Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Crazies

Sometimes, I think the biggest mistake of my life was my refusal to go to Pittsburgh.

As a film student at Ohio University, I knew a pack of guys who all were from the Pittsburgh area and who spent their summers working on the crew for George A. Romero. They all insisted that it was fun, even if you had to help sort through the spare parts brought fresh every morning by a local butcher (the zombies in Dawn of the Dead were not just playing around with rubber). Actually, a couple of these guys viewed that as part of the fun.

It wouldn't be until a few years later (when I finally got to see most of Romero's movies) that I realized that I should have gone. Romero is, quite simply, one of the major artists of the contemporary American cinema. An extremely individualistic filmmaker, Romero has followed his own vision with much of the same lonely sense of dedication as was pursued by Ed Harris' character in Romero's production of Knightriders (a movie that is Romero's key statement on his own work).

Unfortunately, Romero's artistic gift has been far greater than his ability to find a good distributor. The vast majority of his movies have either gone barely released or basically unreleased thanks to a long string of really bad distribution companies. Even when his production of Martin garnered a surprisingly strong amount of critical reviews during a brief run in New York, the distributor merely deep-sixed the movie into some Southern drive-ins where it vanished from view.

Which may explain why Romero is now making his living by selling the rights to his movie for modern re-makes. The original Dawn of the Dead may be infinitely superior in every way to the recent re-do, but the second version is the one that got widely distributed. The same will undoubtedly be true of the new version of his 1973 masterpiece The Crazies. But if you really want a strong gory taste of total paranoia, I strongly recommend locating a copy of Romero's movie.

In some ways, The Crazies can be viewed as a re-working of The Night of the Living Dead with the zombies replaced by the crazed victims of a military biological warfare weapon that has been accidentally discharged into their water supply. Add in a hefty dose of Nixon-era political paranoia (in which the president would just as soon nuke the town as admit to doing anything wrong) and seasoned with a strong critique of the military (largely taking place within the military's own rank and file as they try to deal with the situation), simmered with a nicely raw presentation of small-town USA values and you get a potent witch's brew of a movie.

So see it before you see the new version.