Sunday, December 12, 2010

George A. Romero Really, Really MEANS It: The Politics of THE CRAZIES

[Beware. Spoilers for those who have not seen either The Crazies (1973) or The Crazies (2010).]

Writing about a liberal filmmaker born in America who moved to Canada, what better way to start than to quote from a conservative novelist who was born in Russia but moved to America?

Ayn Rand said, “My personal life is a postscript to my novels. It consists of the sentence, 'And I mean it.'” Her novels were very, very political.

And so are George A. Romero's films. The man whose freshman work, Night of the Living Dead (1968)created the modern concept of the zombie (previously, it had been a helpless, passive slave to another person's will, rather than an aggressive flesh-eating beast), has never been shy about putting what he believes in his films.

And therein lies a paradox that is interesting to contemplate.

Romero, who is hugely influential stylistically, has had almost no influence thematically.  That is, those who are directly influenced by his aesthetic qualities are the ones who are least likely to have something to say.

I shall narrow my focus. Instead of the endlessly sifted-over zombie pictures, let's look at his The Crazies (1973) and its recent remake, also called The Crazies (2010), which was done by . . . some other people.

The original film, despite its (as always, for GAR*) low, low budget, had a stylistic influence on a generation of films. How many movies and TV shows have you seen where faceless soldiers in gas masks and biowarfare suits round up and kill the innocent townsfolk? It was done in several X-Files episodes, in tons of movies, and in video games.

Romero created the film image of the Faceless, Occupying, Biowarfare-suited Soldier Attacking Civilians (FOBSAC)**, just as surely as he created the flesh-eating zombie attack.

And, remarkably, GAR created the FOBSAC on a budget that almost makes you want to start a telethon for him. (Honey-voiced Announcer: "Would you like to help feed George A. Romero? Please call this number below. Only $2 a day can buy him a soundstage...")

How low is the budget of The Crazies?  Well . . .
  • The FOBSACs carry civilian carbines chambered for pistol-sized rounds, rather than the M-16s the actual army was using by that point. (I'll guess the carbines were probably donated by one of the extras.)
  • A helicopter is “shot down” by having it fly behind a hill and then showing a separate shot of a modest gasoline flare-up.
  • The actors, except for cult film star Lynn Lowry, appeared in little else of note; this was back in the days when Pennsylvania-based Romero was still using actors who could be gotten inside the Pittsburgh area code.
To top it all off, it flopped at the box office due to poor distribution. 

Its cult was built slowly, year by year, as people who enjoyed his zombie pictures sought it out.  The advent of VHS made it more easily available to a new generation.  (That was where I first saw it.)

This wonderfully pulpy trailer for the original shows both the film's anti-Establishment edge and its cheesiness.

So why did this film have so much influence, so much power? Well, I think it boils down to the overriding sincerity of GAR's vision. Love or hate his politics, he believes, man. And those beliefs were never on display more so than in The Crazies.

The Crazies (1973): An Angry Film

After a bioweapon is accidentally released in tiny Evans City, Pennsylvania (played by Evans City, Pennsylvania; GAR used the real town, the real town's name, and the real townspeople as extras), the military comes in to "contain" the situation. 

In Washington, a group of WASPish, sneering officials in suits and ties debate what to do, showing no concern for the townspeople.  An effeminate general peels an orange as he takes part in the discussion.  They are perfectly okay with setting off an atomic bomb to sterilize the area.  The President of the United States, seen in a closed circuit video link with the officials, also shows no concern for the American citizens (and the soldiers) who will be killed.

A series of scenes and characters create a world in which even those who point the guns and give the orders feel that they are puppets in a rigged system:

The Army colonel in charge of the operation is a black man; his race, revealed when he takes off a biosuit in his first scene, causes the town sheriff to exclaim aloud in disgust.

The colonel himself fears (rightly) that he and the others will be sacrificed if it is expedient to the highers-up in Washington.

The main heroic couple that we follow are a fireman and his pregnant girlfriend, a nurse.  They are not living a conventional, middle-class life.

The fireman is a former Green Beret who served in Vietnam, and his buddy and fellow fireman is also a Vietnam vet.  The buddy tells another member of their refugee group, "We was in, man.  The Army ain't nobody's friend."

The Crazies (2010):  A Thrill Ride

By contrast, The Crazies (2010), didn't have a single conviction in its lushly shot, CGI-laden, big-budgeted head.  The movie (which I enjoyed) takes place in fictitious Ogden Marsh, Iowa. 

Why Iowa?  I have a very bad suspicion about that.  Methinks a group of producers in Hollywood were brainstorming a salt-of-the-earth location, and someone said, "I-o-wa!  You know, flyover country!  You heard of it?"  And another producer said, "Yeah, I heard of it, but I thought the name was pronounced 'O-hi-o.'"  After the confusion was sorted out, that was where they chose.

Just my suspicion.

Director Breck Eisner also did the Matthew McConaughey vehicle Sahara.  Hey, I enjoyed that one too.  But Eisner, as a director, has nothing to say.

In contrast to the fireman and pregnant girlfriend, we have the town sheriff as the upright hero, plus his wife, a doctor.  These people are the Establishment with a capital E.

The military people who take over the town are never really seen up close, except for a frightened soldier who is taken captive by the refugee townsfolk, and a sourpussed official who is trapped by our heroes when his SUV flips over.  There is no equivalent to the Washington D.C.-set scenes of the original.

Make a few changes to the script and the production, and the sheriff and his friends could easily be running from a vampire outbreak or perhaps Jason Vorhees. (Speaking of Jason, see my mention of the respective movie posters, below).

The makers of The Crazies (2010) are simply not angry about the way the world is.

This trailer for the remake shows the 2010 film's slickness, as well as its blandness.

Even the posters for the respective films show their differences!

In The Crazies (1973), the tagline is “WHY ARE THE GOOD PEOPLE DYING?” The image shows people fleeing from FOBSACs.

The Crazies (2010) has the non-political horror slogan, “FEAR THY NEIGHBOR”. The image is that of a pitchfork (dripping blood, of course) being used by one of the infected townsfolk; it could have come from a slasher movie.

And so it has been with GAR's other films when remade.  In Dawn of the Dead (2004) directed by Zack Snyder, there is none of the cultural commentary of the original film.  Like Breck Eisner after him, Snyder went on to do other lightweight films such as 300 and Watchmen.  (The latter film's grotesque candy-colored CGI version of the Vietnam war would never have been filmed by Romero, no matter what budget he had access to.)

And in the numerous films merely influenced by Romero, it is an influence of style rather than substance.  Most young horror filmmakers simply do not seem to have any conviction beyond making you jump out of your seat, or lose your lunch.

One final thought:  although I argue that Romero's political beliefs animate (or re-animate, nyuk, nyuk) his films, I am not implying that simply having a political commitment equals great art:
  • Imagine a really, really bad movie, book, or song that happens to take the same attitude you have about the environment, foreign affairs, or global warming. You know you've had that experience.
  • End of argument.

I would appreciate any informed comments (which are moderated). If anyone points out any factual errors I have made, I will happily alter this post.

*GAR: Initials of George A. Romero.  Also, the moaning sound a shuffling zombie makes.

**FOBSAC:  Yeah, I just coined the term.  Make something of it, bub.

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