Written by: Scott Kosar and Ray Wright(screenplay), George Romero (original film)
Directed by: Breck Eisner
Starring: Timothy Olyphant, Radha Mitchell, and Joe Anderson
Reviewed by: Brett G.
ĒWelcome Pierce County, friendliest place on Earth, asshole!Ē
If the beginning of Breck Eisnerís The Crazies feels strangely familiar to you, it should. After all, it was only about six years ago that we witnessed another George Romero redux featuring an opening sequence scored by a Johnny Cash song. In Dawn of the Dead, it was a rousing, apocalyptic credits sequence accompanied by the ever appropriate ďWhen the Man Comes AroundĒ; here, itís Cashís version of ďWeíll Meet AgainĒ that introduces us to the quaint Midwestern town thatís about to go a little nuts. The Romero/Cash combination certainly worked well six years ago, as Dawn of the Dead has since become one of the more well-received remakes in recent years. Though The Crazies never quite reaches the heights of that film, it is an example of solid film-making and another remake thatís faithful to the original but isnít afraid to be its own film.
The small Iowa town of Ogden Marsh has gone to hell, its idyllic main street engulfed in smoke and flames. How did it come to meet this fate? The film flashes ahead to two days earlier to fill us in on the details. Even though itís still slightly chilly outside, itís opening day for the local high school baseball team, which marks the unofficial start of spring. However, the only thing thatís blooming this time of year is insanity. In the middle of the game, a local wanders onto the film carrying a shotgun and a deranged look in his eyes. After he refuses to stand down, the town sheriff, David (Timothy Olyphant), is forced to put him down. The town writes the incident off as the town drunk having one too many drinks. That is, until itís revealed that the man hasnít had a drink in over two years, and other similar cases begin to arise. For example, a man burns his house down with his wife and child locked inside and calmly mows his front yard. Before long, others in the town begin to go crazy, but not before the military quickly descend on the town and sets up a quarantine. Not content to be herded like cattle, the sheriff, his pregnant wife (Radha Mitchell), her assistant (Danielle Panabaker), and a deputy (Joe Anderson) attempt to flee the town and are forced to navigate around both the crazies and the military.
Romeroís original film was a bit of a sprawling, if not chaotic experience in the sense that it always jumped between multiple narratives. By comparison, Eisnerís version is more focused and polished, but it still manages to capture the frightening nature of the story at hand. Though the title characters show up more often and are given much more to do than in the original, the most chilling sequences in the film involve the military quarantine. Unlike Romeroís film (which gave the military a face and focused on its leaders), the military here is mostly a faceless, almost inhuman entity. Clad in eerie black combat uniforms and hazard suits, the military is a sinister presence that doesnít think twice about sacrificing the lives of its own citizens. In this respect, the film is a reminder that we really havenít come very far since 1973: weíre still quite cynical, jaded, and distrusting of our government and military. The film is an ultimate realization of such sentiments (which have no doubt been fueled by modern terrorism and even the Patriot Act), as the military literally rips people from their homes and burns corpses to maintain quarantine.
This is not to say the film is overtly political like Romeroís film, however; while the original film was a sardonic, biting, and even witty indictment of government and military incompetence, Eisner prefers to focus mostly on the terror and the plight of our four protagonists. Though there is a nice, humorous jab at the military and the media buried in there (make sure to stay through the credits), this is a suspenseful piece of horror film-making. Thereís danger at every turn: if David and his companions arenít evading black military helicopters, theyíre avoiding normal townsfolk who have taken to hunting the crazies. Soon, strife even develops in the group as everyone grows more and more paranoid about the virus that seems to be the cause of all the problems. These sequences especially are faithful to Romero, as even the slightest cough carries the weight of doom with it. Because of this, the film is generally well-paced and exciting. It begins to lose some steam once our main characters break the first quarantine, but the last fifteen minutes or so stands as a fine example of suspense.
The title characters here are the center of many horrific scenes. If their vacuous expressions arenít chilling enough, their behavior certainly is. For example, a man sews another personís mouth shut and attacks David with a circular saw; another threatens to shoot his pregnant wife, while yet another stabs helpless victims with a pitchfork. The gore here is mostly well done; itís not as a splattery as you might expect given the subject matter, but itís a fairly violent film. In some ways, it feels similar to Snyderís Dawn of the Dead because the crazies are essentially more mentally-capable versions of the undead found in that film. While the film doesnít go out of its way to provide hordes of infected humans to get dispatched in gory ways, there are still some nice sequences to satisfy the gorehounds.
At its heart, though, The Crazies is a story about four people on the run, so much of its effectiveness relies on its main cast. Olyphantís psychopathic turns in films such as Scream 2 and Live Free or Die Hard would seemingly have him better suited as one of the title characters, but he does a fine job in the role of David. Charismatic and charming as he usually is, he crafts a character you genuinely care about. He exhibits the best chemistry not with Mitchell, his on-screen wife, but with Joe Anderson, the deputy. It doesnít take long for one to believe these guys have been working together for a long time and trust each other implicitly, and thatís why the film works so well later when tensions rise and paranoia begins to take hold. Mitchell does bring a sense of conviction and believability to the role of Judy, especially when she reacts to the news of the aforementioned mother and son being burned to death. Panabakerís character feels like a bit of a fourth wheel and only thrown in to serve as the obligatory teenage element, but she does well enough in the role.
Eisner holds everything together fairly well. Though itís not an example of excellent technical craft, everything is solid enough. The filmís overall look is a bit typical, as the de-saturated, steely, and generally lifeless cinematography has shown up in so many other films. This especially negatively impacts the blood effects, which look more black than red most of the time; this is a minor nit-pick, but itís a trend that has become increasingly noticeable in recent years. Overall, thereís a very solid effort to be found here, and while the film's final shot is typical and feels especially derivative of another modern remake, there is a sequence beforehand that is much more satisfying . Altogether, the film doesnít manage to capture the pervasive mood of apocalyptic chaos that he original carries, nor does it make as great use of irony, but it is a solid thriller that lives up to its name. More of a sobering reminder of depraved human behavior than an indictment of it, The Crazies works well in this capacity and as an effective horror movie. Imagine if Romero had decided to focus solely on David, Judy, and Clank in the original while cutting out the Strangelove-esque war-room sequences and Richard Franceís character, and you have an idea of whatís to be found here. Not an altogether crazy proposition, and itís one that pays off. Buy it!
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