There have been numerous attempts over the years to cinematically document a grim "what if" scenario where some exotic virus spreads across an isolated stretch of American land and forces overzealous military officials to make some tough decision about who lives and dies. It's a simple story with numerous ramifications but one big minus limits the growth of this genre: there's usually no plausible happy ending. This would bother most filmmakers but certainly not George Romero, king of the living dead apocalypse. Romero could take this simple concept to the it's most radical edge and mine this rich content for every social, political and economic bone in it's body. Cambist Films (U.S. distributor of Vampyres) signed on to Romero's vision and produced Romero's obscure yet challenging picture The Crazies, aka Code Name: Trixie.
Romero sets his biowarfare nightmare out in the small town of Evans City PA, the same quiet rural area which was host to Romero's Night of the Living Dead just a few years earlier. This time the plague comes in the more frighteningly realistic form of a "bug" transmitted by the water supply and through close contact with others which brings either death or total insanity upon it's unlucky recipients. The military brass piece together a rag tag group of specialists including an ill-preparedColonel Peckem (Lloyd Hollar) and Dr. Walls (Richard France, The eye-patched Doctor from Dawn of the Dead), one of the primary developers of the Trixie "project" which was supposedly declared inactive. Martial law is swiftly established and the town's entire population are herded into a makeshift high school infirmy. A few manage to evade the armed forces, including an assorted group of people which include a volunteer fireman (Will MacMillan), his fiance (Lane Carroll), the resident Vietnam war buddy (Harold Wayne Jones) as well as a young woman sinking slowly into delusion (Lynne Lowry, Shivers) and her increasingly protective father (Richard Liberty, Doc. Logan from Day of the Dead). As the disease spreads through the town and eventually through the anonymous-looking masked infantry, madness reigns and discerning the "crazy" from the uninfected becomes increasingly difficult as both the military and the lone group of survivors both race toward some solution to the insanity.
As in many of Romero's Films the ensemble cast of both veterans and newcomers are utilized to maximum effect. France's signature appeals for rational thought fall on the same deaf ears as they did in Dawn... and Liberty's intense portrayal of a fatherly figure echoes his later stint as the disturbed Doctor in Day..., another character with serious family issues. Macmillan's standard "Veteran with a chip on his shoulder" performance comes off a bit cliched and dated but works nonetheless, while his friend "Clank" is played by a wild-looking Jones who bears a passing resemblence to that other strange character actor Allan Vint. Allan as well as his brother Jesse would probably be at home in the slightly off-base regional role which Jones inhabits so comfortably in this film. The dynamic and realstic emotions which these characters travel through in the course of the film is a testament to the creativity and skill of Romero the director.
Another one of The Crazie's strengths which sets it apart from similar films is something George mentions frequently in the commentary track: a sense of kinetic, rythmic pacing which is at the core Romero's style and key element to the paranoic atmosphere of the film. I think it was also primarily the reason I turned this movie off halfway when I first rented it years ago, since I remember in particular that I pressed "stop" around the time where the helicopter ferrets out the grop and causes them to scatter into the forrest. It was just too hectic! There's barely a static moment within the sequence where all five characters are visible inside the same frame, the kind of establishing shot which some director might think to be essential; instead, Romero breaks the chase scene into dozens of discordent close-ups, handheld POVs and very tight medium shots of both the runners and the military. In many respects it's almost too fast for the average viewer to percieve but it does contribute an energy to the film which appropriately establishes the important "siege" element and distracts the viewer from potentially amateurish craft and lack of resources. The result is an effective sequence that works much better than some of the more expensive shots in Zombi 3 which must have utilized twice the amount of white suited-extras and yet came off twice as boring due to a restrained visual style which this film never sinks into. What The Crazies lacked in budgetary it more than made up in sheer action and the scope which Romero is willing to encompass.
The Crazies has shown up sporadically over the years on various foreign and domestic video releases including a recent Japanese DVD release, but Blue Underground's Special Edition DVD presents a nearly definitive rendition of the film in a new 16:9 anamorphic transfer (windowboxed to 1.66:1) which practially revitalizes the picture and allows one to see through the cruddy and inadequate prints of decades past and appreciate the truely interesting cinematography of Bill Hinzman. It's apparent from the beginning that some major film restoration has occured, with the cold neon bulbs of the interior headquarter casting an eerie gloom and the outdoor scenes shimmering in a technicolor glory never seen before. Even though many of the night scenes exhibit a slight amount grain it's all in keeping with the extremely low-budget conditions which the movie was made under. The audio is presented in a simple mono Dolby Digital 2.0 track which is clean-sounding and free of any undue distortion. B.U. has also managed to record an engrossing audio commentary by Romero which is full of interesting anecdotes. Joining him on the track is Wiliam Lustig, who prods George into revealing the origins and fate of the finished film as well as indulging in a fair amount of commentary on today's current filmmaking climate. Also included are the requisite television and theatrical trailers, in-depth still galleries along with The Cult Film Legacy of Lynn Lowry, a short interview segment with Lowry which documents her beginnings in films like Sugar Cookies and The Crazies all the way through her roles in Shivers and Radley Metzger's Score. Overall this release represents an incredible package which may finally win this underrated Romero classic the attention it deserves.
AKA Code Name:
Trixie, The Mad People / 1973, 103 min./ Directed by George Romero
Blue Underground / Reg. 0 NTSC DVD / Rel. 4-29-03 / 16:9 / DD 2.0 Mono / MSRP $19.95