I’m no world-beater, but I have plans.
— Russ (Joe Anderson)
“It starts here,” announces the trailer for The Crazies, “here” being a small-town Iowa baseball field. “It” would be the transformation of the folks into monsters — zombified, bulgy-veined nutcases with an inclination to kill everyone. The camera looks out at the kids’ game through a chain-link fence, over the shoulders of the coach and the sheriff. And then a figure wanders onto the field, a man looking ravaged and confused, carrying a shotgun. The shot cuts back to the sheriff’s face and he mutters, “Jesus Christ.”
A confrontation with the unknown is standard in horror movies. Here the unknown is the seeming known, neighbors, husbands, and daughters. As Sheriff David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant) peers at Rory (Mike Hickman), he’s ready to assess: the guy’s a notorious alcoholic, and even if he has been clean for two years, he’s visibly gone off his wagon now. This story allows David to make sense of what he sees, though what he sees makes no sense.
David will be forced to reassess, of course. He’ll find out that Rory — despite appearances — was not drunk, that instead he was infected by a biological weapon accidentally loosed on this midwestern idyll by careless men in military uniforms. Revisiting the plot set out in George Romero’s 1973 original, Breck Eisner’s movie doesn’t so much update as it repeats and reminds, in particular, that it’s never out of date to doubt the government has your best interests in mind.
David figures this out the hard way. Per formula — a formula that Romero’s movies during the Vietnam War helped to define — he’s got a stereotypical family life at stake. His wife Judy (Radha Mitchell) is not only the local doctor, but also pregnant. Their house has a porch and their laundry dries on lines in the backyard. Theirs is a quiet, hopeful, John Mellencampish existence, at least until it’s so rudely interrupted. David’s efforts to maintain his charmed life lead to conflict — his neighbors begin to distrust him, and no wonder: he’s questioning his decisions, too, a point made neatly when Judy discovers he’s out of bed at the crack of dawn, planing wood on that wondrous porch. He grumps and frets, she comforts him. The sun rises, and before they know it, their very bad day is underway.
David and Judy’s professional caretaking positions them as everyone else’s mom-and-dad, a thematic point underlined by the kids who tag along during their escape, David’s eager deputy, Russell (Joe Anderson), and Judy’s receptionist, Becca (Danielle Panabaker), a one-dimensional teenager whose boyfriend is a football player. Predictably, this faux familial unit is soon contentious. Though Russ, lanky and loyal, tends to pop up just when David needs an extra gun, the guys can’t help but wonder about one another’s trustworthiness, as dire circumstances force them to undertake dire actions. Their exchanges — whether they’re shooting at frothing infecteds (a trio of rowdy hunters make for especially resilient and easily demonized targets) or aiming weapons at one another — are actually compelling. As David and Russ look at each other breathing hard, veins becoming visible, they must decide in half-seconds whether to blow each other’s heads off. And in these shot-reverse-shots, they incarnate the film’s broader dilemma pretty much exactly: who is crazy here, those who have been made irresponsible by disease or those who won’t take responsibility for the devastation they wreak?
Even more to the point, is craziness an offense punishable by death, even in the interest of a “greater good”? Predictably, The Crazies has it both ways, uglifying the punishers and the punishees, all marauding brutes. The film isn’t much interested in detail, at least not the sort of scientific or rational explanations for what happens. Aside from the generic threat posed by Powers That Be — here embodied by special oppers in gas masks and heavy gear — David and Judy don’t meet anyone who might be responsible. (That said, a brief encounter with a young National Guardsman underscores that “I’m just following orders” remains a weak excuse for shooting fellow citizens.)
The movie is, however, very interested in another sort of detail, scene to scene. So, as Judy turns her back on a patient in her office, the camera lingers on his vacant stare. A murderer’s approach is signaled by scrape of a bloody pitchfork dragged along a seemingly endless floor. Russ observes of someone coughing but insisting, “I’m not sick,” “You wouldn’t know.” And our heroes endure a fabulous few minutes of terror in a carwash, unable to get out of the vehicle or get it off the tracks while they are beset from all directions by water, soap, and monsters. As Russ tries to explain his apparently random shooting — “I saw movement!” — David looks him dead in the eye to note, “Everything’s fucking moving.”
Observations like this, jokes premised on viewers getting what characters miss, are, of course, the bread and butter of horror movies. Inviting you to worry for this little band of survivors while also anticipating nasty ends for at least some of them, your emotional connection to any individual is a function of not knowing — when, where or how those ends might come, or more profoundly, why. It helps, in this case, that craziness is irrational by definition. Because everything’s fucking moving, you’ll never know.