George Romero's The Crazies (TC) came out between his more two famous zombie films, Night of the Living Dead ('68) and Dawn of the Dead ('78). TC shows many affinities to them in settings (rural Pennsylvania farm houses) and scenarios. TC is yet another horror/sci-fi hybrid, with only trace elements of sci-fi. It's not as gory as the zombie films, but has more than its share of shoot-outs and splattering red paint. The plot is an adaptation of the sci-fi thriller The Andromeda Strain ('71) and also harkens to The Last Man On Earth ('64). While TC itself was not particularly profitable, Romero's zombie films would go on to be quite successful.
Quick Plot Synopsis
A farmer goes crazy one night, kills his wife and burns down his house. His two children are pulled from the fire. Judy, a nurse, is called to the doctor's office. Her husband David is called to the firehouse. He and his old highschool buddy "Clank" are firemen. Judy finds the doctor's office overrun with military men in white jumpsuits and gas masks. Everyone gets an injection of antibiotic. (It is later revealed that a military plane crashed north of town. Aboard were vials of a weapon virus code named Trixie. It causes insanity and/or death.) Judy's doctor boss helps her escape with antibiotics to go run away with David. They try to run, but end up getting captured. Meanwhile, Major Ryder is joined by Colonel Peckhem to round up all civilians and quarantine them in the high school. Those outside, in "no man's land" must surrender or be shot. A cranky scientist named Watts is a Trixie expert sent in to study the outbreak and maybe develop a solution. He has only the high school's chem lab, so is even more cranky. Presidential advisors agree that if the virus cannot be quickly confined to the town, they will have to drop a nuke on it to burn out the virus. A cover story of a nuke on the crashed plane is loosed. David, Judy and Clank are in an army van with Artie, his teen daughter Kathy and an older man, clearly crazy from the virus. The old man bolts out the door, allowing David and Crank to overpower the guards and escape with the van. They ditch it and proceed on foot. They come to a farmhouse some soldiers are occupying (they killed the farmer and his wife in gun battles). David wants some answers, but Clank manages to kill all the soldiers. He's going crazy. Kathy has gone crazy (super spacey). Artie goes crazy too. First ranting about kids nowadays, then later, mistakes Kathy for his dead wife and 'rapes' her. He later hangs himself. Soldiers come. Kathy is outside and scares them, so they shoot her. David, Judy and Clank escape out the back. Clank holds them off, killing many, but is eventually shot. David tries to hide Judy among concrete blocks at a block factory. A soldier discovers him in his tower hiding place. David kills him and puts on his white suit and gas mask. The others leave. Judy, going crazy, mistakes David for a soldier and screams. Some teens come running up shooting, thinking David is a soldier. They shoot Judy. David shoots all but one of them, who at the last minute recognizes David as his coach. Judy dies in David's arms. Col. Peckhem reports the town contained. All citizens accounted for: dead or alive (crazy). His commander says Trixie may have escaped in the water to Louisville, so he is extracted by helicopter to head up the operation there. The End.
Why is this movie fun?
Romero managed to capture a topic which is quiet salient to today -- government confiscation of citizen firearms. This is a sub-text within the plot, and perhaps more relevant to today's audiences than the evil-military theme popular in the 70s. The ambiguity of just who is infected and which actions were not rational, adds some depth that the story needed.
Distrust of the government and military had been growing as the American public soured on the Vietnam War. Suspicion that the authorities (whom the hippy-era youth never trusted anyhow), was becoming almost a cultural "given" -- both on the farther left and farther right ends of the political spectrum. The "government" are depicted as heartless technocrats, who are portrayed as some slouching older men. Even the President, seen on by the back of his head, is willing to blow up an American city to cover up their bumbling. The prestige of the American government would never really recover from the downward slide of the early 70s.
Andromeda On $5 A Day -- Writers Paul McCollough and George Romero have borrowed heavily from 1971's The Andromeda Strain for the basic plot. Instead of a space bug, though, the virus is an insidious creation of the reckless (evil) military. Romero's Andromeda remake is ultra-low-budget. Instead of a gee-whiz high tech bunker, he uses the actual town of Evans City. Instead of focusing so much on the scientists trying to discover a cure, Romero focuses on the refugees trying to escape.
Double Quasi-Zombies -- TC has two sets of "zombies". One is the citizenry insane with the virus. They destroy and kill without rationality. The second are the soldiers. They're quite un-soldier-like in white jumpsuits and almost always wearing the scary-face gas mask. These, like Jason's hockey mask, make them "in-human". Also a bit like zombies, the soldiers are clueless pawns who kill without really understanding why. The film then has the two groups of quasi-zombies battling each other, with our protagonists caught in the middle.
Another Omega Man -- Romero's story also borrows from Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend." David, as the sole surviving "normal" person, battling the inhuman hoards, is very much like Vincent Price fighting his zombies in The Last Man on Earth ('64) and Charlton Heston battling his virus-spawned zombies in The Omega Man ('71). In both of those movies, the protagonist in somehow immune to the virus. His blood holds the cure. David doesn't die like Price and Heston, but the implication is that he is an opportunity wasted by the inept government.
Remake -- The story in TC was apparently deemed good enough to merit a bigger budget remake. Overture Films produced and distributed their own The Crazies in 2010. The plot was close to Romero's '73 script. Between the original and remake are dozens of films picking up on the killer-virus-on-the-loose trope. 28 Days Later (2002) being a more recent iteration. But, the deadly virus trope was not invented by Romero. In addition to Matheson's 1954 story, there was No Place to Hide ('56) with a germ-warfare virus potentially getting loose and a manhunt by the military. The Omega Glory episode of Star Trek ('66) had a deadly virus. No Blade of Grass ('71) had a virus that killed food, so people turned on each other. The virus idea has been popular for a long time.
Bottom line? TC is not particularly sci-fi, and besides the ample red paint and almost-amusing spurting blood effects, not particularly "horror" either. It is more of a thriller with heavy-handed vilification of the military and government.