... aka: Experiment 2000
... aka: Mad People, The
George A. Romero
In the small, rural Pennsylvania town of Evans City, a dairy farmer goes crazy, murders his wife and torches his home, severely injuring his two children in the process. Judy (Lane Carroll), a pregnant nurse, and her fiance David ("W.G." / Will McMillan), a volunteer firefighter who fought in Nam, are both called in to help. When Judy arrives at the hospital, she's greeted by hazmat-suit and gas mask wearing men. Similiarly, when David shows up at the burning home he finds soliders quickly filing in to the area. Talk quickly spreads through town that the military has been called in. No one is quite sure why, but it's clear that the farmer's sudden dementia and outburst of violence isn't just an isolated incident; it's a sign of things to come - a small scale plague that COULD get out of hand - in the town. In an attempt to keep everything hush-hush, the influx of scientists, members of a medical unit and soliders refuse to inform the townspeople of what's going on. They simply head out with their rifles, break into their homes are start gathering the citizens up, using force if necessary. The citizens are then quarantined in the town's high school. Because of how rushed and disorganized the whole operation is, some citizen decide to revolt, which leads to even more chaos and death.
Why exactly has the government moved in and why are they being so secretive about what's going on? Well, for starters a military airplane carrying what was supposed to be an experimental vaccine managed to crash in the hills above the city less than a week earlier. Unfortunately, the "vaccine" wasn't actually a vaccine at all like the government claims, but a top secret highly contagious virus that they planned to use as a biological weapon. The chemical - which was supposed to be inactive - leaked into the river, into a reservoir and into the town's drinking water supply. It's impossible to determine just how many of the townsfolk are already infected but whoever has been are guaranteed to lose their mind and start killing. The symptoms are so varied that it's next to impossible to even determine who is a "crazy" and who isn't, aside from the fact that those who are are sensitive to ultra-violet light (which also kills the virus). Some of the infected are crazed and delirious, while others wander in and out of a mindless aloof state before they strike. If they strike at all. Needless to say, there are a lot of high-ups who are going to need to cover their asses on this one.
With help from her boss, Judy is able to flee the hospital with an antibiotic shot for her husband. She finds him and his co-worker Clank (Harold Wayne Jones), but they're apprehended by soliders before Judy can innoculate him. They're thrown into a van with three other people - Artie Bolman (Richard Liberty, who'd later get an ever-better role in Romero's DAY OF THE DEAD), his daughter Kathy (Lynn Lowry) and the already-sick Frank - and head toward the high school. En route, they're hijacked by some infected, the soldiers are killed and they thankfully manage to lose Frank. Clank drives them into the woods away from all of the problems, but roadblocks, parimeters and armed, posted guards pretty much ensure they'll be stuck inside the infected area. They do have fifty square miles of country to hide in, though. Colonel Peckem (Lloyd Hollar), who's in charge of the operation to quarantine the area, is given orders to have his troops hunt down everyone in the town. Those who show any resistence are to be immediately killed. A reluctant doctor (Richard France) is brought in and rushes to find a cure while high-ranking government officials sit in their cushy offices trying to dictate what move to make next.
Despite this film's obvious flaws due to a very low-budget (just 275 thousand dollars), Romero emerges here as a champion and defender of the working class in this country. This is an indictment on martial law with plenty of wartime parallels, but it's even moreso an extremely cynical but completely on-target critique of how the government typically reacts to a crisis situation; most especially how they react to a crisis situation they have created. First and foremost, their chief objective isn't to save lives or inform the public of impending danger, it's to conceal what's going on and what they did to cause the problem. They have casual, closed door meetings where they discuss what to do. The main idea on the table seems to be to just nuke the entire area and then blame it on a nuclear weapon accidentally detonating. Really, anything but the truth. Even more tellingly, they have no qualms with killing everyone in Evans City, not just the infected, but those citizens uninfected (including one man who seems to have a natural immunity to the virus) as well as the "expendable" soldiers and scientists sent there by them to help. One of the higher-ups even states they need to do something immediately simply because he finds the whole incident "embarrassing."
Apart from the scathing critique of the government, Romero also throws in plenty of anti-war sentiment; illustrating how wartime situations bring out the depravity in everyone. The bodies of the dead are thrown onto a fire and burned to ash... but not before some of the soldiers strip them of their valuables and raid their wallets. Homes of those quarantined are looted by other soldiers and people are frequently gunned down, whether it's established they're sick or not. There's so much panic that several possible solutions to the epidemic are extinguished before they can even be known. One of the men - a veteran of the Vietnam war - states, "The army ain't nobody's friend, man." It shares some obvious similarities to Romero's zombie films, though it throws out the fantastic in favor of a more plausible premise.
Truth be told, the film - in many ways a more grounded and plausible version of Romero's famous zombie flicks - gets off to a rather rocky start. It's low-budget enough to incorporate mismatched stock footage at points and many of the performances are amateurish and take some getting used to. However, once it finds its footing, it has much to offer those willing to roll with the punches. Everyone else can just make a b-line for the neutered 2010 remake, a more-polished "infection" film. Sure, it's far less quirky and, sure, it doesn't have the balls to really dissect and criticize the government and its various extensions like the original, but it does have more action, higher production values, a faster pace and better acting. Depends on what one's priorities are, I suppose. Me? I'll take this original any day of the week.
Bill Thunhurst (from Romero's underrated SEASON OF THE WITCH) and S. William Hinzman (the graveyard zombie from NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD) both have small roles. Hinzman also shot it. Romero (who also edited the film) can briefly be seen as one of the citizens being herded up by the soldiers. The back of the U.S. President's head is also his.