To celebrate the life of George A. Romero, Arrow Video have released a box set of three films called between Night and Dawn. It could just as easily be called ‘more than just night and dawn’ as Romero was largely overlooked outside of the Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dawn, the two zombie touchstones that founded one of the most ubiquitous of horror sub-genres. This status quo ignores the high watermark of the horror anthologies, Creepshow, and the nihilistic anti-vampire picture Martin, among others. The three films that make up this set are Season of the Witch (1973), the little-known there’s always vanilla (1971), and The Crazies (1973).
As with any Romero film, The Crazies is a politically charged satire that uses the language of genre to take stock of what is happening in the world – war and science fiction are the tools adopted here. Unlike other war films, Romero tracks both sides in Evans City, Pennsylvania. On one hand are the townspeople’s of firefighter David (Will McMillan), his pregnant girlfriend, nurse Judy (Lane Carroll), and firefighter Clank (Harold Wayne Jones) as they are set upon by heavily armed soldiers in NBC suits and gas masks. Led by Major Ryder (Harry Spillman), the military endeavour are there to contain [Trixie] a biological weapon that accidentally spilled into the towns water supply, their initial effort sees them forcefully direct townspeople to the high school. However, due to the nature of the biological weapon and the forceful way the military ferries people things take a turn for the worse. See, Trixie weaponises sanity whereby the people who it is inflicted upon either end up dead or crazy beyond cure and with the hysteria and violence instigated by the military, Romero develops this homegrown Vietnam War proxy. Perhaps these symptoms are analogous to certain unlucky Vietnam vets fractured minds and PTSD.
Romero’s target is the bureaucracy of government and military campaigns, targets which he goes after with an insatiable fervor. The goals of this ‘invading force’ is to ensure the outbreak doesn’t spread beyond the city limits into wider America, expected protocol for such an incident. If only it was as simple as that as the suits the soldiers and scientists wear make it impossible to work meaning their ability to research Trixie further or prevent further exposure is gravely hindered. A running idea throughout is that the containment force has been given a difficult job with little to no information, resources or time to prevent further exposure. Only that isn’t the limit of this disaster as at the heart of any mobile communication is a minefield of bureaucratic red tape that makes any conversation subject to a series of identity tests. “The left-hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing” is the proverb, only in Romero’s hands – the left-hand doesn’t even know whether the right hand exists.
The Crazies opens on a farmhouse with two children playing in the middle of the night, interrupted by crashing furniture they run to their mother only to find her dead, killed by their dad who is now in the process of setting the house on fire. Not 5 minutes later the dad is crying about what happened, oblivious to the fact that he was the one that caused it all. This is what Trixie does and it’s in the towns water supply meaning its only a matter of time before the entirety of the town falls to this weapon. That is why the government sent a military presence and its also why Romero periodically edits in a slowly approaching plane carrying a nuclear payload, creating a very effective ticking clock.
Firefighter’s David & Clank and Judy are our men on the ground – through them, we see how oblivious the soldiers charged with this duty are and the increasing mania of those infected by the weapon. At first, the trio merely attempts to survive, finding a father and daughter along the way. This is a slow burn presented by a man who invented the language for creeping infection (or turning), what starts as surviving turns to defending which turns to offensive moments which concludes with an outright combative paranoid psychosis in which the victim has no control over what they are doing. The father and daughter are key in depicting how pervasive Trixie is and the non-discriminating doom that dominates every single soul. Biological weapons are very real as is the incompetence of joint military/government operations, and together they turn the Crazies from a tense potboiler into an alarming ‘what if’.
All of Romero’s Pre-Dawn work has a grime, grain, and dirt akin to any number of low-budget early 70s horror and exploitation; Wes Craven, early John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, all these big names had films that looked the same in this regard. Where some of these films look dated by way of their low budget, some, the Crazies, specifically are made by this grime. As ever, Arrow Video understands this and even though significantly cleaned up, it still looks like a deeply dirty film – it just wouldn’t be the same film otherwise. That is where its power comes from.