As you can probably tell, when I’m watching horror films it isn’t the male characters that typically intrigue me. Leave it to a Romero remake to turn my usual approach on its ear and force me to realize that, sometimes, male characters are worth noticing. In Breck Eisner’s 2010 revision of the 1973 George Romero film, The Crazies, sidekick Deputy Russell seems to me an encapsulation of some of modern society’s major flaws. And he knows it.
When the “town drunk” Rory Hamill wanders onto the town’s baseball field with a blank look in his eye and a shotgun in his hand, he becomes the first victim of Trixie, a military virus designed to “destabilize a population” that was accidentally released into the water supply of the small Iowa town of Ogden Marsh. Though Rory’s taken down by Sheriff David (Timothy Olyphant), his symptoms are only the first of a few town citizens who present with a vacant stare and emotional detachment before doing things like burning their families alive in their homes, stabbing folks with pitchforks and other assorted fits of irrationally severe violence**. Once the military becomes aware of the release of Trixie in Ogden Marsh, they initiate “containment” protocol and you can guess where the main plot goes from there.
While Sheriff David and his wife, Judy (Radha Mitchell) are positioned as the film’s main protagonists, it’s David’s deputy Russell who generates the most interest (and is the fortunate recipient of the most character development in the film). He takes easily to his role as second-in-command in a small-town zombie apocalypse. Russell is observant: it’s he who first notices Rory in the outfield. Russell is faithful: he helps David investigate the plane crash that’s causing the outbreak, and supports him when David shuts off the town’s water supply in spite of a prohibition by the town’s mayor. When David and Judy are rounded up by the military and Judy is quarantined due to a low-grade fever (which she ostensibly has because she’s pregnant— pregnancy being her chief character trait), Russell joins David in his quest to get her back before busting out of the Marsh. Russell is also an excellent shot, and has an uncanny foreknowledge of when David and Judy are in trouble—he shoots an attacking Crazy from the ground through a second-story window to defend the couple while David stabs the other (why didn’t he get infected? When a Crazy’s arterial gush shoots into your wounded hand, I’d say that classifies as TRANSMISSION. What gives, filmmakers who were so intent on grounding this outbreak in aspects of real disease? Fail!).
But here is when Russell becomes even more interesting. While David and Judy turn their backs on the dispatched Crazies to comfort each other in the violated space of their unborn child’s nursery (something we surely have seen in a thousand other horror movies) Russell enters the room, disarms the dead, and shoots each of them in the head a few times “just to make sure.” Any good watcher of zombie films knows this is sound logic, but David and Judy take this outburst to mean that Russell is infected—irrational violence being one of the characteristics of an individual who has contracted Trixie. Though he’s still acting as a team player, pulling his weight in the effort to get out of town to nearby Cedar Rapids, Judy tells David: “He’s sick. You saw what he did.” A while later, when Judy’s assistant Becca has been killed and their only mode of transportation firebombed by a helicopter still bent on “containment,” Russell wrecks a military SUV and shoots the government agent inside, then disarms David and Judy and marches them toward the closest truck stop. Confronting him, David punches him in the face—significantly, bloodying his nose, another tell-tale symptom of Trixie— ostensibly forcing Russell to the realization that “I ain’t right, am I?” David takes the gun and they continue on their journey. When they reach the military roadblock, Russell begs David to let him distract the soldiers while David and Judy escape, so his life means something. He surreptitiously unloads his weapon and walks into the roadblock as the soldiers urge him to “get down,” but still pretends to reach for the gun—they shoot him. He dies, but not before he’s able to curse them “for what they’ve done.”
If it’s possible, as I believe it is, to read Russell as never being infected with Trixie, but rather displaying behavior that I’d say you or I would find quite natural in this unnatural situation, then his character indicts all of us; indeed, comments on society at large. Sure, he displays “violent” tendencies, and a bloody nose, but there are other explanations for both of those “symptoms,” and Russell never attains the “hyper-alive” look of the other Crazies—the pulsating veins, the bloodshot eyes. And we can question the source of his so-called violent behavior: Making sure someone who’s tried to kill you is dead? Yeah, pretty natural. Taking out your frustration on a representative of the military-industrial complex that has decimated your hometown? I’m with Russell there. Finally, he sacrifices his life so that his two friends David and Judy (and don’t forget about Judy’s baby… well, the film will bash you over the head with that one) can escape and propagate like Adam and Even someplace else. I don’t see any other Crazies having the capacity to sacrifice themselves for others or for the greater good. Russell may do so partially because he believes he “ain’t right,” but if he ain’t right, then neither am I, and, I bet, neither are a lot of people. Our survival instincts are here cast as violent tendencies. Read through the lens of gender criticism, Russell has to die: he’s a third wheel. His potential counterpart, Becca, is killed by Crazies in the third Act. What must be saved is the fruitful, heterosexual couple.
Leave it to Romero (executive director on this film) to call the reconstitution of order into question, however. The final shots of the film show David and Judy from high above, at the center of a target initiating additional “containment” as they approach Cedar Rapids. The American family will not escape those who rule so easily.
** Though The Crazies could be categorized as a zombie film or a contagion thriller, both types would link it to Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), along with the blank stares, emotional detachment and pitchfork violence.