After shaking the very foundation of low-budget horror filmmaking with 'Night of the Living Dead (1968),' George A. Romero tried his hand at other genres before returning wholeheartedly to the one he knows best with 'Martin.' During this ten year period, he made three movies which are all but forgotten today, except by the most hardened of Romero fans. 'There's Always Vanilla' is the director's horrifically bad attempt at romantic comedy, and it is so poorly done that it has become an awkward title in the long career of a legendary filmmaker. The only way to watch it is as a companion piece on the DVD release of 'Season of the Witch' (a.k.a 'Jack's Wife'). And while this latter movie is also badly made, the plot is quite interesting and perceptive for something of its caliber.
The movie which then followed these oft overlooked flicks is also the one with the strongest cult following, next to his zombie features of course. 'The Crazies (1973)' centers around a small suburban town outside of Pittsburgh, a signature locale in almost all of Romero's films. Evans City is plagued with the accidental release of a military biological weapon that transforms normal citizens into violent homicidal maniacs. As heavily armed troops dressed in NBC suits roam the streets of the once-peaceful rural area, Colonel Peckam (Lloyd Hollar) is in charge of containment, and Dr. Watts (Richard France) desperately searches for a cure. All the while, three friends Clank (Harold Wayne Jones), David (W.G. Wellman), and his fiancée Judy (Lane Carroll) team up with a father and daughter (Richard Liberty and Lynn Lowry) to try and escape the quarantined town. But as they all soon realize, you can't outrun a virus.
It's fairly obvious from the first few opening scenes, the movie is not the big Hollywood production the plot summary would suggest. As soon as the actors begin to deliver their corny, hackneyed dialogue and we notice the limited set design, it's pretty clear 'The Crazies' is pure B-movie, exploitation cheese. It's the kind of production we quickly stereotype as the low-budget, independent movie normally billed as a double-feature, which flooded the grindhouse theaters of 42nd Street in the 1960s and 70s. Hugely guilty of the sort of genre characteristic Quentin Tarantino commemorates in almost all of his films, the cast indulges in what seems like endless talking meant specifically to add gravity to the narrative and some character development. They are sometimes unintentionally funny while at other times a bit more keen and serious.
The real beauty hiding beneath 'The Crazies,' however, is George Romero's direction, imparting his action thriller with some choice imagery that serves as blatant social commentary. Filmed during the time when anti-war sentiments were at their highest, the movie shows the military as a bumbling and inept presence inside Main Street U.S.A. If they aren't seen as incapable of adequately fixing their own catastrophic mistakes, then David and Clank -- both former soldiers on leave from Vietnam -- make numerous comments about their distrust of the army. The back and forth between Dr. Watts and Colonel Peckam is especially and unwittingly comical, as they suggest inner-politics hindering open communication to properly resolve a real threat to national security. At its core, the film is poised to show what happens when normalcy within the idyllic American lifestyle is in a complete shambles and ordinary people must fend for themselves.
If for nothing else, this one major aspect is what makes 'The Crazies' a worthy collectible -- an early Romero film deserving of some appreciation aside from his zombie flicks. That, and there's also the movie's most memorable scenes with Lynn Lowry. The legendary director's penchant for creating underlying social insights and rhetoric amidst the violence and gore is pretty unmistakable here, as well as in 'Season of the Witch'. Once we move into 'Martin' and 'Dawn of the Dead (1978)', this element of his films becomes more refined and subtle. Nonetheless, 'The Crazies' is a fun and cheesy low-budget blend of action, excitement and drama that is actually quite perceptive and intelligent for a B-feature. For cult enthusiasts, the film is a great example of that long-gone era of the exploitation, grindhouse movement and a must own for any cult collection.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Blue Underground brings 'The Crazies' to Blu-ray for the first time on a Region Free BD25 single-layer disc housed in the standard blue keepcase. The cover features new artwork made especially for this release. The disc goes straight to the main menu with full motion captures and the normal tab selections overlaid atop a biohazard logo.
For those already familiar with previous releases of this George A. Romero classic, this high-definition presentation from Blue Underground is impressive and the best the movie has ever looked. Considering its low-budget roots and age, 'The Crazies (1973)' will never compare to newer releases or other catalogs titles with more money to spare on a proper restoration, but fans will be hard pressed to not want this cult classic as part of their Blu-ray collection.
The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (1.66:1) is generally flat, two-dimensional, and rather grainy, which is expected given the film stock and limited finances. Contrast is adequately balanced but falls mostly on the lower end of the grayscale due to the gloomy overcast of when the film was shot. Still, whites are clean and crisp while black levels appear accurate and deep. Delineation is fairly strong as well, with good visibility in the shadows. Primaries are surprisingly bold and richly saturated with secondary hues pleasingly well rendered, making the color palette of this transfer it's most attractive aspect. Fine object details are reasonably sharp and nicely defined for a print of this vintage, and flesh tones appear natural enough if only a bit paler than normal with decent texture in the complexions. Overall, this is a respectable improvement over previous editions and one which fans will find appreciably satisfying.
For the audio, Blue Underground provides the 70s exploitation flick with a reliable if only somewhat limited DTS-HD Master Audio mono soundtrack. Despite appearing as if the original sound design has been considerably cleaned up, this hi-rez track is none too impressive. The lossless mix has a bit of trouble with the higher frequencies, especially when people are screaming in high-pitched voices. Imaging also feels somewhat flat, unappealing, and noticeably restricted. On the bright side, all ambient and discrete effects are clearly delivered and plainly rendered by the center channel, and vocals are well-prioritized and intelligible throughout. Naturally, the design doesn't come with any low bass or surround activity, but it sounds as it should, except for a few hiccups.
Blue Underground culls the same supplemental material as the 2003 DVD release of Romero's cult classic, and it's a decent package to be sure, only not very in-depth or comprehensive. Sadly lacking is the 45-minute documentary on Lynn Lowry, her own audio commentary, and a personal introduction by the well-known B-movie actress found in the limited Two-Disc Steelbook released in Europe. In either case, this still makes for enjoyable collection.
George A. Romero's 'The Crazies' is a classic and often sought after collectible amongst cult/exploitation enthusiasts. The film about the accidental release of a biological weapon upon the sleepy town of Evans City is a perceptive and clever action thriller that remains just as entertaining as ever. This Blu-ray edition from Blue Underground provides fans with the best A/V presentation possible, which makes for a noticeable upgrade from previous releases, and a small but enjoyable package of special features. Enthusiasts, and lovers of anything Romero-related, will want to rush out like crazies and add this wonderful gem to their collection.