Tuesday, October 31, 2006

A Termite Art Halloween: The Crazies (1973)

Formidable as his cinematic powers are, the one thing I treasure about George A. Romero's work over all others are his masterful endings (this is your hint that I will be discussing endings and thus SPOILERS will follow). A guy like Wes Craven is better at manipulating an audience, a guy like John Carpenter has a knack for out-and-out terrifying people, but no one crafts a truly bleak and therefore utterly horrifying ending like Romero.

Most horror movies, by nature, don't end happily. But Romero takes it one step further. His secret, I think, is to give a sense of false hope to the audience that things might turn out well and then to shatter our optimism with one final twist. In Night of the Living Dead, Duane Jones' Ben survives the zombie onslaught, only to be shot and killed by some white assholes. His victory is short-lived and very hollow. Romero might be horror's most fatalistic director.

Romero's little seen film The Crazies offers another great example. Before the film begins, an Army plane carrying a virus codenamed Trixie has crashed outside a suburban town. The virus, which turns its victims into raging lunatics, gets in the water, and people start going mad. Our few unstricken heroes are stuck between a proverbial rock and a hard place: as bad as the virus is, the US Army, who rumble into town to quarantine the area and contain the virus might be worse. Clad in white jumpsuits and gasmasks, they're a perfect vision of faceless, fascistic terror, and they're also an ingenious moneysaving device for an independent director like Romero: having them look alike means its easy to use the same five extras to play an entire platoon of men.

None of the visceral bloodshed Romero presents on screen is as scary as the narrative's implications: that if and when the shit hits the fan, the solution is equally as bad as the problem. My favorite scenes aren't the ones with the squibbs and gore: I loved Romero's completely cynical portrayal of Nixon-era government. As the virus spreads, a room of generals and politicians debate their options: should they nuke the town in order to save the rest of the country? Their decision: yes, but, rather than announce they've unleashed this terrible weapon and own up to their mistake, they'll claim the downed airplane contained a nuclear device which must have been damaged in the crash and has now exploded.

The Crazies isn't a particularly great movie (and, as the picture above suggests, it features meathead actors with laughably bad '70s hair in major roles) but it's a powerful piece of sustained dread, one whose careful, intelligent writing overpowers its frequent and ample technical defects. I won't go all the way and fully spoil the ending, but it makes Night of the Living Dead's look like a Disney film in comparison. Happy Halloween!


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