[25 June 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
There’s a big problem with trying to update The Crazies, George Romero’s anti-government screed from the early ‘70s, and it is not the legacy of the original man behind the lens. The king of the zombie genre, a name horror nerds adore more than a dream date with Vampira, may have created some classics in his day, but this ‘living dead’ retread, complete with similar scary beats, is not one of them. Nor is the core concept all that unwieldy. A town gone homicidally bonkers because of a failed military experiment should be easy fright flick pickings. We’ll even give in to the uninspired choice of ex-Disney demagogue Michael’s son Breck Eisner as our new production guide. While not horribly offensive, his limited oeuvre (Recon, Sahara) suggests someone still untried in the terror arena.
No, the biggest issue facing this otherwise effective little thriller is that someone has “been there/done that” before, and actually did it a whole lot better. That individual would be Danny Boyle, and his masterful non-zombie zombie film, 28 Days Later, is The (New) Crazies without all the middling mucking about. It’s practically the same storyline, except in its defense, the 2002 post-apocalyptic creepshow avoids all the meandering set-up and goes straight for the dread. With the Romero redux, we have to suffer through all the set-up before getting to the “good stuff” - what limited amount of same there is. When Sheriff David Dutton (a decent Timothy Olyphant) is forced to kill the town drunk during a little league game, it sets off a chain of events that sees the entire population of Midwestern nowheresville Ogden Marsh becoming unglued. Soon, fathers are setting their families on fire and morticians are sewing up the eyes and mouths…of the living!
Enter Uncle Sam and his post-modern answer to every out of control emergency - inept bureaucracy backed by inappropriate brute force. Dutton’s doctor wife Judy (the almost always solid Radha Mitchell) uncovers the by now less than shocking truth - a downed military plane just outside of town has leaked a mind-altering virus into the water supply. As the ‘insanity bug’ spreads, so does the threat. Along with loyal deputy Russell Clank (Joe Anderson), the couple decide to break out of the quarantine area and escape the Army’s iron grip. Why? Well, they soon learn that the government only has one option for the surrounding population - termination…and it doesn’t matter if you’re crazy, or sane.
From the sound of things, The Crazies appears to be a town called panic production that’s massive in scope and epic in evil. But the reality is a lot less interesting. Instead of focusing on the growing threat both inside and outside the locale, Eisner and his screenwriters Scott Kosar and
Ray Wright turn the tale into the unending saga of three people trying to escape. Now granted, this is a similar strategy that Boyle took when he crafted is London after the Biological Fall frightmare. We didn’t get the all out battle royales of the unnecessary 28 Weeks sequel. Instead, our hapless hero met up with some equally unfortunate survivors, and together they sought out the support - and sanctuary - of an organized rescue mission. In both cases, the cure is a lot more lethal than the red-eyed inmates overrunning the social asylum.
But The Crazies never really expands this vision. Boyle brought us various outdoor set-pieces that argued for the constant threat posed by the infected people. Here, Olyphant and Mitchell always seem to find refuge, time to talk, and retrace their steps even as their slowly deteriorating neighbors garret each other with farm implements - and that’s another thing. There’s very little blood here, especially considering the pandemic of splattery possibilities the premise provides. Instead, Eisner is obsessed with how to move his players from Point A to Point B. It’s as if he sat down with the writers, worked out a series of possible pitfalls and dangers, and then simply drove his stars straight through each one: no social commentary; no ‘use vs. them’ indictment; no post-Peace decade shank of the Establishment.
By turning The Crazies into a one horse town chase movie, by manipulating the material so that everything is minor and introspective in range, Eisner does the concept a disservice - and nothing ticks off a horror fan more than a wasted opportunity. Oddly enough, mainstream critics who usually dump all over the latest terror title really seemed to embrace this poorly paced long day’s journey into a not so action packed night. Apparently, if you can’t appreciate true horror, you’ll embrace the conventional efforts that play pretender to the macabre throne. Indeed, The Crazies is really nothing more than a thriller with some eerie overtones. By ignoring the possible fear factors, the movie misunderstands the weird and wild wonders it could embrace.
At least the DVD and Blu-ray presentations try to make-up for the lack of context. The commentary by Eisner is interesting, especially in discussing the various versions of the script the final film went through. There is also a couple of EPK like puff pieces which undermine the more honest aspects of the alternate narrative track. There is also a look at “The George A. Romero Template”, whatever that is, some insight into the F/X, and most importantly, two installments of The Crazies Motion Comic - a semi-animated offering that fills in some necessary backstory and information that the onscreen narrative clearly lacks.
Still, The Crazies can’t shake the creative shadow cast by a certain Oscar-winning, genre jumping English maverick. Every time Eisner and his cast get a good head of scare steam going, the limited range of the quest countermands our belief in the materials central shivers. True, this is probably the best possible version of the Romero film possible, given the other attempts at mimicking the main idea (1985’s Warning Sign, 2007’s Planet Terror) and Eisner does show that he can make a cinematic splash if the mood hits him (the finale is a wonderful bit of fireball spectacle). Something as ripe for reinvention as The Crazies should have been a lot better. As it stands, it can survive on its own, but just barely.