Welcome to Romero Week, fiends. (I’m sorry that I’m starting on Wednesday instead of Monday — I got a late start because I fell victim to a monster migraine.)
We’re all mourning the loss of one of the greatest horror directors of all time. Most of the headlines I see from mainstream outlets are memorializing him as the father of zombie films, which is accurate. Zombie movies existed before Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, but without that 1968 classic, zombies would not be the pop culture staple that they are today. Think of every zombie-related movie, book, or game that you love — if it came out after 1968, you can thank George A. Romero for it.
If he were just the father of zombie films, that would be reason enough for his place in the horror pantheon. But he was so much more than that.
George A. Romero was the filmmaker who showed me that horror can say something; he showed me that a movie can be gory, scary, and an important voice in conversations about race, class, war, and gender, just to name a few. In that spirit, I’m starting the week off with his most overtly political film: 1973’s The Crazies.
The film takes place in Evans City, Pennsylvania. An Army plane carrying a chemical (innocuously code-named Trixie) crashes and contaminates the town’s water supply. The Army descends on the town and declares martial law, citing the need for a quarantine. The soldiers and lower-ranking officers had been led to believe that Trixie was a vaccine, but when ranking officer Colonel Peckem arrives, he reveals that Trixie is actually a highly contagious biochemical weapon. (An important note: when Peckem removes his gas mask, the local cops are shocked to see that the man in charge is black. I think Romero had more black heroes/survivors/leaders than all other horror directors combined.)
Project Trixie ran out of funding before an antidote could be developed, so the scientist who developed the weapon tells officials that the infected residents have two options: murder or madness. The town doctor tells his nurse Judy, who is pregnant, to find her fiancé David and hole up somewhere to avoid the infection and the Army. She talks her way past the soldiers and runs to find David, a former Green Beret who has become disillusioned with the Army. Judy tells him what’s happening, and he tells her that he no longer recognizes his former self who fell for the military’s promises of action, adventure, and glory.
Romero contrasts images of this romanticized version of the Army — a photo of a smiling World War II veteran, a little boy playing with green plastic Army men — with images of the “invasionary force” the town doctor warned Judy about. The soldiers, whose gas masks and white NBC suits make them interchangeable and faintly alien, go from house to house forcing people out at gunpoint and stealing their valuables. Some of the residents show signs of infection (my favorite is the woman who pleasantly greets the soldier coming to get her, stabs him with her knitting needle, and then goes right back to knitting), but most are just normal people trying to protect their homes and their families.
As the soldiers continue rounding up citizens, they enter a church just before Mass. The priest objects and tells the soldiers that the people will resist being taken by force. Outside the church, he pours gasoline on himself and sets himself on fire; this image immediately brings to mind Malcolm Browne’s famous photo of the self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức in Saigon. (I won’t show it or link to it here – this blog has a strict Fictional Gore Only policy – but you can find it in 2 seconds on Google if you aren’t familiar with the image. In case “self-immolation” didn’t tip you off, it is not for the faint of heart.)
If you didn’t already know it, this scene makes it obvious that this is a movie about the Vietnam War, criticizing the U.S. government for starting fires abroad and then waiting until they are out of control to try to put them out. We learn that the higher-level officers and government officials knew that Trixie had a 6-day incubation period, yet they waited to act until 6 days after the plane crash that contaminated the water supply. They waited until the literal last minute to help a town of people who had been infected with a virus that turns them into homicidal maniacs. When they finally sent soldiers and supplies, they didn’t send enough of them, and any requests for assistance are delayed by bureaucratic red tape.
As the situation worsens in Evans City, the higher-ups confirm with the President that dropping a nuclear bomb on the town is an option, and then they discuss the ways they can shift blame and lie to the public about what really happened. Romero isn’t just criticizing American foreign policy here; he finds plenty to criticize in domestic policy as well. When he and his friend Clank (another veteran) are discussing their mutual antipathy for the military, David alludes to the four anti-war protesters killed by the National Guard at Kent State, and Clank goes so far as to outright state one of the film’s main themes: “The Army ain’t nobody’s friend, man.”
As they continue running from the Army and the infected townspeople, Judy begins rambling, and David realizes that she is infected. He hides her behind cinder blocks for safety, and then he kills a soldier and steals his gas mask and suit. Driven mad, Judy leaves her hiding place just in time to see children running toward them and shooting. David tries to tell them that he’s not a soldier, but they either can’t hear him or (more likely) don’t care. David shoots back at the kids to protect Judy, but it’s too late. Judy dies, and David looks around and sees that his worst nightmare has come true: he’s a soldier again, caught up in a war he doesn’t understand that was started by people who only care about who gets blamed.
At the end of the movie, over one-third of the townspeople are dead and the rest have gone insane. Colonel Peckem is ordered to travel to a nearby town; despite the quarantine, the infection has spread. He resignedly climbs the ladder to the helicopter as the song “Heaven Help Us” plays over the end credits.
If you’re still reading, that means I haven’t bored you to sleep or bummed you out so much that you’re curled up in the fetal position. Congratulations! In your Romero celebration marathons, please add The Crazies to the watchlist. It works as a drama, an anti-war protest, and — most importantly to us, because we who walk here, walk alone — a great horror movie.
I’ll be back with more odes to Romero, both zombie and non-zombie alike. They won’t all be this long, I promise. Stay tuned, kiddies.