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Horror films have been laid up with Zombie Fever for the last few years, with time off for "romantic" teen vampires (spare me). Torture-chic movies have peaked and are said to be on the wane. I don't apologize when I admit that I've seen very few of these pictures. Some that I've enjoyed are actually comedies -- Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland. My taste for horror was formed by older films, the kind I'm always eager to review at Savant. But one must stay open to new possibilities.
The TV spots for The Crazies intrigued me. They focused on the image of a baseball game interrupted by a deranged man walking onto the field, carrying a shotgun "with intent". The angles chosen made the danger seem very real. If someone interrupted a game like that, would the crowd panic, or would it assume that he were "part of the show?" Maybe The Crazies was something slightly different ... a horror film about something more than the imminent threat of violence.
This The Crazies is a new version of George Romero's fairly obscure 1973 shocker. Horror remakes are flying fast and furious these days -- remakes of hits, remakes of sequels to hits and remakes of brand new foreign pictures, just to avoid subtitles. Romero's surprisingly intelligent original was a low budget follow-up to his cultural bombshell Night of the Living Dead. One of the most disturbing aspects of the 1968 zombie picture were its final scenes, in which an informal posse sweeps the countryside shooting residual walking cannibals in a mopping-up action. The militia are indiscriminate in their slaughter, making the "official relief effort" seem as heartless and malign as the zombies themselves.
The original The Crazies concerns an accident that looses a biological agent into the water supply. It converts people into homicidal maniacs, throwing an entire community into chaos. Unaffected citizens find themselves in a double bind, fighting for their lives against neighbors-turned-demented killers, and also against gas mask-wearing government troops, apparently given politically mandated orders to kill everybody.
Optimistically described as more of a re-think than a remake, the new survival ordeal distinguishes itself from other horrors by altering its emphasis. There's plenty of action and blood and a little gore, but the strongest scenes aim for suspense and tension, not gross-out bloodletting. It isn't the gallery of decapitations, eviscerations and other spectacles that have been passing for horror. Wanton sadism is not the only entree on the menu.
We instead follow the travails of Sheriff David Dutton and his doctor wife, Judy (Timothy Olyphant & Radha Mitchell). Their Iowa farm town of Ogden Marsh is quickly overcome by the plague of psychotic killers. First comes the shotgun incident at the ball game; David incorrectly assumes that the man is a relapsed alcoholic. David locates a large crashed airplane. Because the crash hasn't been reported he surmises that it's a classified secret ... and that something has leaked into Ogden Marsh's water supply. There's no time to react, formulate a plan, spread the word or alert the outside world. Faster than you can say Invasion of the Body Snatchers, large numbers of maniacs go on a killing spree -- against their own families, strangers, anybody. A trio of hunters remains a killing unit even after they've succumbed. The army rounds up David and Judy with their neighbors and takes them to a makeshift camp. Nobody is given a chance to talk and no explanations are given. Individuals with high temperatures are segregated as infected by the rogue toxin -- including Judy, who has a slightly high temperature because of her pregnancy.
Bits of information dispensed in the screenplay by Ray Wright and Scott Kosar let us know that the faceless masked troops on this mission are just as traumatized as the locals. The soldiers haven't been told what's going on and are terrified by the things they're being asked to do. People are shot for little reason and the crowds are expected to remain passive in the face of evidence suggesting that a massacre is underway. David, Judy, her friend Becca (Danielle Panabaker) and David's deputy Russell (Joe Anderson) variously escape and retaliate. Becca's boyfriend Scotty (Justin Miles) is momentarily rescued but makes a hopeless gesture to save his mother from the trigger-happy troops. Maniacs seem to be hiding everywhere as our small group tries to walk to the next county. Armed citizens then attack the military. Having fumbled their mission, the authorities are forced to retreat. But their plan B seems even worse, as David intercepts an official radio on which he hears a voice reciting an ominous countdown...
The Crazies sticks to a first-person account of survival, expanding Romero's original in terms of production value but not scope. We never cut away to the outside, which spares us from lame scenes of generals debating what to do. The story has several very suspenseful scenes. Judy and Becca are strapped to gurneys in an abandoned hospital tent with other suspected Crazies. That's when the infected school principal arrives with a pitchfork, and begins to methodically stab the helpless women one at a time. Thanks to some good acting, the panic factor ratchets ups steeply.
Other scenes have people foolishly splitting up and wandering off to investigate dark corners, a ploy unerringly followed by an anemic scare scene. But several of these junctions pay off in unexpected ways. In the wake of the botched original mission, the fugitives discover that the army has been conducting atrocious massacres. One scene has the Sheriff spare a captured soldier after he cries that he has no choice but to follow orders. They can only hope that the soldier won't double-cross them. A set piece in a car wash tries to milk tension from quick cuts of soap on windows and barely-seen killers lurking outside. Good editing can't quite make it add up to anything.
Three separate incidents anticpate terror by the sound of metal scraping on something. The principal drags a pitchfork on the floor, and we hear a scrape-scrape noise. What works quite well once only seems annoying after three repetitions.
Timothy Olyphant's beleaguered Sheriff Dutton sets a good, practical tone for the film. His Sheriff is a decent, resourceful guy and we immediately take a liking to him. Dutton can get rattled but when he decides on something he's stubborn enough to follow through. He turns off the water in defiance of the mayor's orders, thereby sparing a good portion of the town from the 'crazy' infection.
One very good idea isn't paid off satisfactorily. David's deputy Russell is a handy marksman and protector, but he becomes increasingly edgy and unbalanced as the ordeal plays out. He's a bit like the lethal Anthony May character from the old No Blade of Grass, a killer the heroes are happy to have on their side. Everybody worries that Russell has become infected, as does he, a concern that only increases his paranoia. But the insane Crazies on view behave totally differently, going into a catatonic state of murderousness; Russell may only be warping under pressure. The real Crazies go bonkers and stay bonkers. So it's troubling that everybody including Russell concludes that Russell is a doomed menace.
Director Breck Eisner's career seems to have fallen into a remake groove, but we like what we see here. The widescreen farm landscapes are beautiful, and the choice of shots sets up Ogden Marsh as a believable rural community. Yet The Crazies fails to leap to a higher level of relevance at the end. It has assembled all the pieces to float a thesis about reckless military weapons development and what the authorities might do to cover its tracks. It also would seem ready to say something relevant about the anti-government separatist movements making trouble out there in the hinterlands. But the film doesn't follow through on these threads. It's still just a horror picture with an elaborate premise to kick-start the scares. The "it's still spreading" ending is perhaps designed to motivate a sequel.
The Crazies is both smart and scary, and gets Savant's enthusiastic recommendation. It has a streak of underexploited relevance, just the same. Both versions of the story seem prophetic of recent historical events, like the appalling non-response to Hurricane Katrina. The seemingly limitless greed and arrogance behind the corporate disaster of the Gulf Oil Spill shows the same kind of negligent indifference to human values.
Anchor Bay's Blu-ray of The Crazies is a crisp, attractive encoding of a very clean-looking picture; we wonder how much digital effort was used to make all those farms look like picture book showcases. The audio tracks show some restraint, making this new horror film one that doesn't try to hype its scare factor by layering shock noises over unconvincing visuals.
A series of featurettes sells The Crazies from the expected angles -- visual effects, makeup effects, etc. Rob Hall's monster make-ups are seen only fleetingly and as a result have an interesting impact. I particularly liked one maniac sporting a pattern of swollen facial blood vessels. Another featurette covers Breck Eisner's directorial contribution, and Eisner also provides a full feature commentary. The George A. Romero Template is a featurette tribute to the maker of the original.
Galleries of photos and storyboards are included. Other extras are more directly promotional in nature: a pair of "Motion Comic" episodes and a trailer for same; trailers and teasers and the effective TV spots that originally grabbed our attention.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Crazies Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.