Unlike the zombie films for which he is best known, George Romero’s The Crazies (1973) contains nothing supernatural. The horror stems from human beings and the things we can do to one another.
It’s true that the story includes a virus that turns people mad, but not only is this a manmade bioweapon, its effects seem to be madness in an all too human way. That is, we aren’t talking about something that turns people into zombies, as has been the case in any number of narratives that have come since. The people infected remain human—they just “lose it.”
The first case we see is of a man destroying his own home and setting it on fire after killing his wife. (This sort of thing really happens). Later, Kathy (Lynn Lowry) becomes a bit unhinged as she travels with David (Will MacMillan), Judy (Lane Carroll), Clank (Harold Wayne Jones) and her father Artie (Richard Liberty), but this is well after the military has begun rounding people up and pursuing this group in particular. She’s already seen them kill a child’s parents right in front of them, for example.
When she does, she laughs, but is this because she is infected, or because the trauma of events has broken her? And when her father moves to have sex with her a bit later, is this because he is infected as well, or perhaps because it’s something he always wanted to do, with her madness now providing an excuse?
It seems clear that the virus exists in The Crazies (1973), but that’s not where the film derives its terror. This comes instead from the human reactions.
In particular, it’s about the military, which is meaningfully the Big Bad of the film. They were the cause of the outbreak in the first place, and their attempts to contain it make them the monsters. The gas masks that they wear (while easily explicable in terms of an attempt to protect them from being infected) add to this effect, making them appear somewhat alien as they round up and/or kill the people of the town.
It would seem this was fairly unimaginable in the early ‘70s of the U.S., or at least enough to evoke a visceral kind of horror—the idea of the military turning on its own citizens. We see, for example, the iconic plastic army toys on the floor as the troops raid a home. This was still a country where people, in general, looked up to the troops and small children idolized them, despite the vagaries of the Vietnam War.
Our main protagonists—David and Clank—are veterans of that war, who understand that things are more nuanced and more fraught. The military bosses struggle with their decisions. The soldiers are presented largely as grunts taking orders. And yet the effect of this all has them opening fire on anyone who resists.
And what about them? Should they have done what they were told without explanation? Were those who took up arms and fought back wrong to do so? Those who oppose gun control often point precisely to the idea of resisting government oppression as a justification for unimpeded gun ownership, but what The Crazies (1973) presents is a dramatization of how ineffective that would likely be if the U.S. military truly brought down its force upon a town.
Are they crazy? Are they infected? How can you tell? Where is the line between the effects of the madness-inducing virus in question and those stemming from the paranoia of the situation?
This is the horror of The Crazies (1973): the inability to tell for sure. The monsters are men.
Of course, even if the idea of the military turning on the populace felt inconceivable in 1973, in the background of Romero’s film is the fact that it had already happened to a much smaller degree at Kent State on May 4, 1970 (which is mentioned in the film, though not by name).
Students were protesting the Vietnam War—or, more specifically the bombing of Cambodia. Over the proceeding weekend, someone had set fire to the ROTC building, and the National Guard had been deployed.
Come Monday, despite the University’s attempts to keep it from happening, a couple of thousand students had gathered in protest. They had a stand-off with the National Guard. Some may have thrown rocks. But, ultimately, the Guard opened fire, killing four students and wounding nine more. Some of them were just walking to class.
While I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that The Crazies (1973) is about Kent State, it seems clear to me that this was a touchstone for it, particularly given the line in the film about campus shootings.
In 1978 George Segal was commissioned to make a sculpture commemorating the events of May 4th. He came back with one depicting Abraham standing over Isaac with a knife.
This is fitting imagery: Abraham having been asked by God to sacrifice his son as a test of faith. Where does our faith in the government stand once it has deployed the military on its own citizens? Especially when, instead of Abraham’s angelic reprieve, the event ended in the death of our children.
Of course, the school rejected it, (though it is on display at Princeton, where Segal taught). Instead, Kent went with a rather bland memorial of flat stone on a hillside.
The field where the four students died was a parking lot by the time I went there in the late ‘90s, though in 2000 they installed markers on the spots where their bodies fell. (You can’t park here: someone died.)
That 30th anniversary ceremony was nice, though. I met Allison Beth Krause’s parents, and some of the survivors spoke. It had started to seem again by the year 2000 that this was more of a memory than a present possibility. There was a fight to be waged, sure, and it was disturbing to occasionally talk to some older folks around Kent who said that those kids “had it coming,” but all in all it seemed like the good guys were winning. Unless I was just young and naïve.
Then on September 11, 2001, planes struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The towers fell. Almost immediately people started saying that “the world had changed.” Of course, in one sense, that was hogwash. The world was what it had been, and if you didn’t know that there were people out there who wanted to attack us like this, well, you hadn’t been paying attention.
But in another sense, it was completely true. Because the attacks of 9/11 led the Bush administration to declare a “War on Terror” that went largely unopposed. The PATRIOT Act was passed with almost no debate. And the United States has technically been in a State of Emergency ever since.
Over the coming decade, we would see the “Shock and Awe” policy of the second Iraq War, extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo Bay, and the increased use of drones. Under the Obama administration, the door even seemed to be open to the use of drones to kill American citizens, and while that may have been in other countries, it became increasingly harder to think that it happening here at home was off the table.
And it’s that last one in particular that I think feeds into what occurs in Breck Eisner’s remake of The Crazies in 2010. Even if it is somewhat anachronistic to point to the increasing use of drone strikes in the Obama administration, the ground had been laid. When we learned that a drone had been used to kill a U.S. citizen in another country, I doubt that anyone was surprised.
It would seem that Romero had little, if not nothing, to do with the 2010 remake of The Crazies. But what’s interesting is that while the premise (and arguably the message) of the film remains the same, the approach is wildly different.
Instead of a brief scene of a man going mad that quickly kicks off into a drama about the military’s intervention, The Crazies (2010) dwells first with the effects of the virus. And they recur, far more strongly in this remake than they did in the original, as, for example, when the clearly infected principal of the high school comes close to killing Judy (Radha Mitchell).
But, perhaps this is because we have increasingly become distrusting of each other. The neighbors might be crazies—unresponsive to reason and incomprehensible. We’ve increasingly come to live in different worlds, with our ontologies diverging as much as our moral views. That is, it’s not just what is good or bad that seems to be at stake in the politics of our day; it’s the very conception of reality itself.
Someone can create a meme that is a picture of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez along with a ridiculous text that claims to be quoting her, and people buy it. Others at least become uncertain. And with the rise of deep fakes, this problem is likely to get worse, as we’ll all struggle to know what is real and what is not. But inevitably we’ll land on our notions of reality, and of course those who disagree at that level are not just wrong—they’re crazy.
This is where The Crazies (2010) perhaps makes a mistake. It makes it too clear that the infected are such, portraying them almost as if they had become zombies. The original film is much more disturbing on this front, insofar as it leaves open a space of ambiguity about the question of who is infected and who isn’t. And how can one tell?
Yet, the 2010 film remains effective and horrifying. The main differences between it and the original seem to stem from the shifting political landscape, and differences in how we had come to view the military over the course of time.
Rather than introducing the military almost immediately, as Romero does, the 2010 version holds off for about 30 minutes, presaging their ultimate presence with things like drone footage. And instead of working with the perspective of the military from almost the very beginning and throughout the film, The Crazies (2010) doesn’t give it to us—at all.
By 2010 we had all become too distrusting of the military for the brass to play such a role. Or, rather, that they would take this tack had become too in line with our expectations. Perhaps some of us would even be OK with it. After all, how many people have said that if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear from government surveillance? And how many have defended the suspensions of rights we’ve seen stemming from the “War on Terror”? I’m reminded of those folks back in Kent, Ohio who said the kids had it coming.
Of course, none of this is to demean the service of the individuals in the armed forces. This is about something structural, or systemic, as it already was in Romero’s film. There we see people of goodwill in the military pushed to make hard decisions. Forty years later, in reality, it would probably be largely the same, but there was a shift in the culture during that time. At least, I think there was. I don’t know if I can layout proof. But it seems to me that by 2010, if the army bombed a U.S. city we may have been outraged, and we may have been horrified, but I’m not sure we would have been surprised.
And so we see this narrative shift, as the remake puts David (Timothy Olyphant) in the role of Sheriff, as opposed to that of a volunteer fireman. And he debates the ethics of what the military is doing not from the inside, but from the side of the persecuted.
The Sheriff, after all, remains a powerful trope. Against the militarization of the police and all of the bureaucracy, we have this idea of a man who upholds the law, perhaps with discretion. He stands against that totalitarian rule-making and the imposition of force through blind political means. He’s one of us, even though he’s the law. Of course this is a fucking fantasy.
But it’s one Olyphant embodies to great effect in the remake of The Crazies. It’s important that his character is on the side of the persecuted. But, again, what this film does not give us is people of goodwill on the side of the military.
The endings of the two films are similar, insofar as they indicate that while the threat has been dealt with in the town in question, the contagion has spread. And so it’s on to the next one.
And thus a question: while the military turning on ordinary folks, rounding them up, and at least sometimes killing them in The Crazies is horrifying, were they really wrong?
Of course, they caused the problem in the first place, with the creation of a bioweapon that spreads due to a downed plane (in both versions), but given that situation, isn’t it logical to conclude that the contagion should be stopped by any means necessary? And aren’t David and Judy, as they struggle to escape in a way that will itself allow the contagion to spread, acting irrationally? Aren’t they also at least a little bit crazy?
This gets to the way in which the politics of The Crazies is both radical and nuanced. It’s not the individual soldiers that are to blame. It’s not even the brass higher up making the decisions in light of the crisis situation they face who are to blame. It’s the structure itself. It’s the system that leads us to create weapons of mass destruction and then grapple with the consequences of them being used. It’s this whole thing that makes us turn on one another, out of fear and paranoia. It’s how we label one another as “crazy” or Other, and use that to justify all sorts of violence.
Romero’s film leaves the question more ambiguous than Eisner’s, and that ambiguity is key. Because the difference between someone who has gone mad due to a bioweapon and the one who has due to the pressures of the world is small.
Are the soldiers crazy as they deal with people they believe may well be infected with a terrible virus? Are the people when they react by getting out their guns or trying to run away? What would a sane response look like on either side?
Overall, The Crazies leaves us with some intractable questions. Romero presented them brilliantly in 1973, and unfortunately, they have had staying power. The 2010 remake, however much fans of the original film might quibble about it, updates these questions to put them in our present context.
It’s easy enough to preach peace, love, and understanding. And it’s easy enough to watch this film (either version) and come away with an objection the use of chemical and biological weapons. But we live in a world where these things exist, and where nuclear weapons exist. Humanity has already unleashed these forces that threaten to be beyond our control.
It’s the hubris that makes us think we can deal with it, more than anything, that The Crazies calls into question. Maybe an event like this hasn’t quite happened, but there but the grace of God go we.