by Tony Nigro
Something beyond zombies keeps bringing me back to George Romero. Perhaps it’s his comfortable balance. A Romero film consistently balances DIY ethic with a vision that rarely compromises integrity, and low budgets with Hollywood high concepts despite the consequence of being branded “B,” “drive-in,” “grindhouse” or “straight to video.” Perhaps it’s his storytelling. The most solid Romero films can be either self-contained chamber set-ups (Night of the Living Dead) or epics covering several parallel stories in various locations (The Crazies, the whole zombie series). Perhaps it’s his editing. The few films he’s edited himself display a flair for creative, rapid-fire visual transitions and staccato dialogue cuts, the kind of cinematic tricks that I associate with the long gone days of editing on film. Or perhaps I’m just another nerd who’s afraid to admit it.
Each movie employs disease to varying degrees, The Crazies using it in a plague paranoia way similar to his zombie films and Martin labeling vampirism as a “disease.” Each is set in Pittsburgh (and outlying areas) and features working-hero characters, democratic ideals, real locations, obvious non-actors, and all the elements that place Romero somewhere vaguely between genre and neo-realism.
The Crazies is a Bizarro cousin to Romero’s zombie films rife with outbreak parannoia, irreverence toward the military, and hordes of nameless antagonists. Even some characters have their parallels: Kathy (early Troma superstar Lynn Lowry, who looks like a Gelfling) combines the catatonia of Night of the Living Dead‘s Barbara with the endangered/dangerous child bit seen in the same film’s trowel-wielding little girl. Here W.G. McMillan’s David is the same cool-headed hero that we get from Duane Jones a few years earlier in Night of the Living Dead and who we see a few years later played by Ken Foree in Dawn of the Dead.
The story of The Crazies — military bio-weapon mishap quarantines small town — is quite simple, but the scope is vast and the parallel actions are deftly handled. Romero’s typical distrust of government and all other authority is also on hand, but it never quite approaches the maturity seen in Land of the Dead — where the audience is meant to sympathize with both sides, living and undead — but that doesn’t seem to be the point. The crazies themselves, those affected by the viral weapon, aren’t nearly as threatening as the authorities declaring martial law on the town.
Released in 1973, the film seems as much a product of Now as it was of Then. A poorly organized military operation rife with self-defeating bureaucracy starts the whole mess and leaves it with no end in sight; soldiers clad in storm-trooper-like gas masks round up civilians, pilfer the pockets of the dead, and generally make a mess of their occupied territory; suits in the war room think of a way to contain the situation and cover up their errors; innocents suffer like something out of Kafka. There’s a ripped-from-the-headlines feel that almost approaches Sam Fuller sensationalism. It seems only obvious that a remake is on the horizon.
As much as I might cherish The Crazies, it’s Martin that sticks out more. The film is the closest I’ve felt the director can get to the grindhouse, despite the limb munching and exploding heads for which he’s known. It rides anxieties about the sexual revolution, features more straight up sex than I’m used to seeing in a Romero film, and it gets the closest I’ve seen to his avant-garde narrative techniques, intercutting black and white flashbacks/dreams of a blood-soaked Martin past and playing both visual movement and dialogue patterns to satisfying disorientation. In contrast to the structural gimmick of Martin phoning into a late night confessional radio show, the black and white sequences give the film an edge rarely seen in Romero. Yeah, they’re pretty corny, but they ooze an overall feeling of culty weirdness and let us know that Martin is the Nosferatu that his cousin Tada Cuda claims him to be.
Or is he? All the talk about Martin being 84 years old and a real vampire might be a bunch of B.S. Except for the black-and-white sequences, we have no great proof that what Martin claims about himself is true, that he needs blood like a junkie need dope. We only know what we see, which is a kooky kid killing people with tranquilizers, razor blades, and a whole lot of angst — something any normal lunatic could do. I’d like to think that it’s all intentionally vague, that Martin is as delusional about vampirism and his family history as is Tada Cuda, and that the black-and-white flashbacks are illustrations of either or both of their delusions. To make Martin a real vampire would only undercut Romero’s underlying critique of religion and superstitions.
I may be wrong in that assessment, but it’s really the reason keep going back to Romero: critique. Humorous jabs at authority wrapped in a whole lot of metaphor. Virus and martial law, or vampires and zombies, it matters not.