It's nothing to make over
By Dan Kois
Friday, Feb. 26, 2010
Adapted from horror master George A. Romero's micro-budget 1973 classic, "The Crazies" delivers some satisfying scares but skims blithely over the darker ramifications of its story. Romero's original -- about a small town overcome by an epidemic -- simmered with Watergate-era distrust of authority and made the government's response to a crisis as creepy as the crisis itself. Director Breck Eisner's remake nods to contemporary anti-government sentiment, but its military villains are as faceless as the virus that turns the residents of Ogden Marsh into blood-spattered psychopaths -- and substantially less scary.
"The Crazies" wants to be a monster movie for people who are positive the black helicopters are coming. It'll have to settle for being an adequately gruesome thriller that exploits the deadly possibilities of a carwash even better than "The Final Destination."
Timothy Olyphant plays Sheriff David Dutton, the first to connect a series of shocking local deaths with a downed military plane in the nearby swamp. As Ogden Marsh is quarantined -- the phone lines cut, the Internet shut down -- Dutton struggles to escape along with his pregnant doctor wife, Judy (Radha Mitchell), and his live-wire deputy, Russell (the terrific Joe Anderson).
As a series of scary set pieces, "The Crazies" is fitfully effective. Out in the wide-open cornfields of Iowa, where most of the movie was filmed, the band of refugees is safe from crazies but at risk from storm troopers and the aforementioned black helicopters. Once they seek refuge -- in houses, truck stops and barns -- they're prey for their fellow townspeople, now transformed by the virus into diabolical murderers. If the rhythm of the movie gets a little stale, the individual moments of mayhem still have the power to shock. There's something very unnerving about seeing the movie's ordinary-looking bit players made ghastly by the effects of the virus. (Particularly frightening is the town's milquetoast high-school principal, stalking Judy with a pitchfork.)
What's disappointing about "The Crazies," though, is the lack of care that Eisner and screenwriters Scott Kosar and Ray Wright put into their film's atmosphere. There's little in the way of Romero-esque dread; Eisner substitutes a grim lack of humor and frequent splashes of gore.
While it's foolish to look to disposable thrillers for narrative coherence, it would have been nice if the virus's effects on its victims were consistent. Some crazies are rendered babblingly incoherent; others hold grudges and make diabolical plans. In some crazies, the madness manifests itself in malevolent silence; others cheerfully whistle or sing. (One songbird madwoman is played, enjoyably, by Lynn Lowry, the 1970s schlock princess who appeared in the original "Crazies.") In the same way that zombie movies are annoying when the rules of zombiehood are broken, so "The Crazies" suffers when its monsters don't make sense.
In the end, we're left with our ragtag trio of survivors, and the movie's success depends on their charms. Olyphant's sheriff seems like a bit of a lightweight at first, but credibly grows into a crazies-killing machine. Mitchell dependably toggles between screamy and tough. And Anderson -- spindly and clever, with sad blue eyes and a silly handlebar mustache -- gives the movie's best performance as the dependable Russell, whose loyalty to his sheriff is sorely tested on the road to Cedar Rapids. Russell's travails give "The Crazies" a moral weight it otherwise lacks and suggest, for a while, the more interesting movie it might have been.
Kois is a freelance reviewer.
Contains bloody violence and obscenity.