Romero starts things off with a bang as a father smashes up his house before setting it on fire with his two kids and wife (whom he already killed) still inside. No explanation is given for his destructive behavior which makes his actions that much more chilling. David (W.G. McMillan) and Clank (Harold Wayne Jones) are two voluntary firefighters that rush to put out the fire. A highly contagious virus, code named Trixie, has infected some of the town’s inhabitants, turning mild-mannered people into crazed killers. The military has moved in and army soldiers are everywhere. David’s girlfriend is a nurse named Judy (Lane Caroll) and she shows up to work and finds all kinds of soldiers in white hazmat suits setting up base camp. David and Clank realize that something big is going down and decide to find Judy and split.
Naturally, the military doesn’t give a crap about the townsfolk and are thinking only about natural security, even considering dropping a nuclear bomb over the town in order to burn out the infected area. The military are in a state of controlled chaos as they try to contain the infected with varying degrees of success. A dance is broken up as martial law is imposed. Innocent people are woken up and taken from their homes, including crying children seized from their beds. David, Clank and Judy cross paths and joins forces with Artie (Day of the Dead’s Richard Liberty) and his daughter, Kathie (Lynn Lowry), after they are all captured by the military. They manage to escape and hole up in an abandoned country club as they try to figure out what to do next. As he did with Night of the Living Dead and to even greater effect in Dawn of the Dead, Romero explores the dynamic between these characters, including how they cope with the stress brought on by the dangerous situation they find themselves in.
The Crazies features slightly cheesy pre-Tom Savini gore that looks a lot like red paint but this only adds to the film’s low-budget charm. There is also a refreshing lack of recognizable movie stars. Instead, Romero populates his film with a cast of average (in the best sense of the word) looking people that could have been picked up right off the street. This kind of casting gives the film an authenticity, an almost documentary-like feel. The amateurish, unpolished delivery of dialogue by the cast also adds to the realism. It is like these people are being caught on camera during an unguarded moment in their lives, like we are intruding. For example, we are introduced to David and Judy in bed having a conversation that an actual couple might have. It is touches like this that help us get to know these characters so that we empathize with their plight later on.
Also adding to the realistic feeling is the film being shot on location in actual homes and buildings. Romero starts off with a claustrophobic vibe as most of the action takes place in-doors but by the film’s climax, he moves the action outdoors and really opens things up with an exciting chase that takes place in the countryside. There are all kinds of striking images in The Crazies, like a doctor with a gas mask on tending to two children with burns. There are chilling images of bodies being stripped of their valuables, bagged and then burned. In another scene, a crazed priest sets himself on fire a la the infamous Buddhist monk who did the same thing to protest the Vietnam War. Perhaps the most memorable image is that of an infected old lady repeatedly stabbing a soldier with a knitting needle only to resume her knitting as it nothing happened.
The army comes across as ineffectual as represented by Major Ryder (Harry Spillman) who seems like a bureaucrat in a military uniform. He looks disinterested and spends his time waiting for supplies to arrive, signing forms and giving orders that don’t always seem to be followed. Ryder gives an understandably upset local doctor sarcastic answers to some honest questions. His superior, Colonel Peckem (Lloyd Hollar) is a little better. He seems organized and actually knows what he’s doing. Even though he may well-informed, he meets resistance from his superiors, politicians far away from the situation who have no real understanding of what’s going on. Peckem is a rare, sane voice in a chaotic situation. Dr. Watts (Richard France, who would go on to play another scientist in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead), one of the developers of Trixie is brought in and complains to anyone who will listen. He has no problem voicing his opinions, openly criticizing his military handlers. The film cuts between scenes of the overwhelmed and disorganized military and the protagonists from the town just trying to find a way out of this nightmarish scenario.
The Crazies began with filmmaker Paul McCullough who wrote a screenplay called The Mad People about people who went crazy after a weapon spilled. Romero remembered, “it was really a character piece, it was people doing things, doing life that you see in the papers every day.” The military subplot in the McCullough’s script was only featured in the first act. Producer Lee Hessel agreed to finance and distribute the film but only if Romero rewrote the script to focus on the military taking over the town. Hessel had previously worked with Romero on There’s Always Vanilla (1971). Another change Romero made to the story was to have more action as per Hessel’s request. The budget was set at approximately $270,000 and the film was shot over 40 days. This was the first time that Romero worked with Screen Actors Guild actors and 35mm stock. Despite Hessel’s best intentions, The Crazies was poorly distributed and released under several different titles all over the country. It was not given a wide release but was eventually rediscovered on home video.
The Crazies takes the template Romero established with Night of the Living Dead and adds a political component, showing the ineptitude of military leaders. In this respect, The Crazies is a warm-up for Dawn of the Dead as it also features a small group of protagonists forced to survive on their own, unable to trust the authorities as they battle the infected. The Crazies also anticipates recent outbreak viral horror films like 28 Days Later (2002), its sequel 28 Weeks Later (2007), and Planet Terror (2007). Unfortunately, The Crazies is often considered to be a minor work in Romero’s canon but I have always felt that it was an important stepping stone towards more ambitious projects like Dawn of the Dead and Knightriders (1981). He showed more political and social awareness – something that was only hinted at in his early work.
Here's the trailer: