The breakdown of society is a core tenet of the horror film. After all, isn’t the social contract one that implicitly states an individual will do no harm to others at will? If the rules we live by each day are broken, the horror film seems to say, then all bets are off, and everyday complacency is suddenly, upsettingly replaced by terror and fear.
As such, the depiction of a societal breakdown on a large scale being popular within horror makes total sense. While some films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers tackle this theme through sci-fi elements, the most prevalent example of it can be seen in the “zombie apocalypse” subgenre. It’s an incredibly effective subgenre in the way it blends a variety of down-to-earth fears and anxieties within its premise, everything from wartime invasion to a pandemic to governments unwilling or unable to help.
George A. Romero, who created the zombie subgenre with Night of the Living Dead, wrote and directed another movie in 1973, one which most scholars and fans lump in with his cycle of Dead films. Yet The Crazies is far more intriguing and insidious once you let it into your mind. In place of shuffling ghouls consuming the living where the fear of mortality and decay literally runs rampant, The Crazies follows the accidental outbreak of a US military bioweapon, code named “Trixie.” Those infected by the virus, if they don’t die immediately, are driven insane to the point of murder.
Just over a decade later, director Graham Baker took a script by Nicholas Kazan and Don Carlos Dunaway and made it into a movie called Impulse. On his director’s commentary track on the film’s Blu-Ray release, Baker openly admits that his film is a riff on Romero’s Crazies, with both movies using essentially the same premise of an experimental bio-weapon mistakenly unleashed on a small, rural town (in The Crazies it’s due to a plane crash; in Impulse, an earthquake). Yet a premise isn’t the only thing the two films share. Both effectively depict the breakdown of society in a small-scale fashion, using their small town settings as stand-ins for America in a petri-dish sort of way.
Although Night of the Living Dead brilliantly combines the social strife, bigotry, cold war anxiousness and infighting of the late ‘60s, its walking dead are, by design, no longer human, only hollow facsimiles of beings that once were. The infected victims of Trixie in The Crazies go in nearly the opposite direction — they’re almost too human in their reactions and behaviors, their emotions and justifications disturbingly recognizable. The harrowing opening sequence demonstrates the film’s horror in microcosm: a young boy is attempting to scare his little sister late at night when suddenly their father begins smashing up their house, eventually setting fire to it. The children barely escape the man’s rampage; their mother is not so lucky. It’s a scene that presages the cold brutality of Michael Myers in Halloween just a few years later, and that film’s tale of “old Charlie Bowles” could almost be a recounting of the Crazies opening.
The sequence has an eerie quality of unreality — the juxtaposition of the children’s playacting with their father’s insane actions make a point of how the infected in the film aren’t so easily identified as a walking corpse in the Dead saga. Some have compared Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s 28 Days Later to The Crazies, and while that comparison isn’t unwarranted (Boyle and Garland were undeniably riffing on Romero), the rage-virus victims of that movie are far closer to the zombie hordes of Dawn of the Dead and the like.
The truly upsetting thing about The Crazies lies in how its infected aren’t necessarily violent by default (something the 2010 remake mostly did away with). The most notable example of this is in the characters of teenage Kathy (Lynn Lowry) and her father, Artie (Richard Liberty). At the start of the film, Artie is an average protective and loving father to his innocent daughter, but when infected, Artie begins to become overprotective while Kathy regresses and reaches out for comfort from anyone who’s around —including her father. The incestuous sexual assault that follows is shocking, yes, but made more disturbing because neither character realizes it is incestuous assault until it’s too late.
Baker and his co-writers further develop these ideas in Impulse, which is more of a thriller/drama when compared to The Crazies’ thriller/action-adventure. Where Crazies kicks off with fire and explosions in Evans City, Pennsylvania, the infected victims of Impulse demonstrate their insanity in insidiously subtler ways. The behavior of the townsfolk of Sutcliffe, California escalates from people urinating wherever they wish to public sexual polyamory (and yes, more incest) to theft to physical abuse to casual, nonchalant murder. Baker depicts most of these events with a chilling matter-of-factness, with some instances barely registering or unnoticed until a second viewing. It’s quiet where The Crazies is loud, the insanity of the town’s new reality creeping up on you.
There is, obviously, a parallel to a pandemic in both films, and in the wake of the world’s mostly poor response to COVID, both movies carry a more immediate sense of relevance. The government forces in Impulse are as (mostly) unseen as they are uncaring, sweeping the problem of an outbreak under the metaphorical rug with cold maliciousness. The government of The Crazies are more present and active, but are arguably more loathsome due to how pathetic they are. While certainly calloused, their feeble attempts to find a cure for the virus become waylaid by disorganization and bureaucratic nonsense, culminating in the scientist who actually discovers a solution (Richard France) being literally lost in the shuffle.
The terrifying cherry on top of both films is the fact that, unlike the living dead or out-of-control rage virus victims, the infected are at times disturbingly self-aware. Sure, both films have protagonists who are spared: in The Crazies, David (Will McMillan) finds himself naturally immune to the virus, forced to witness his pregnant girlfriend Judy (Lane Carroll) succumb to insanity, while in Impulse, Meg Tilly’s Jennifer, who did not drink the tainted milk like the rest of the town, sees her boyfriend Stuart (Tim Matheson) go mad. But both Judy and Stuart have moments of clarity, realizing their infection if not the impact of the things they’ve said and done, as do other characters in the films (including, most awfully, Artie as he’s raping Kathy).
It’s this aspect of both The Crazies and Impulse, one that depicts the horror of such shifting perceptions of morality and reality, to strike closest to home. In my case, that’s a literal strike: my father is currently suffering from a condition known as Lewy body dementia, and it’s the second most common type of dementia after Alzheimer’s. Earlier this year, he and I had a conversation in which he couldn’t remember how we knew each other, and his diseased mind concocted a radical and preposterous story for itself, where he believed that I was estranged from him for years before meeting now. Speaking to someone whose perception of a fictional reality is as clear as that is a thoroughly disquieting experience, and it, like The Crazies and Impulse, serves to illustrate just how society and reality itself hangs by a precarious thread every single day.