The Crazies courtesy Blue Underground
The sequel to
28 Days Later
(2002) - that would be
28 Weeks Later
, in case you hadn't guessed - streets today, and it's a good follow-up to one of those films that came from out of the blue and reminded horror fans like me that there's still life in the classic monsters: All it takes is a director/screenwriter team like
to put a fresh spin on the old tropes.
But my pick of the week is an older and shamefully overlooked movie:
(1973), whose influence is all over films as various as a cluster of '80s horror pictures -
(1985) - the mainstream, "respectable"
(1995), the video-game inspired
series and, of course,
28 Days Later
. And frankly,
' core concerns are as timely now as they were in the wake of the 1960s counterculture - if not more so.
Following the runaway success of
Night of the Living Dead
(1968), Romero tried to branch out of horror with a pair of relationship films rooted in 1970s cultural anxieties:
There's Always Vanilla
had a witchcraft twist and was marketed as a thriller, it's not - it's basically about unhappy suburbanites looking for kicks - both were financial disasters, and
marked Romero's return to genre filmmaking.
Night of the Living Dead
is deeply rooted in '70s concerns: disenchantment with American involvement in Vietnam, distrust of government and the military, small-town isolationism, and the panic and intolerance disaster sows among neighbors and friends.
Shot in Evans City and nearby Zelienople in western Pennsylvania, it begins with the crash of a small military plane in the hills surrounding "Evans City," pop. 3,613. Six days later, a local man goes berserk, murdering his wife and burning down the family home with his two small children inside. Local volunteer firefighters David and Clanker - old buddies and Vietnam War veterans - respond to the blaze and David's pregnant girlfriend, Judy, a nurse, shows up for work at the local doctor's office only to discover the place crawling with soldiers. The downed plane, it turns out, was carrying containers of a bioweapon called "trixie" (the film was originally called "Code Name: Trixie") that's leached into the groundwater.
Infection has two outcomes: violent insanity and death or just plain violent insanity... permanent. There's a vaccine, of which the military only has enough to inoculate necessary personnel - i.e.,
local residents - and there's no cure. Since trixie has had six days to spread, it's pretty obvious that it's only a matter of time before all hell breaks loose. The military mandate is containment: Establish a secure perimeter, disarm the locals, round them up, and make sure they're all accounted for and in one central location. There's also a scientist on hand to try to rustle up a cure, but since he wasn't able to find one in the three years he worked on Project Trixie in a state-of-the-art lab, the odds that he's going to get anywhere working in a bare-bones local doctor's office are slim to none.
I've heard the complaint that
is an antimilitary rant steeped in extreme left-wing paranoia, but I disagree. Romero is an old-school liberal, but
is pretty even-handed. Sure, the image of hazmat-suited soldiers hauling townspeople - old folks, women, crying children - out of bed at gunpoint and locking them up in the local high school, which quickly devolves into bedlam as more and more of them show signs of infection, is frighteningly potent.
But Romero also makes it clear that the soldiers are panicky and underprepared because they've been deliberately kept in the dark by their superiors and aren't expecting to be attacked by sweet little old ladies with knitting needles or fired upon by locals who may be infected or may just be defending their homes against what looks to them like an invading army.
Some soldiers loot, break ranks and turn on each other; others perform small acts of kindness amid chaos, pausing to let a frightened little girl pick up her doll before taking her to the detention center or comforting a small boy whose parents have just been shot to death. The ranking military commanders are middlemen who weren't told what was going on until they were in the thick of it and now have no-argument-broached orders to keep the outbreak secret, even if it means dumping a bomb on Evans City to "burn out the infected area" and pretend it was a nuclear mishap.
Some of the townspeople are hotheaded rednecks, and when the real chaos descends, it's almost impossible to tell who's infected and who just looks crazy because they're reacting to a crazy situation. Romero's beef is with abuse of authority, institutional incompetence and prioritizing the government's image over the rights of ordinary citizens.
And that's why I say the movie is as timely as ever. There's been a remake in development since 2005 and since the weakest thing about
is the uneven performances and low production value, both the nearly inevitable product of a tiny budget, it's possible that a remake could be stronger than the original. On the other hand, that's rarely the case,and since director
abandoned the project to do another thriller,
, I can't say I have high hopes. But I am eager to see Romero's upcoming
Diary of the Dead
: He may be nearly 70 years old, but he's still mad as hell and committed to stirring up debate via horror movies. Go George!
Things to consider:
Exploitation movies can address contemporary anxieties faster, more vividly and under less pressure to support the status quo than mainstream Hollywood movies: Agree or disagree and why?
Do you think it's a critical overthinking or silly to see sociopolitical themes in movies that aren't overtly about politics, current events or social trends?
What movie do you remember because of its subversive and/or provocative themes and why?
Send your movie questions to
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See Maitland McDonagh and Ken Fox review this week's new flicks on the
Previously in DVD Tuesday:
A Simple Plan
Ace in the Hole
Eyes Without a Face
Gone in 60 Seconds
Bob le Flambeur
The Girl Who Knew Too Much
I'm Not Scared
Shocking Grindhouse Double Bill! - Scanners and The Candy Snatchers
Don't Look Now
Kiss and Make Up
Kiss Me Deadly
The Long Good Friday
What Alice Found
The Devil's Backbone
The Devil Wears Prada
The Thief and the Cobbler
Panic in the Streets/Jack Palance Interview
The Pusher Trilogy
In Cold Blood
This week's new DVD releases