When Violence Goes Viral (On The Crazies)

March 1st, 2010 by

Movie poster for THE CRAZIES - Help Us!

Caution: Spoilers Galore!

As far as horror movies go, The Crazies is fairly standard stuff. A plane crash-lands in a remote marsh just a tick upstream of the rural farming town of Ogden Marsh, Iowa. On board is a biological weapon, engineered by the U.S. government in order to “destabilize populations”; allegedly, it was en route to “an incinerator in Dallas,” having proven too dangerous for wide scale use. The plane’s payload slowly leaks into its watery tomb, where the contaminant is carried downstream, straight into Ogden Marsh’s water supply – and onto its citizens’ crops and into their bellies. In short order, the virus infects the town’s residents, transforming them from loving husbands and mild-mannered educators into violent, homicidal “crazies.” *

The federal government quickly moves in, quarantining the town and separating the townspeople into two groups – “infected” and “not” – ripping families apart in the process. Those who are thought to be sick are taken to the local high school (now set up as a makeshift hospital), strapped to hospital gurneys, and “treated.” (“Observed” is more like it. The viewer doesn’t get the feeling that there’s anything the doctors can do to help their patients.) The healthy residents are transported to a large gas station/truck stop/convenience store situated on the edge of town, ostensibly for eventual evacuation to nearby Sioux City. Of course, because this is a horror film and all, things do not go as planned; a riot breaks out at the high school, leading to the government’s evacuation (and eventual nuclear incineration, complete with cover-up) of Ogden Marsh. The events unfold within a 96-hour period (two days pre- and two days post-outbreak), during which the audience follows four heroes – the local sheriff and deputy; the sheriff’s wife, who’s also the town’s only doctor; and her teenage assistant – as they try to understand what’s happening to their fellow citizens and, later, escape to safety.

What’s particularly interesting about The Crazies from a vegan perspective is the way in which the town’s residents are portrayed, pre- and post-infection. Precipitating the sheriff’s hunt for and discovery of the downed plane is the discovery of its pilot – or rather, its pilot’s body – in the marsh by a group of (duck?) hunters, whom the sheriff scolds for illegal, off-season hunting.

Later on, during the first night of the viral outbreak, the sheriff and his companions stumble upon the same group of hunters while looking for a working vehicle along the town’s main street (which might very well be called Main Street). The hunters are infected, and have “graduated” from the recreational killing of nonhuman animals to hunting humans for fun. Hiding across the way, our heroes watch as the hunters gun down several fleeing people – and then load the dead bodies into the back of their pickup truck, the same way hunters do with deer corpses. As one of the men opens the truck’s tailgate, the viewer is treated to the image of a half dozen human bodies, freshly dead and still dripping blood, stacked one atop another, pyramid style. The grotesque, veiny zombie faces and city setting aside, the group – laughing, whooping, hollering – looks as though they could be chasing down deers or turkeys on a dusky Sunday morning.

The next night, the sheriff and his wife – now the only two survivors – run into the hunters again, this time at the now-abandoned convenience store. The hunters have taken up residence at the establishment; finding that the store’s roomy cooler makes for the perfect place to stash dead bodies, they have converted it into a meat locker – for human meat, that is. At one point, the protagonists are forced to hide among the corpses, “playing dead” in order to survive. A human body, swinging upside-down from a meat hook, provides lifesaving camouflage.

While it’s true that the bio-engineered virus turns all those infected into homicidal killers, the group of hunters are presented as an especially dangerous and menacing group. They are one of the first and last challenges the heroes must overcome in order to escape. Unlike many other sick townspeople, the hunters do not succumb during the first day of infection, either to the military or to other “crazies”; they not only survive, but thrive, banding together and hunting down “the others” in a somewhat organized and efficient fashion (even having the sense, in their diseased state, to keep their “meat” in cold storage). As far as “the crazies” go, the hunters are the “craziest” of the “crazy” – already thrilled by violence and death prior to the outbreak, their blood lust only escalates with sickness.

Additionally, the film also utilizes a few familiar symbols of animal exploitation – above and beyond the aforementioned hunting imagery – in order to emphasize just how horribly the townspeople have been treated by their government. For example, on the first night of the infection, the healthy individuals are ferried to the mega-convenience store in cattle trucks (slatted wood siding and all – just wide enough to poke an arm through in panic and plea), similar to those used to transport women (read: cattle) in The Handmaid’s Tale and humans (read: guinea pigs) in Terminator Salvation. Twenty-four hours later, the doctor comes across these same trucks, left abandoned in the store’s parking lot. Peering inside, she finds the bodies of her fellow citizens, gunned down where they stood. Herded, trapped, dispatched. “Like animals,” no doubt.

Of course, this isn’t to imply that the filmmakers intend this is as a commentary on our treatment of nonhuman animals. Instead, it’s much more likely that they’re simply appropriating the imagery of animal suffering and exploitation in order to further drive home the desperate plight of Ogden Marsh’s human residents. Even so, I find the linkage of oppressions both significant and heartening; as long as we condone and encourage the exploitation of some of us (no matter how “less”), we are all potential victims. Violence is a virus, and no one is immune.

* The title – a carry over from the 1973 flick The Crazies, of which this 2010 version is a remake – is both unimaginative and ableist. And I say the latter as a someone who 1) doesn’t usually take issue with “crazy” when used as slang, i.e., “my husband’s snoring drives me crazy” and 2) is herself, shall we say, “certifiable.”

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