I have a personal history with George Romero entirely separate from the fact that I met him once at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. It was back in the last few years of the 1990s, when I was a tween, that I got really into low budget 70s and 80s horror movies. Introduced me to what Perfidious Albion once called ‘video nasties‘ through the last years of the video rental store. The favorite of mine adjacent to this genre was the original Dead Trilogy, my favorite film trilogy of all time to this day. Night of the Living Dead, both its original and 1990 remake (both were made by Romero hence the lack of usual decline in quality of remakes) got me hooked, and the totally apocalyptical conclusion of Day of the Dead was an apt and surprisingly Epicurean conclusion to the series. But the real stand out was the middle entry, Dawn of the Dead. My favorite movie of all time to this day. I still remember the night I first watched it. It was the week of Halloween, 1997 and I was home alone. Despite the movie already being twenty years old, I had never seen gore like that, nor such a perfect blend of bleakness and comedy. I was a kid and coming into an awareness that shopping malls were the nexus of social interaction still for the time (though this would be the last decade that would be the case), and did not like that, and so thoroughly enjoyed the thorough pisstake of consumer culture the movie represented. Not to mention that soundtrack with what has to be the most iconic (to me) main theme of any movie. I had yet to be acquainted with Italian synth-prog-rock band Goblin, now, thanks to the Giallo film subgenre, a general staple of my life- but unknown to me then. More importantly, I liked that human society still exists at the start of the movie, despite being a sequel to Night, but gradually fades in the background before utterly unraveling by the end, leaving only disparate groups of people to fight over resources while they still hold off the zombies.
No movie after this trilogy ever got world-ending zombies right. Including (and especially) the non-Romero remakes. Romero’s zombies were not supposed to be fast or threatening. The entire point was that humanity destroys itself when confronted by a novel threat of suitable shock value, even if the danger isn’t actually all that great on its own terms. Mass panic, fear, and selfishness are all that is needed to cause a collapse of modern society. Each of the films in the trilogy shows a certain aspect of these themes to perfection. Dawn, in particular, really stands out for its depiction of the news media as it declines along with the rest of society. The opening scene is a chaotic newsroom willing to send people to their deaths in overrun rescue stations rather than lose viewers. From there, as our intrepid band breaks out on their own, we mostly experience what is happening in the greater world through radio and television. The background sets become more ragged looking, the presenters more tired, the discussions more chaotic. Until finally, all transmissions cease.
And if you thought this was cynical, in 2006 Land of the Dead rolled around and we got to see civilization’s reboot quite literally eat itself once again due to an inability to deal with class inequality.
But while the Dead Trilogy may be Romero’s best faire, it is one of his other movies, The Crazies, that we should turn to foremost in the era of Bungled Pandemic. While definitely not one of his best movies as an artistic production, and mildly irksome to my inner military history nerd due to the ubiquity of M1 Carbines shown in the 1970s army, it remains an exceptional take on government, bureaucratic, and small town bungling and miscommunication and is tied only with It Comes At Night for my favorite pandemic movie.
In The Crazies, a bioengineered virus by the Department of Defense is accidentally released due to a plane crash over a town north of Pittsburgh. The virus, codenamed Trixie, drives people into violent and irrational fits of behavior making them murderous and/or suicidal. The town is already half descended into chaos by the time the army arrives and begins setting up a quarantine. The initial response was badly bungled due to the need for secrecy, and just when the state forces are beginning to start fixing the situation the people begin revolting. As scientists are given the correct amount of leeway to do real work, the bungled edifice around them crumbles at the moment when it can do some good. The damage is done, a heavy handed government response is too deadly and the people no longer believe nor seek to obey state decrees as too many have been killed or detained.
And here is where the most interesting part of the film comes to play. Unlike the Dead Trilogy, there is no way to tell who is infected with Trixie and who is merely reacting due to stress and mass panic from societal breakdown. The movie shows us multiple massacres and gunfights between the army and the citizens where it is entirely unclear if anyone is even infected with the virus at all. The main band of townies we follow is entirely sympathetic when we see them storm an army occupied house and massacre the soldiers there. But when it becomes obvious part of their party is infected we also see that the main military figures we are following are also sympathetic as the existence of the virus is in fact quite real.
Meanwhile, the monotonous military drum roll music that provides most of the film’s soundtrack goes from annoying but perhaps reassuring and authoritative to increasingly farcical as the entire setting and containment operation collapse under multiple factors of bureaucratic clashes and incompetence. Additionally, the use of amateur actors and locally recruited extras (a common in Romero films) is actually a boon as real life people in a crisis behave like amateurs and not actors with prescribed roles. The heroic Dr. Watts, played by the memorable Richard France, is too rushed to tell his aide the details of the vaccine he is developing and then, right as he completes his task successfully, is caught up in a stampede of detained townies and killed in the resulting mob rush, his work lost. The last surviving rebel local that we followed is finally captured after everyone he sought to escape with has been (rightly or wrongly) killed. It is clear he has natural immunity and even knows it, but he elects to stay silent out of spite once under government custody. Whether this situation is handled well considering the its chaotic and unprecedented nature becomes irrelevant as a new outbreak is reported in Louisville.
This leaves us with some important questions: Did the virus only effect a few people and the rest was all resulting panic? Who was really infected and who wasn’t then? These questions are never answered. It is worth noting that the 2010 Crazies remake, while not a meatheaded disaster like the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake was, makes it obvious who is infected and who is not, which fundamentally undermines the core ambiguity of the original film.
Once again, like in Dawn of the Dead, Romero’s filmmaking is an intense and personal-to-small group view into societal breakdown while, like in real life, feeding incomplete information from rumor, hearsay, and a dysfunctional media. Romero was no fan of unrestrained capitalism or the carceral state, and I can’t help but think he, along with other later-tier Silent Generation directors and writers, saw something in the coming Boomer zeitgeist that would lead to only the most farcical of societal breakdowns. A plague of mullets and hideously colored clothing and interior decor that would usher in a chaotic new dark age of misinformation, confusion, and mass panic.
Set to farcical mall muzak, of course: