While remakes of older films have a tendency to fail in terms of storytelling and just overall quality, for some reason most remakes of George A. Romero’s films seem to do quite well. The Tom Savini-directed remake of the original Night of the Living Dead wasn’t better than the first but was very entertaining and stood on its own merits. The next Romero film to be remade was another of his horror classics, Dawn of the Dead. Another first time director in Zack Snyder handled this remake (despite howls of protests about the attempt to remake a film many consider one of the greats) and what he ended up making didn’t disappoint and has become of the the last decade’s best horror entries. While the remake of Day of the Dead ended up becoming a huge pile of crap I am happy to say that the remake of Romero’s bio-terror flick, The Crazies, under the directing work of Breck Eisner ended up better than I expected and, in my opinion, surpassed the original.
The film adheres pretty close to the original with just the setting having changed from Evans City, PA to Ogden Marsh, Iowa. Using this Midwest backdrop the film quickly establishes that Ogden Marsh is the prototypical Middle America town with everyone in the town of 1260 knowing everyone. They town even celebrates itself as the friendliest town in America. This all changes when a seemingly random and tragic event at a high school baseball game shatters the thin edifice of the town’s neighborly facade. The town’s sheriff (played by Deadwood’s Timothy Olyphant) knows that something is not right when another inexplicable murder happens the following day. The final clue which reinforces this hunch of his is when a trio of local hunters stumble upon the decomposing body of a pilot who died attempting to parachute and landing in a creek marsh close to town. The plane of the said dead pilot is later found. Not knowing what exactly was being ferried (later discovered to be a bio-weapon code-named “trixie”) on this plane the sheriff and his deputy (played by Joe Anderson) soon find the town’s phone lines, cellphone signal and network connection down.
The middle section of the film happens occur with the arrival of “help” in the form of biohazard-suited soldiers forcibly taking all accounted for townspeople from their homes and herding them in the local high school. It is in this section of the film where the remake deviates somewhat from the original. The story never truly establishes just exactly why the soldiers were using extreme tactics and protocols to contain the town and the surrounding area. The film seem to set the military as a faceless machine doing things by-the-book to the detriment of the town and it’s population. The original had the infected and uninfected civilians trapped between the military apparatus trying to contain the outbreak by any means necessary and the scientists flown in to try and find a cure. Writers Kosar and Wright keeps the film centered on the Sheriff Dutton, his pregnant wife (played by Radha Mitchell), his deputy and the his wife’s assistant.
By keeping the film focused on these four individuals the film loses the epic, grand-scale Romero was trying to do with the original and instead we get a more intimate, personal film about survival in a world that suddenly has gotten apocalyptic overnight for these four. It helped the film and Eisner that his two leads in Olyphant and Mitchell were up to the task of giving their husband and wife characters some gravitas in what could’ve easily been just a paycheck performance for them. Olyphant as Sheriff Dutton was especially good in his performance. He kept his character grounded throughout most of the film. Never did he play his character false in that one-minute we get a confused, desperate husband searching for his wife and then next minute we get a badass action hero who can’t get hurt and always coming up aces. Joe Anderson as Deputy Russell Clank who added just a tad bit of levity to an otherwise very tense film from beginning to end.
The infected townsfolk were not zombies as others might like to say. They have a certain similarity to Danny Boyle’s “Rage-infected” but while those seem to get a boost in strenght and speed in The Crazies those who become infected seem to just go all nutfuck crazy. While physical changes occur the longer a person was infected (veins beame inflamed and show up visibly) the “trixie” bioweapon does to those infected what the title says: crazy. Some behave in a crazy non-violent manner with uncontrollable giggling. Some would start rambling for no apparent reason while others become homicidal. It’s the last example which becomes the film’s second danger to the film’s leads in their attempt to survive the night and find safe haven.
It’s from the viewpoint of these four individuals that the audience experiences the night when Ogden Marsh must survive not just the “crazies” but also the government sent in to “help” contain the situation. As stated earlier this time around we do not know the motivations of those sent in to help. The government and the military force sent in are not just faceless, but mechanical in their handling of the situation. People were gathered en masse from their homes and paraded through a series of checkpoints to be checked, prodded and separated from those infected. We hear random bits and pieces of radio communication amongst the soldiers and the scientists controlling the situation, but not enough to know what their true agendas.
As the film progresses the danger posed by the “crazies” themselves seem to pale in comparison when we finally see the final solution the military and the government has come to in dealing with the outbreak. An outbreak caused by an accident and one which happens to occur near this small Iowa town. Just like in Boyle’s own 28 Days Later the solution which the military has come up with to deal with both infected and uninfected ends up being the craziest and horrific action by any and all in the film. There’s a sense of detached horror in how the government decided to truly contain the trixie outbreak.
The film was by no means a great one, but director Breck Eisner does a good job of keeping the film moving forward at a brisk pace right from the start then turning things up the farther in the film we get. By the time The Crazies hit the midway point the film the pacing has gone from brisk to unrelenting. There’s barely a chance for the audience to take a breather from the tension and terror before another one comes along. The decision by the filmmakers to just show the film from the point of view of the sheriff, his wife, the deputy and the assistant keeps some of the moral questions brought up by Romero in the original. Just like with Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead, Eisner goes for the easier route and concentrates on making a thriller instead of trying to push complex social and moral commentaries. While this might disappoint some fans of the original in the end it makes the film more accessible for the wider audience.
In the hands of a more capable filmmaker and writers would this compromise to simplify the film have been avoided. Sure it could’ve but for what Eisner and company ended up creating was still quite engaging and entertaining. In the end, The Crazies was a remake of a horror master’s earlier film that more than hold it’s own against the original and actually surpasses it despite a storyline which had been simplified. It’s not one of the best films in the early part of 2010, but it definitely wasn’t the trainwreck may think horror remakes always end up being.