The Crazies, director Breck Eisner’s remake of the 1973 George Romero film, is more than just a remake. It’s a veritable melting pot of zombie and horror movie tropes. In addition to obviously retreading the basics (though softening the overall effects) of the original, it borrows heavily from just about every zombie and world-gone-mad movie from the last 30 years. Given that caveat, The Crazies is entertaining, and I suppose a moderate success within the more generic framework of the genre. However, after watching it I found myself feeling vaguely empty about it, as if I’d just watched several reels of other films fused together that instead of capitalizing on their best parts, ended up dulling the overall impact.
The story, if you haven’t gathered from the relentless marketing campaign, is about the residents of the small town of Ogden Marsh, Iowa who are, well, going crazy. And not just crazy like they poop themselves and yell at seagulls, but crazy like they suddenly want to burn their families alive and stab people with pitchforks. Caught in the midst of this sudden onset of decidedly un-neighborly savagery are Sheriff David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant — “Deadwood,” Live Free or Die Hard), his wife Judy (Radha Mitchell — Pitch Black, Silent Hill), and David’s deputy, Russell (Joe Anderson — Amelia, The Ruins). David is the first one to encounter the newly whackadoo denizens, and (of course) the first to suspect that something sinister might be afoot, eventually making a connection to the town’s water supply. But before you can blink, all of a sudden the military arrives and starts rounding up people, executing the sick and corralling the normal folks into camps to be shipped out of town. In the midst of this fracas, David and Judy are separated, and the rest of the film follows their efforts to reunite and then get the hell out of Ogden Marsh.
The Crazies is quite entertaining and actually has some well-executed tense, scary moments — it capitalizes on an effective sense of dread and despair, mixing in the inevitable occasional jump scares. The cinematography is quite striking, combining the natural beauty of the nation’s heartland and creating a freakish juxtaposition with the images of carnage — both “crazy” and army-created. By localizing the setting to just one tiny town, you get a better feel for how awful the scenario would be — when everyone starts eating each other in a big city or a worldwide pandemic, you just grab your loved ones and kill everyone that gets in your way. In a small town like Ogden Marsh, most of the people are your loved ones, creating a much more difficult and brutal set of choices.
The action is played out by a small but strong cast. Olyphant is suitably heroic and brave as David, and Radha Mitchell’s Judy manages to (for the most part) not fall into the helpless woman trap that always drives me insane in lesser horror films, although why David keeps going to check things out and telling her “wait here” is beyond me. The biggest surprise was Joe Anderson as Russell Clank. Clank is probably the more interesting character — he’s a devoted sidekick who slowly begins to see things his own way, and even though that vision might be the onset of madness, it’s compelling to watch his development. There are good-to-very good turns by the small supporting cast, including a solid performance from Danielle Panabaker (Sky High, Friday the 13th) and Brett Rickaby as one of the first of the infected.
Unfortunately, the film ultimately pulls its punches when it comes to character development — the choices they make are all based on imminent danger, and have none of the true brutality or complexity that I found in either the Romero original or of the remake’s better contemporaries. Instead of trying to show how the stresses and tensions of the situations can eat away at the relationships, we settle for a couple of minor squabbles with no real character arc, other than people going from heroic to… more heroic.
Therein lies part of the chief complaint, I suppose. It’s not that it’s an inferior film to the original, or even that one needs to compare the two. While this new version ramps up the action and atmospherics to great effect, it lacks the raw humanity and complex emotionality of the original. But that’s a minor quibble — it’s a remake that wants to be its own movie, and that’s good. The downside is that it’s not its own movie. It’s a frenzied and ultimately somewhat hollow amalgam of the ‘73 version, of Night of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later, “The X-Files,” hell, there’s even a little bit of Jaws thrown in — there’s a scene between David and the town’s mayor where if you exchanged “virus” for “shark” and “David” for “Brody,” you’d have a scene re-enactment that took place in a cornfield. The Crazies relies heavily on tried and true horror movie staples and brings little new material to the table. Those that it does borrow from/copy/pay homage to have done it better and with more imagination. Even the film’s tepid attempt at political commentary, depicted in its passive criticism of the military, fails to provide the viewer with much more than the conventional mustache-twisting and cynical depiction of government = bad guy.
A couple of weeks ago, we ran the review for the French film Mutants, which I thought was a strong example of taking a conventional horror movie concept and injecting a bit of new life into it (although it ultimately fell apart at the end). The Crazies is fun and scary, it’s well acted and it has a creepy, foreboding feel that gives it a certain edge-of-the-seat feel. But it never takes the path less traveled, instead settling for relying on the conventional. It’s not a bad movie — it’s just that I suspect that it’s destined to become a rather forgettable one.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.