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July 2010

The Crazies

cast: Timothy Olyphant, Radha Mitchell, Joe Anderson, Danielle Panabaker, and Christie Lynn Smith

director: Breck Eisner

97 minutes (15) 2010
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Momentum DVD Region 2 retail
[released 19 July]

RATING: 8/10
review by Max Cairnduff

The Crazies

Remakes tend to be shoddy things. Most of them lack the inspiration that made the original interesting, and instead merely substitute a better budget for a shortfall of ideas.

The original version of The Crazies dates back to 1973. It's an early George A. Romero film in which instead of zombies we have ordinary hometown American folk infected by a virus that drives them to unreasoning homicidal fury (making them quite a lot like zombies then). The film is a Vietnam parable, and unusually spends almost an equal amount of time following the efforts of the military to contain the situation as it does the heroes caught up within it.

In the original, as the townsfolk begin to panic it becomes increasingly impossible to tell who's infected and who isn't. Worse, it soon becomes apparent that the authorities are incompetent at dealing with the situation. The people on the ground know how bad things are, but those back in command and control aren't listening. There's an atmosphere of paranoia - the crazies are dangerous but things are made much worse by the idiocy of those in charge.

Nearly 40 years later and the world is a different place but people are much the same. Breck Eisner, like Romero, looks to current events to inform the mood of his film and he keeps much of Romero's basic plot and character structure. The key difference though is that Romero showed us perspectives from both sides; the local populace and the invading army. Eisner shows us just one. In Eisner's The Crazies, the army is a faceless and hostile aggressor which shows no great sympathy for the locals. Hometown America has become like Iraq, and the townsfolk are receiving their own taste of shock and awe.

The Crazies opens with a shot of a main street destroyed and in flames, then cuts back to two days previously. We meet Dr Judy Dutton (Radha Mitchell) who is working in the local clinic with her young assistant Becca Darling (Danielle Panabaker), and teasing Becca about her boyfriend. Meanwhile Dr Dutton's husband, town sheriff David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant), is down at the local highschool baseball game with his deputy Russell Clank (Joe Anderson). Becca's boyfriend is playing with the team and it's a beautiful day. It's the best of all possible worlds, and all is well in it.

Things go south when a local man walks onto the field with a shotgun, there's a standoff, and David is forced to shoot him. Soon after he notices the coach is acting oddly, and that night a local farmer burns his family to death within their home. Earlier that same day that same farmer had been seen by Dr Dutton, brought in by his wife because he too was acting strangely. Something is most definitely not right.

What's good in these early sections of the film is the mounting sense of unease they create. In multiple shots we see gleaming water reservoirs, perfectly normal objects but something in the composition draws our attention to them so that they become strangely sinister. David sees a car in the street with blacked out windows, but it flees when he approaches. Normality is cracking, and because of that opening shot we know that in just two days it will have disappeared entirely. Main Street will be a burnt out ruin. The war will have come home.

Underlining the Iraq motif is the use, from time to time, of aerial shots where the camera pans back from a scene, drawing out in stages and becoming a satellite surveillance image tagged with the location and a typed command line. The full might of the US military is being deployed, remote cameras are observing the action and an impersonal bureaucracy, whose goals may not include minimising local casualties, is in command.

The cast in The Crazies are on good form. Timothy Olyphant in particular is excellent as the lead and generally the core four characters come across as credible and ordinary. They're not particularly interestingly written or emotionally deep, but if they were it would detract from their everyman status so it doesn't matter.

The original film made the two male leads ex-special forces, back from Vietnam. There's no equivalent expertise here. They're competent guys but they're civilians and massively outgunned (though it is worth noting that nearly 40 years of social progress means the nurse in the original is now a doctor in her own right). The crazies themselves are suitably terrifying, and there are some terrific set pieces such as the scene in the medical containment unit where patients are strapped to their beds for the doctors' safety, but not necessarily for their own safety.

As I said at the opening of this piece, most remakes are shoddy things. The Crazies is an excellent exception. It takes the themes of the original and refreshes them, making them newly relevant. It's well directed and well paced - moving from a mounting sense of early unease to all out chaos and mayhem later on. It's not hugely original, but it is very good and arguably is a better film than the 1973 version. I value originality in cinema, but I value quality more. This is a taut and exciting horror film that knows what it wants to do and does just that.

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