Five years after he unleashed Night of the Living Dead upon the world, but a long time before he became known as one of America's premiere horror-makers, George Romero stepped up to do his second genre film. Clearly he wasn't interested in returning to the zombie well just yet (and lord knows he'd return to the zombie well), but clearly he didn't want to stray too far from his proven formula. The result was the 1973 sci-fi / horror / political satire known as The Crazies, and while it probably doesn't rank among Mr. Romero's very best films, it's still a smart and slyly twisted poke in the ribs at the American government, the U.S. military, and clueless bureaucracy in general.
And that's sort of the film's big problem. Ostensibly the tale of a small Pennsylvania town that gets infected by a horrible (man-made) virus, The Crazies spends a lot of its early reels talking, yelling, pontificating, yelling, and sermonizing. Clearly Romero's intent was to illustrate how an unprepared government agency could stumble its way through a sudden and horrific emergency -- and do little more than to make things worse, but much of The Crazies is over-focused on a small handful of irritating soldiers, doctors, and government officials who certainly "sell" the confusion of the situation, but also keep the true horror of the situation at arm's length.
The viewer doesn't get much chance to be scared until later, as the flick jumps back and forth between the governmental buffoonery and a subplot involving some townsfolk who take matters into their own hands. The virus is known as Trixie, and it turns its victims into remorseless, bloodthirsty lunatics. Romero has some fun trying to decide who's scarier, the infected or the inept rescue teams, but for the most part The Crazies is a schizophrenic affair: we "get," early and often, that the military has no idea what to do, but when the flick sticks to the whole "escape and survive" angle, it becomes a perfectly entertaining (if, yes, rather dated) piece of early '70s bio-horror.
As is often the case with Mr. Romero's films, the cast is populated with mostly unknowns, some of whom can carry a scene ... and a few who simply cannot. In the film's favor is a gritty, low-budget reality (despite some raw performances) that only seems to come from horror flicks made by enthusiastic people, and not disinterested corporations. And it comes as no surprise to note that The Crazies just earned itself a remake; Romero was certainly a few years ahead of his time in using biological weapons as a springboard for domestic horror.
Equal parts flawed and fascinating, frustrating and clever, The Crazies stands (alongside Martin, Creepshow, and Monkey Shines, among others) as proof positive that George Romero has a few cool ideas that don't involve zombies. The filmmaker doles out his reliable batch of social commentary and wise-ass gallows humor, and caps it all off with some scares and splatters that should keep the genre fans happy. It may be a second-tier Romero film, but hell, it's still a Romero film.
And Blue Underground Home Video seems to be in agreement, as they've timed their slick-looking blu-ray release to arrive right alongside Overture's (surprisingly good) remake of The Crazies. As soon as the old-school horror fans are done with the main feature, they'll want to click right over to the very enjoyable audio commentary between filmmakers George Romero and Bill Lustig. (Mr. Lustig directed flicks like Vigilante and Maniac, but these days he seems to be doing a rather fine job doling out digital treats with Blue Underground. Having said that, I do believe this commentary is an import from the old Anchor Bay release of The Crazies.) As expected, Romero is a treat to listen to. He's both kind to his old movie, and brutally honest, and Lustig does a great job of keeping the information flowing. (Not that Romero ever needs much help in that department.) Also included: a brief piece on lovely leading lady Lynn Lowry and a few old trailers and TV spots.
The Crazies seems to have everything that pisses off the 1973 version of George Romero, all in one flick. The government, the military, the countless, faceless authority figures of the era ... then he throws 'em into a pot and lets them scream at each other until crazy violence breaks out. So while it's not as creepy, dark, or surreal as Romero's "Dead" classics, The Crazies is still insane enough to enjoy.