A few years after George Romero redefined the cinematic zombie forever and a few years before he gave them their arguably defining moment on the big screen, he took time out to craft a paranoid thriller. The film was called The Crazies and it focused on a small town infected with an unknown virus and targeted by the government and military for containment at all costs. It was a very low-budget affair that was more effective in concept than in execution, but it successfully puts the viewer on edge as the grip of hysteria closes around everyone involved. Now, 27 years after its release we are faced with a remake.
On the surface it seems like an odd film to remake, while at the same time is the perfect type of film to remake. The film was a modest success in its original 1973 incarnation and has enjoyed something of a cult status in the years since where it's probably more notable as a Romero film than anything else. This low level of common knowledge plays against one of the reasons Hollywood likes doing them, the built-in brand recognition; I mean many of my friends did not even know there was an original film. This is not like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, or even The Amityville Horror. This means for the public at large the film will live or die on its own merits while also dealing with the vocal minority of fans who will be looking to compare it to the original.
So how is this new take? Surprisingly very good. It is a solid horror/thriller although not without its flaws. Fortunately, director Breck Eisner does a fine job of keeping the pace up and the atmosphere tense, helping make the flaws less noticeable. The story told is one that can make anyone paranoid. This is a horror film that lurks around the edges of believability. Are those edges strained? Sure, but only in the effort of making the film stronger and it fails to lessen the impact of the implications.
What exactly is going on? The opening of the film gives a very god idea of what is about to happen before taking us back two days to the start of the mess, giving us a good look at where we are going before taking us to the more idyllic setting of the small town, might as well be called Anywhere, USA.
In a small Iowa town we are introduced to David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant), the town sheriff, and his wife Judy (Radha Mitchell), the doctor. After leaving the office, David goes to watch the local high school team play baseball. During the game one of the townsmen walks onto the field looking rather out of sorts and carrying a shotgun. Needless to say, this does not go well.
Shortly after this event things begin to go downhill. Judy begins to see some patients experiencing strange symptoms. We witness strange trance-like states which are then followed by extreme acts of violence and murder. David and his deputy, Russell (Joe Anderson), are left scrambling to figure out what exactly is going on. Then all hell breaks loose as the military show up with their HazMat suits, guns, and sternly delivered orders as townsfolk are rounded up and herded like cattle.
Our focus quickly pares down to four survivors, David, Judy, Russell, and Becca (Danielle Panabaker) and their attempt to simultaneously survive and figure out what is going on. Their efforts fly in the face of the military guys swarming around the town rounding people up and killing when necessary and sometimes when it isn't necessary. In the face of this incident, it becomes hard to tell who is crazy and who isn't. Think about what your reaction might be.
The Crazies is very effective at keeping the audience in the dark. Essentially, we are in the same boat as David as he's perpetually perplexed by what is going on. There are references to where the problem started and what it actually is going on. While the explanations we do get do not always seem to jive with what we see they do not necessarily lead to plot holes. It is interesting how no one who knows anything seems to know everything and the information they have is not necessarily correct. We are given enough information to draw conclusions from, but not enough, so there are always doubts.
If there is one problem I have, and this can be explained away by my prior paragraph, I wish they had set up the rules of the virus a little better. I can tell you what they should have done — they should have taken the explanatory line from the original film. That would have worked perfectly. No, I am not going to tell you what it is; go watch it for yourself.
The performances are all solid. Timothy Olyphant really stands out. He provides a compelling character who has a lot going on. He plays a character who takes his job and his relationships seriously while also not being perfect. This is easily one of his better performances (easily above the likes of Hitman and Live Free or Die Hard). Not to be left behind is Joe Anderson as the deputy. He is nearly unrecognizable here (a few times I thought it was Clifton Collins Jr.) and is quite interesting in his approach to the role.
The biggest surprise here may be director Breck Eisner (son of former Disney CEO Michael Eisner). His biggest film prior to this was Sahara, a middling adventure film. Here he brings a distinct style. He uses some interesting angles and knows how to keep the tension in place. Very good.
Bottom line. This movie is such a surprise. I honestly was not expecting much from it, but got a film teeming with paranoid tension. It makes you question things. This is how you make an effective remake — feed off the original, improve on the execution, and remain true to the source. It is no great film, but very effective with interesting characters, a decent amount of gore, and a good story.