Efficient and occasionally almost-inspired horror thrills are found in Breck Eisner’s remake of The Crazies. No, it’s not a great movie—neither was George A. Romero’s 1973 original—but it’s pretty darn good at what it does. And it’s considerably more intelligent than could be reasonably expected, especially when you consider that screenwriters Scott Kosar (remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Amityville Horror) and Ray Wright (Pulse) don’t have the most inspiring résumés. (Kosar perhaps gets some slack for The Machinist.) It’s certainly better acted and a much less budget-comprised film than Romero’s original.
It’s been more than 20 years since I saw—via a slightly murky VHS dupe—the Romero film, so my memory of it is vague at best. I do, however, recall that it’s fairly typical of Romero in terms of plot and theme. It mostly reworks a Night of the Living Dead (1968) scenario, with the biological-warfare-virus-infected “crazies” (political criticism) standing in for zombies—complete with a built-in sociological bent involving the yahoo zombie/crazy hunters and the duplicity of the military (more political commentary). The only downside to dusting off this wholly serviceable premise and outfitting it with better production values is that the idea that your government is out to get you if it’s in their favor is no longer especially shocking. It even seems a little weak in comparison to Lawrence Kasdan’s Dreamcatcher (2003)—and the comparison is virtually forced on you by the presence of Timothy Olyphant in both Dreamcatcher and The Crazies.
Time may have dimmed the shock and some of the novelty value of the premise, but the concept and the story line are still perfectly workable for a nicely splattery sci-fi horror picture with at least a little something on its mind. And Messrs. Kosar, Wright and Eisner certainly do well enough by it on that level. They fairly successfully navigate that fine line between a reasonable degree of setup and our desire to get on with it, since we’ve gone in with the full knowledge that we’re in for psychotic zombie-ish mayhem. A quick flash of the sleepy town after all hell has broken loose gives way to just enough buildup to the first episode of virus-induced mayhem. The construction is actually pretty clever in the way it doles out the shocks, while creating main characters in which we have some degree of emotional investment.
That last is what sets The Crazies a little above most films of its kind. Sheriff David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant) and his wife, Judy (Radha Mitchell), are likable enough and don’t suffer from the usual sinking spells of stupidity that tend to be the lot of characters in horror movies. In other words, the plot doesn’t depend on them engaging in random bouts of imbecility to keep going. Better still is Joe Anderson (Across the Universe) as Dutton’s deputy. What could have been a simple tragic-comic sidekick (come on, he’s second lead in a horror movie, he’s not getting out alive) becomes something else here. There is, in fact, one moment—his response to realizing he has the virus—that is utterly heartbreaking, causing the movie to completely transcend itself, if only briefly.
Still, don’t misunderstand, this isn’t a great movie of its kind. If it weren’t for the moment I referred to above, I doubt very much I would remember The Crazies a year from now. That moment—and Anderson’s performance—will likely ensure I do. Mostly, however, this is simply a film that is good at doing what it sets out to do. That’s to say, it makes you jump, builds credible suspense and crafts effective horror set pieces. As a bonus, it at least touches on a few broader concerns in the bargain. If you’re in the market for a fairly grisly horror show, this should do nicely. Rated R for bloody violence and language.