgy cutting adds enormously to the suspense. Music-video/TV commercial style editing is now the rule rather than the exception, but in 1973 Romero's frequent use of shots running 12 frames (half-a-second) or less was innovative.
Video & Audio
Blue Underground's region-free Blu-ray of The Crazies presents the film on a single-layer 25GB disc in 1080p format, preserving the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Romero seems to have favored shooting a lot of coverage (to accommodate his editing ambitions) over subtle lighting, giving the film a harsh, gritty look that the high-def transfer maximizes as much as it can. It's not a revelation in high-def, but a strong presentation of a modest production. The DTS-HD Master Audio is 1.0 only, and reflects the film's original monophonic release.
Supplements are identical to the April 2003 SD DVD release, and are in standard-def: "The Cult Film Legacy of Lynn Lowry," an informative and fun interview featuring clips from a number of low-budget films; theatrical trailers and TV spots, and an interesting audio commentary by director George A. Romero.
Though not quite Romero's best, The Crazies is another film that admirers of independent American cinema and not just horror fans should take a look at. Its intelligence and ambitions belie its low budget and genre classification. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Tora-san DVD boxed set, is on sale now.