Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Germs R Us: The Crazies (1973) (Part Two)

A scene from George Romero's The Crazies (1973).

Even someone who’s not exactly keen on the genre is likely to admire George Romero’s brand of horror. Along with the inevitable bloodletting, his work boasts an incisive social conscience. In 1973’s The Crazies, he made ordinary folks homicidal -- or, in some instances, just exceedingly goofy -- when their town water supply is contaminated by mistake with an experimental bio-warfare toxin. Nicknamed Trixie, it comes courtesy of the Army, which establishes a quarantine but never thinks to tell panicky locals to stop drinking from the tap.

Romero articulates the era’s unease about Vietnam, nuclear annihilation, government bureaucracy and mainstream hypocrisy, plus a plethora of secrets and lies. The new version is less of a sociopolitical critique, depicting equal paranoia but not as much existential dread. The military remains primarily villainous, though no longer in an up-close-and-personal way. Aided by the remote technology of drones and Google Earth, unquestioning soldiers in gas masks and hazmat suits rain continuing misery on the hapless population long after the initial incident.

In both films, an even more shocking revelation might have been the purposeful exposure of Americans to perilous substances, beginning in the mid-20th century. The Army’s open-air "civilian vulnerability testing" started during the Cold War panic of the late 1940s. The idea was to research defense measures amid concerns about enemy biological weapons that potentially might be unleashed on U.S. soil. According to government documents released through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), millions of unsuspecting citizens across the country were sprayed with presumably safe germs, called simulants, between 1949 and 1969. In one form or another, such tests continued at least through the 1980s.

But were these simulants -- predominantly Serratia marcescens (SM) and Bacillus subtillis var. Niger (BG) -- really not harmful? "I have a yin-yang approach," said University of Vermont microbiology expert Gerry Silverstein in an interview two decades ago. "If you have a healthy immune system, there's no danger. But, anybody with an immune system problem is at risk." SM, in particular, is an "opportunistic" microbe that can harm people "weakened by age, debilitating disease, drug abuse, or antibiotics," according to the the FOIA documents. Serratia is believed capable of causing pneumonia in infants. “Even the most insignificant microorganism could be hazardous," suggested Silverstein.

Given this perspective, the Army conducted some alarming experiments back in the heyday of civilian-vulnerability testing:

* In 1950, San Francisco was sprayed with SM from a ship trawling the coastline. Eleven hospital patients contracted diseases associated with the germ and one man died. His family sued the government in 1981 but lost the case.

* In 1952, there was a ten-fold increase of pneumonia cases and in Key West, Florida -- site of Army open-air tests with SM. The same year, pneumonia infections more than doubled in the vicinity of Alabama's Fort McClellan after SM and BG tests.

* In 1965, U.S. Army Special Operations personnel dressed up as tourists and used suitcases specially rigged with aerosols to spray BG microbes on passengers in a departure terminal of Washington National Airport and at the downtown D.C. Greyhound bus station.

* In 1966, the Army dropped light bulbs containing supposedly harmless bacteria through sidewalk grates onto rush-hour passengers in New York City subway stations.

Those are just a few of the more striking examples of experiments -- which may have caught Romero’s eye by the early 1970s -- that took place in at least 28 states during two decades of testing with pathogenic bacteria. And, to make matters worse, the government seemingly never monitored outcomes for its unwitting guinea pigs."No precautions were taken to protect the health and welfare of the millions of people exposed," wrote Leonard A. Cole, a political science professor at Rutgers University, in his 1988 book, “Clouds of Secrecy.”

In 1977, a Senate subcommittee looked into the practice of spraying civilians with simulants. At the time, the Army reported that open-air tests had been suspended, but reserved the right to resume them whenever it was deemed necessary. In subsequent years, lawmakers have paid scant attention. "Were the Army to decide to start spraying people with germs again," Cole pointed out, "few on Capitol Hill would have enough information to put up much of a fight. And the rest of us might not hear about it until it's all over."

The brain trust for these experiments is the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Maryland. If that name sounds familiar, it might be because the facility was featured prominently in Outbreak, a 1994 thriller starring Dustin Hoffman as an Army doctor who saves the world from a new virus strain that a deranged commander wants to preserve for use in biological warfare. Fort Detrick, also where Trixie was developed in the original Crazies, does not figure at all in the 2010 update. Orders originate in an unspecified, unseen headquarters after an entire iowa community has been carelessly decimated in the name of progress. "It's a mixed bag," Silverstein surmised in the late 1980s. "You're damned if you do and damned if you don't. I am always frightened by some of the things the military does. But we need a contingency plan for genuine germ warfare. I'm just as frightened by some of the crazies out there."

When it comes to crazies, George Romero practically took out the patent. His picture is farfetched, yet at the same time a chilling cautionary tale. While genuine victims of Army malfeasance probably don’t become zombie-like, their lives can be upended forever. In 2003, Romero was honored at New York State’s Lake Placid Film Festival, which screened his 1968 masterpiece, Night of the Living Dead. Afterwards, while standing outside the theater, he asked someone for a cigarette and began to light up. His wife urged him not to, presumably for health considerations.

“But, darling, it’s the movies,” Romero protested, drawing out the last word of that sentence for emphasis.

Indeed. The moooovies. In terms of the trenchant warning offered by The Crazies, be afraid. Be very afraid.

--Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author, with Randee Dawn, of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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