The allusions to Vietnam come fast and heavy in The Crazies, Romero’s mordantly funny take on the chaos that ensues when a madness-inducing biochemical spills into a small Pennsylvania town’s water supply. When the military is called in to quarantine and round up the infected, hordes of trigger-happy, biohazard-suit-wearing soldiers descend upon the bucolic countryside, but the true source of horror comes in the form of a quartet of Washington bureaucrats more interested in concocting an official truth to cover up their blunder than accounting for the accumulation of corpses. As in Dawn of the Dead, the victims’ mutations don’t preclude their subservience to routine, so a housewife’s irrationality takes the form of vigorously sweeping a field and a kindly grandmother pauses long enough from knitting a quilt to brandish her needles as lethal weapons.
Romero, who also edited, juxtaposes these moments of absurdity with sudden inserts of graphic brutality—Dawn’s iconic exploding head finds its throat-grabbing precedent in a gas mask that forcibly vanishes from its owner’s neck—that suffuse each frame in an equivocal sense of dread, unbalancing even the most banal bits of exposition. This queasy cutting is a kind of visual equivalent to, and consequence of, the misinformation that courses through the military chain of command: just as the ground general isn’t initially told that the offending chemical is a bio weapon without a cure, the troops are delivered into combat without the faintest idea of the contagion’s symptoms; and since the white-suited men are unable to adequately explain their presence, the rage-crazed citizens uphold their arm-bearing rights against what appears to be an invasion.
It’s a movie that’s about hysteria and equally hysterical in tone, skillfully tone-shifting between wry guffaws—the bad acting, the scientist’s exasperated line readings—and stomach-turning gruesomeness—I’ll never forget the father and daughter, one of the most repulsive things fathomable. Once you’ve seen Romero’s version of man’s inhumanity to man, it’s impossible to carelessly laugh at his violence-inflected comedy without considering its moral repercussions.