Friday, 7 May 2010

Film Review: The Crazies

In 1968, with the original Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero practically invented the zombie film as we know it today. Shambling legions of rotting corpses were soon to become the most defining characteristic of his iconic career in cinema: a career that continues even as we speak - though with an insipid modern trilogy that pales into insignificance next to the original zombie triumvirate, the spark of ingenuity that made Romero's early movies so remarkable has, I fear, come and gone. But long before the likes of Survival, Diary and Land of the Dead - before even Dawn and Day redefined the genre the zombie allfather came to make his bread and butter - George A. Romero wrote and directed a little-known standalone horror film called The Crazies.

The Crazies touched on many of the same themes that would preoccupy Romero for decades to come: contagion, isolation, the struggle for survival, the erosion of morality in the wake of society's collapse. A small town is brought to the brink when a military craft containing an experimental bioweapon crash-lands in the area. The virus kills all those that come into contact with it before reanimating their corpses with a single purpose: homicide. David and Judy, a brave young couple once proud to call Evans City their home, narrowly escape the contagion only to find the odds on their survival slim at best, because the military has arrived, and they aim to contain the virus - at all costs.


It was a neat premise at the time, though hardly original even then, but between some God-awful acting and symbolism so obvious as to insult an inattentive brick wall, The Crazies was, at best, a decent movie; a good movie, potentially, shackled by budgetary constraints (to say the least) and a flimsy, unfocused script. People tend to look back on it rather more fondly than it deserves, I think, perhaps because of the later achievements of its cult director... but I digress.

The Crazies remake, helmed by Breck Eisner, shifts the action from Pennsylvania to Iowa and makes a sheriff and a deputy out of the fire marshals of the original, neither of which differences are of much import at the end of the day. Otherwise, it's a faithful, though not at all slavish updating of the 1973 film. And you know what? Incredibly, it works. When news broke that The Crazies was to be remade, I, along with no shortage of other commentators, fell to declaiming Hollywood for its dire lack of inspiration; some went so far as to say its fascination with classic horror had reached the bottom of the barrel, though I'd assert that George A. Romero, even at his worst, is a far cry from the bottom of the barrel.

Needless to say, I didn't have high hopes for The Crazies remake, and when the greatest claim to fame of its director was Sahara - that infinitely forgettable cash-in on the success of The Mummy - why indeed would I? But Breck Eisner equips himself surprisingly well herein: he exercises more restraint than I'd have imagined possible in a film of this nature, and restraint is a rare and precious commodity in horror these days, given the genre's contemporary tendency to overindulge in all its nastiest, most shocking aspects. While The Crazies still has a few grim moments - unbidden, a horrific set-piece involving a maniac with a garden fork comes to mind - they're all the more effective because they're not par for the course. Eisner has little time for extreme, pseudo-pornographic close-ups of guts and suffering. There's nothing truly distinctive about his efforts in the big chair, but it's nonetheless a cut above the directionless derivative we so often see passed off as filmmaking in the remake-dominated genre these days.

The script is similarly sufficient. Timothy Olyphant, who gained notice in the foul-mouthed and much-missed HBO Western Deadwood, and Rahda Mitchell, who I fear will never eclipse her role in the darkly fantastic cult thriller Pitch Black, lead the cast. Neither bring their A-game to The Crazies, but then, for yet another B-movie remake, why would they? Nor are their roles particularly interesting; David and Judy are rarely anything more than two-dimensional archetypes, well-meaning rabbits caught in the abominable military's headlights. That said, even unremarkable acting is a step above the awful gurning of the original film, and what the script lacks in character, it more than makes up for in tension, in purposefulness: the action here is substantially more gripping than in Romero's first iteration, the narrative pacier overall and the denouement, though it's interrupted by a curious calm, ultimately proves satisfying. 

The Crazies isn't a great film - you hardly need rush out and buy the DVD right this second - but it's a fine way to spend an hour and a half; it takes a fine idea sullied by superficial limitations 40 years ago and does it justice at last. Slick and refined, The Crazies is among the very best of the films of this seemingly never-ending wave of mostly horrific horror remakes, and though it doesn't quite eclipse Watchmen director Zack Snyder's retooled Dawn of the Dead, it comes surprisingly close to equaling its effectiveness. Colourful, if not crazy, and shocking, if not scary, Breck Eisner's remake is - wait for it - the best thing to happen to a George A. Romero film in years.


  1. I'd hesitated to see this in the theater for many of the reasons you listed, but will check it out on NetFlix - thanks for the review!

  2. I really wasn't expecting much from this film either; a remake of an okay Romero flick directed by the guy who did the also-okay Sahara? Meh.

    But I loved this movie. In a dark cinema, it was a lot of fun. And (SPOILER) I loved how the killers weren't just random crazies; they were people you meet over the course of the film and they kill in accordance to what they did in life. I really enjoyed that.

    I also might have been a little overexcited since I haven't seen a good zombie-ish movie for a long time. Probably not since [REC] and Quarantine.

  3. Just you wait for [REC] 2 then. Saw it just a few nights ago - there should be a review up shortly - and wouldn't you know it: it was pretty decent.

    Though the mind boggles some at the announcement of [REC] 3 and 4... :/

  4. When I first time watched The Crazies I was freaked out pretty much!! I most time watch movies in the night but I didn't expected The Crazies will be so horrific. It's a great zombie related movie and I've freaking entertainment watching it. Thanks for an awesome review.
    which is better shutter island or the crazies