A film review by Craig J. Koban July 8, 2010

THE CRAZIES jjj
½ 

2010, R, 105 mins.

 

Sheriff: Timothy Olyphant / Judy: Radha Mitchell / Deputy: Joe Anderson / Becca: Danielle Panabaker / Deardra: Christie Lynn Smith / Bill: Brett Rickaby / Nicholas: Preston Bailey / Mayor: John Aylward

Directed by Breck Eisner/ Written by Scott Kosar and Ray Wright based on the 1973 film by George A. Romero.

THE CRAZIES is an uncommonly tense, disturbing, and lean and simply directed horror/thriller.  This is a welcome thing.  Too many modern splattergoriums of visceral mayhem and carnage seem more prone to wowing us with bombastic sensory overload.  The great thing about THE CRAZIES is how low key and efficiently directed it is: Yes, it takes a premise that is woefully familiar and has been done a million times before (man-made plague turns ordinary people into humanity-hating zombies on the verge of a social apocalypse), but it takes that dime-a-dozen concept and infuses it with sparse, but evocative atmosphere, a strong sense of relentless tension and dread, and a minimalist aesthetic approach that far too many young filmmakers that worship at the alter of Michael Bay seem incapable of mustering. 

This new CRAZIES is based on the original 1973 film of the same name by the godfather of the cinematic zombie genre, George A. Romero.  That film, much as this new one does, focuses on the dangerous after effects of the accidental release of a military-created biological virus on the citizens of a small American town.  The original movie was one that I remembered for having a decent hybrid of divergent themes: it was part zombie horror-fright flick, part commentary on the nature of biological warfare, and part conspiratorial thriller on the nature of U.S. military power gone horribly afoul.  Romero’s original was a decent entry in the genre that he spawned, but a horribly poor distribution plan in the early 1970’s left it largely off of the radar of filmgoers for its time. 

Romero now serves as a producer for this new, updated version of his original story, which is now directed by Breck Eisner (SAHARA), who clearly understands and tries to appropriate what made Romero’s past horror films so efficient and effective.  Instead of engaging in a potentially nauseating utilization of CGI overkill and employing hyper-spastic editing that inspires seizures (far, far too common in today’s action and horror films), Eisner keeps THE CRAZIES remake down to its stylistic essence.  Despite its higher budget and bigger scope than its predecessor, this CRAZIES-redux manages to resourcefully remake the original story while paying homage to the B-grade, low budget spirit of Romero’s work.  The temptation here easily could have been to amp up everything, but Eisner wisely knows not to fall victim to lame visual gimmicks and tricks: no queasy cam, no eye-straining, split-second editing, and no heavy preponderance of computer fakery.  All of this makes THE CRAZIES feel more authentic and tactile. 

The film does an exemplary job of quietly establishing the bucolic atmosphere of its small town setting before all zombie-hell breaks loose.  It opens in the tiny and close knit farming community of Ogden Marsh, Iowa that is the home to a young police sheriff named David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant) and his loving wife, a family doctor named Judy (Radha Mitchell).  Both of them have their respective assistants: David has his deputy, Russell (Joe Anderson) and she has her teenage assistant, Becca (Danielle Panabaker).  The small town that surrounds these people is as ordinary as they come: quaint, friendly, and inviting. 

Everything changes one spring day when David decides after work to attend a local high school baseball game, during which something very, very unexpected happens.  During one inning his deputy spots a peculiar sight: one of the townsfolk, Rory Hamill, enters the field…packing a shotgun.  He has a reputation for being a drunk, so David wisely decides to confront him in the outfield, but Rory seems eerily uncommunicative to even the simplest of David’s questions.  Things turn deadly when David is forced to shoot Rory dead when it appeared that Rory was about to fire upon him.  David clearly feels an extraordinary sensation of guilt and unease about the whole situation, but his caring wife smartly reassures him that he did what he had to.  However, David becomes even more paranoid when he gets the pathology report of the slain Rory: despite appearing outwardly intoxicated, his blood alcohol level before he dies was…0.0.  Hmmmmm....

This is…well…odd.  It becomes even odder when Doctor Dutton begins to notice disturbingly similar symptoms that Rory exhibited in some of her own patients (one in particular is so “sick” that he manages to trap his wife and young child in his farm home and burns them alive).  This is clearly…not normal behaviour, and soon David and his deputy begin to take it upon themselves to find out what the h-e-double hockey sticks is going on.  Without given too much away, it appears that the cause of the…odd behaviour in the townsfolk is incontestably linked to the government and military, but David and his partner find all of this out too late.  Within no time, a majority of the citizens become zombified as unthinking, sociopathic killers.   

The full force of the U.S. military does swoop in and places the entire town under strict quarantine protocol, seeing as the epidemic is getting way-out of control.  The affected people are rounded up in medical interment camps and quickly disposed off, whereas all of the healthy people are being escorted out of the city.  It becomes really alarming when the military falsely suspects David’s wife as being sick (her fever is pregnancy related) so he bravely decides to re-enter the dangerously plagued and inhospitable town to save his wife…that is unless he can get around the “crazy” townspeople and the very trigger happy soldiers that have been instructed to shoot first and not ask questions later. 

I have typically found most movie zombies to be quite comical.  They do, after all, lurk at an elephantine pace, grunt and groan, and willfully offer themselves as easy targets to their human enemies that make mince meat of them with a variety of hilariously improvised weapons.  The zombies (if you can indeed call them that) in THE CRAZIES are actually sort of frightening entities here: they are mindless, salivating killers, to be sure, but there is just something uneasy and chilling about seeing these infected people slowly and methodically murdering people and then acting like they’ve done nothing wrong (one “crazy” does a self-congratulatory whistle while staring blankly into dead space after one of his vile acts).   

Eisner’s refreshingly sparse and unflashy directorial style, as mentioned, works wonders here.  Using dark and macabre cinematography by Maxime Alexandre (he paints the shots with blacks and greenish hues to heighten the menace) and clean and precise editing by Billy Fox that does not overwhelm you, Eisner knows how to pool his talents together to generate palpable tension and reasonably decent “boo!” moments.  He also intuitively knows how to linger on well-composed compositions and juxtaposing them with a sickening soundtrack to foster an evocation of hostile unease.  Then there are some of the remarkably nifty and innovative action sequences.  We have many of the obligatory moments involving David et all picking off various “crazies” with equally obligatory weapons (pistols, rifles, cars, etc.), but just watch how creepy, unnerving, and freakishly intense Eisner makes one scene involving the survivors in an old police cruiser while at a car wash.  I love it when a filmmaker can take redundant settings and make them scary: your next trip to clean your ride may never be the same after seeing this film. 

The performances are all just as expediently underplayed as the direction.  Olyphant, always a cool and collected screen presence, plays his sheriff character with the right blend of gutsy bravado and fingernail chewing agitation.  Radha Mitchell, a naturally beautiful screen presence, is headstrong and vulnerable in what easily could have been the perfunctory damsel-in-distress wife role.  I also appreciated the work of Joe Anderson as the increasingly deranged deputy, and his performance slyly hints at a possibility of plague infection…but we are never really quite sure.  The key here is that Eisner keeps his players grounded: they all resist the temptation to overplay and oversell their performances, even when they are called upon to be physically horrified at their predicament.   

If there were to be a weakness in THE CRAZIES then it would be in its usage of the military as a secondary antagonist to the “crazies” themselves.  The ’73 Romero-classic had a sharp and subversive political vibe to it, which has largely been neutered in the new incarnation (the military is certainly initially portrayed as heartless and cold, but considering the circumstances of the plague, would they really act any other way when containing a potential worldwide epidemic?).  Romero has been known as a filmmaker that has used his zombie films as acerbic social commentaries as well, and there certainly was an opportunity for the new CRAZIES to perhaps be a reflection of the H1N1 scare pandemic that polarized most of the world during its release earlier this year and last fall.  These are small quips, because THE CRAZIES still emerges as a surprisingly well-made remake: edgy, exciting, genuinely thrilling, and – most crucially - modestly shot without self-indulgent overstatement.  Trust me, it's all the more involving and fearsome for its less-is-more artifice. 

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