Ed. note– You’ll notice that this is not only a review of THE CRAZIES remake, but also a comparison to Romero’s original, with a little commentary on BOOK OF ELI tossed in. I barely changed it from its original form, because it didn’t need an update.– P.F.
The last two movies I went out to see were BOOK OF ELI and THE CRAZIES. In BOOK OF ELI, water is the most precious commodity. People will trade for it, sell for it, and when worse comes to worst, kill for it. Water equals life in the film. In THE CRAZIES, water is the beginning of the end. It carries the Trixie virus, bringing insanity to the people of Ogden Marsh, IA, and eventually doom. If it gets out of containment, it will mean the end of mankind. BOOK OF ELI focuses on the aftermath of the Apocalypse, and does a damn fine job of it. THE CRAZIES focuses on the beginning of the End of Days, and does an even better job.
The film begins in fire, literally. The main street of Iowa’s little farm town has been consumed by flames, and works as a literal image of Hell. Flash back two days to scenes of the town in more peaceful days, and it’s Rockwell’s America, with accompanying corn fields, tractors and old farm houses with American flags hanging proudly. On a perfectly calm and normal day, Sheriff David Dutton heads to see the high school baseball team play. As he and Deputy Russell Clank observe the game, the town drunk wanders onto the outfield with a shotgun. From that moment, Middle America falls apart quickly. Forced to shoot the drunk, the Sheriff is shocked when the coroner’s report states there was no alcohol in his system. What could have happened? Another local visits Dr. Judy Dutton, David’s wife. He’s not visibly ill, but as his wife explains, something’s certainly off. Off the deep edge, it turns out, as later that night, he sets fire to his own house. When some hunters find the dead body of a military parachutist, David starts to put the pieces together. Once he and Russell discover the wreckage of a plane in the reservoir that supplies Ogden Marsh’s tap water, they try to save the rest of the town from becoming crazies. But it’s already too late.
Anyone who’s read my review of George Romero’s original THE CRAZIES knows I hold it in higher regard than most fans do. It’s his unofficial bridge between NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and DAWN OF THE DEAD, and has some of his better social commentary. So I was leery when I heard it was on the remake block, especially when I found out Breck Eisner would direct. The son of former Disney CEO and Paramount president Michael Eisner, Breck had very little experience in directing, especially in horror; and so I gathered that he was riding his father’s coattails into remaking what I find to be one of Romero’s better flicks. I owe Breck an apology. Not only is THE CRAZIES a great horror film, but it stands alongside the original proudly.
Here’s why. THE CRAZIES is Romero by way of Zach Snyder. Eisner borrows much of the template from Snyder’s DAWN OF THE DEAD remake: normality breaking suddenly into chaos; computerized aerial shots; an emphasis on action at the expense of profound social commentary and character introspection; right down to a Johnny Cash song to start the film (though “When the Man Comes Around” is a much better fit in DAWN than “We’ll Meet Again” is here). Each film even includes a police figure with a walrus moustache. The reason Snyder’s DAWN succeeded was because the director didn’t merely ape Romero’s version, but instead took the setting and concept and made them his frightening own. Eisner must have seen Snyder’s film, because it succeeds for exactly the same reasons.
It also works because he takes the time to establish Sheriff David Dutton. Timothy Olyphant does a fine job of making the character believable as a small town cop who very quickly surmises his people are in trouble and tries to save them before all Hell breaks loose. Once he realizes that’s impossible, he focuses on saving his pregnant wife, deputy and a local girl, as they try to escape Ogden Marsh. Here is where it most mirrors Romero’s film, as the four flee from both the crazies and the omnipresent military. There are great set pieces inside a car wash, a truck stop and a barn that ratchet up the tension as the survivors must fight for their lives, all the while a helicopter tracking them from the sky. Whereas the action could have swallowed the film whole at the expense of characters, Dutton never gets lost in it; when he decides to go back to save his wife from quarantine, I’m right there with him. His small town decency makes him worth rooting for.
Interestingly, the military doesn’t play as big a part here as in the original, where there were plenty of scenes in which they discussed how to fix the mess they had made, and struggled to contain the infected. Here, they only enter about halfway through the film, as Eisner jettisons dialogue in favor of destruction on display. If Romero’s film perhaps was a bit too talky, then perhaps Eisner’s isn’t quite talky enough. Gone in the sacrifice is the question that Romero’s version posed: Who is really crazy, the unbalanced masses, or the destructive military? Without that key question, this is more about sickness and survival, and provides a less profound experience that the original.
Eisner leans instead on other skills, and one of his better skills is creating a sense of dread, from the shooting on the baseball field right up through the film’s devastating end. An earlier scene, involving a local with a pitchfork invading the quarantine area where a bunch of townsfolk are strapped down, had my heart in my throat, and I never get like that watching movies. As the farming tool scraped the tiles, I could empathize with the helpless victims as they awaited death. Eisner also leans on Mark Isham’s score, which enhances the sense of foreboding by knowing when to come on strong, and when to be quiet. Isham doesn’t compose strictly for horror films, and that’s a shame.
What impresses me most about the remake is where it sticks closest to the spirit of Romero’s catalogue: the unhappy ending. I’ve heard George say many times over the years that it makes no sense to create a situation in a horror movie where the universe is unsettled and turned on ear, only to restore order at the end and let the good guys win. Even at the conclusion of his DAWN OF THE DEAD, which is generally considered a “happy ending” where characters fly away from zombies, where are they flying to? In the original THE CRAZIES, an immune local and a doctor who’s just found the cure never get to bring about salvation. In what must have been a gutsy turn, Eisner doesn’t cop out, instead providing an ending that is altogether grim. I wonder if this will turn people off and affect the film’s success, as it clearly did for Frank Darabont’s THE MIST, another worthy horror film that ends in devastation. I sure hope not.
The only real complaint I have about the film is the Judy Dutton character. Her dialogue isn’t nearly as sharp as David’s, and Radha Mitchell’s performance is bland. There’s a subplot about her pregnancy that’s revealed halfway through the film, but her stomach is flat as a washboard. And it’s more than a little silly when she goes into the nursery later in the film and starts to talk to her unborn child; especially considering that her own character makes it a point that everyone in Ogden Marsh knows everyone else’s business. So why does nobody know she’s pregnant? I know the corresponding character was pregnant in Romero’s original, but it seems screenwriters Scott Kosar and Ray Wright shoehorned the pregnancy angle in just to torque up the intensity. And it doesn’t resonate.
But one so-so performance and a lame subplot don’t ruin what is otherwise a great film. Clearly Eisner could be a force in horror, and it would be nice if he’d try some of his own material, instead of the three remakes he’s rumored to be involved in. As it stands, if more horror remakes delivered like THE CRAZIES did, we’d be talking more about the days of Carpenter’s THE THING and Cronenberg’s THE FLY instead of bemoaning Nelson McCormick’s garbage fire take on PROM NIGHT.
Taken together, THE CRAZIES and BOOK OF ELI show us how the Apocalypse begins, and what will come after it. I couldn’t have chosen two better films to see back to back, even if I saw them in the wrong order. Fitting that as I write this review, I’m sipping bottled water, don’t you think?