In 1972, George Romero was at a cross­roads.  He’d made his­to­ry the first time out of the gate with Night of The Living Dead but an unscrupu­lous dis­trib­u­tor ensured that he and his investors nev­er saw a dime of its the­atri­cal prof­its.  Even worse, his fol­low up films There’s Always Vanilla and Season Of The Witch failed to con­nect and were sel­dom seen due to spot­ty dis­tri­b­u­tion.  The ad com­pa­ny he had found­ed, The Latent Image, had dis­solved in a series of law­suits and Romero found him­self deep in debt.  His respon­se was to do what any film­mak­er would do in this sit­u­a­tion — make anoth­er movie.

This time it was The Crazies, a com­bi­na­tion thriller/horror flick/political com­men­tary.  The film goes for the audience’s throat from its open­ing scene, a gut-wrench­ing sequence where two kids dis­cov­er their father has killed their moth­er and look on in hor­ror as he burns the house down.  Firefighters David (W.M. MacMillan) and Clank (Harold Wayne Johns) are called in to work on the res­cue effort as David’s fiancé Judy (Lane Carroll) goes to the doctor’s office to help with the injured.  None of them know the ter­ri­ble cause of this may­hem: a downed mil­i­tary plane has spilled a bio­log­i­cal weapon into the town’s water sup­ply and any­one infect­ed by it will either become cata­ton­ic or homi­ci­dal­ly insane.

Unfortunately, the trio of heroes soon find them­selves sur­round­ed by masked, bio-suit­ed sol­diers who are round­ing up the towns­peo­ple with­out expla­na­tion.  They break away with fel­low refugees Artie (Richard Liberty) and his daugh­ter Kathie (Lynn Lowry) and try to escape the mil­i­tary-con­trolled zone.  Meanwhile, a team of hasti­ly recruit­ed mil­i­tary per­son­nel attempt to con­tain and defuse the sit­u­a­tion: Colonel Peckem (Lloyd Hollar) tries his best to man­age an unman­age­able sit­u­a­tion as Dr. Watts (Richard France) tries to find an anti­dote with­out his notes and under prim­i­tive con­di­tions.

This is an excel­lent, mul­ti­fac­eted setup for a film and Romero goes after it with both guns blaz­ing.  The film wastes no time in jolt­ing the view­er and packs plen­ty of set­pieces (of both the action and sus­pense vari­eties) into the run­ning time.  The down­side of The Crazies is that Romero is as out­matched as the film’s rag­tag group of heroes.  The film is sim­ply too ambi­tious for its means.

The trou­ble starts with the script, which could have used some edit­ing.  As fast-paced as it fre­quent­ly is, the script has an over­abun­dance of major char­ac­ters that dilute the nar­ra­tive focus.  Also, the sce­nes with the mil­i­tary char­ac­ters are repet­i­tive in both the dra­mat­ic and the­mat­ic sense: every time Romero cuts back to them, they grum­ble about the same prob­lems (mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion, dis­or­ga­ni­za­tion, mind­less pro­to­cols) to com­mu­ni­cate the same crit­i­cisms of mil­i­tary inhu­man­i­ty and inef­fi­cien­cy.  After the first few instances, this ele­ment of the film has nowhere to go.

The Crazies is also hurt by the lim­i­ta­tions of its dra­mat­ic resources, with an ama­teur cast that some­times isn’t up for the task.  MacMillan makes a decent hero but Johns tends towards a one-note blank­ness as his part­ner, a lim­i­ta­tion that becomes annoy­ing when the plot requires us to guess whether he is or isn’t infect­ed.  Lowry and Liberty reg­is­ter the strongest of the escapees: Lowry’s final scene is per­haps the film’s best moment.  On the mil­i­tary side, Hollar acquits him­self well and France is a like­ably sar­cas­tic scene-steal­er.  However, a lot of the oth­er towns­peo­ple roles are filled with well-mean­ing ama­teurs whose com­mu­ni­ty-the­ater style detracts from the film’s attempts at grit­ty real­ism (this is real­ly felt in the few sce­nes where infect­ed towns­peo­ple are being treat­ed in an ad-hoc clin­ic).

However, The Crazies is nev­er less than watch­able despite the­se flaws.  Romero and crew make the most of their $225,000 bud­get, with cin­e­matog­ra­pher Bill Hinzmann get­ting max­i­mum pro­duc­tion val­ue from the Pennsylvania loca­tions.  Romero stages a num­ber of nice sequences that antic­i­pate the blend of hor­ror and action he’d per­fect in Dawn Of The Dead: the best is a creepy scene where sol­diers try to evac­u­ate a home where an entire fam­i­ly, from kids to grand­ma, has been infect­ed with the tox­in.  It’s also worth not­ing that Romero’s edit­ing (always a strength of his ear­ly work) is top-notch.  He clev­er­ly weaves mul­ti­ple sta­tion­ary cam­era setups into won­der­ful­ly kinet­ic sequences and give the film a jit­tery rhythm that keeps its ten­sion lev­el high.

Ultimately, The Crazies is best viewed as a dry run for the mix­ture of action, hor­ror, dark humor and com­men­tary Romero would achieve in Dawn Of The Dead and Day Of The Dead.  It wasn’t the hit Romero want­ed at the time but it was an impor­tant step for­ward in his direct­ing style and ambi­tions — and this ensures it remains of his­tor­i­cal impor­tance for his fans.