Fear Thy Neighbour.
George Romero's zeitgeist series of cult movies have always lent themselves to either eternal sequelitus (and that's probably down to Romero, himself, more than anybody else) or the remake-merry-go-round. After the Dead films have been run into the burial ground (the only thing left for them to do now is to invade Heaven with the living!), the auteur's pseudo-zombie thriller-chiller The Crazies (original reviewed on BD separately) has found itself ripe for reinvention.
The frightening cautionary tale of a man-made virus that has been designed by the military to reduce an enemy population to such a homicidal state that it will tear itself apart accidentally infecting the water-supply of a small American township has all the hallmarks of a truly disturbing chronicle of civilisation gone mad. Biological weaponry has been the source of a small but stubbornly virulent horror sub-genre since the fifties with Richard Matheson's seminal SF chiller novel I Am Legend sparking-off the entire zombie concept. It has, of course, taken in all manner of chaos, from mind-and-body-altering serums to rage-inducing toxins, and from mutated foodstuffs to acid-bleeding xenomorphs. But the most alarming facet will, I suppose, always be the potential for unforeseeable wholesale annihilation. George Romero took his distrust of the US Government to the max when he contaminated proud Pennsylvanians with Agent Trixie and then unleashed the terrible might of a very culpable military upon them in a vicious and unforgiving clampdown. Almost thirty years later, his tale of mania and of a small-town fighting back against the faceless goons that have surrounded them in a fascistic attempt to contain the spread of the virus, is just as comic-book, just as violent and just as engrossing. What it isn't, however, is fresh enough or different enough to have moved with the times.
In Breck (Sahara) Eisner's new outbreak of Trixie, the germ strikes in the heart of Middle America, at the township of Ogden Marsh. Hailed as the “friendliest place on Earth” the sheriff (Timothy Olyphant) is on first name terms with everybody. The town resides upon a huge, seemingly limitless quilt of farmland and it is peaceful, secluded and the epitome of the American heart. It is also about to erupt into violence and bloodshed. A series of bizarre incidents rock the community. People are acting out of character, getting sick and behaving, without warning, with mindless aggression against their own loved ones. It is like Invasion Of The Body Snatchers only much more immediately nasty and homicidal. A farmer wanders into the middle of a high school baseball game and brandishes a shotgun. A father incinerates his wife and son. Rumours of an explosion somewhere in the marsh reveal a crashed military plane beneath the water. And when a prisoner in the cells suddenly takes on the appearance of raving zombie, Sheriff Dutton doesn't need his doctor wife Judy (Radha Mitchell), or his dopey Deputy (Joe Anderson) to tell him that even if the Apple Pie smells good, it would be wise not to eat it.
Thus, before you can say quarantine, Ogden Marsh becomes a veritable war-zone. Soldiers in chemical suits round-up terrified civilians and slobbering lunatics seem to be lurking around every corner. When the proverbial hits the fan, the Duttons, the hick Deputy and Danielle Panabaker's lovelorn assistant, Becka, from the medical practice manage to make for the country, trying to outrun the Army as much as the infected. But with every step literally plagued by danger, how long will it be before they, themselves, fall victim to the tricksy Trixie?
Written by Scott Kosar (no stranger to cult genre remakes with The Amityville Horror and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to his credit, although I would rate his work on The Machinist over and above them) and Ray Wright (Pulse) and Executive Produced by George Romero, The Crazies is fine entertainment, even if fans have seen it all before and will find little new in this particular strain. The set-pieces are better constructed, but the overall story is much more one-sided and, as a result, tighter reined. The scenario feels a lot more fantastical, especially as those new to the tale are kept in the dark a lot more than those viewing the original would be. Romero laid his contaminated cards on the table right from the start, his approach, as always, choosing to analyse and dissect the various standpoints of the opposed factions, and putting flesh on the bones of those on either side of the conflict in the process. Eisner is more intimate and opts not to cloud the issue with scientific mumbo-jumbo or the inane moral and political wrangling of direct action. The original script for the remake contained the same split-perspective dynamic as Romero's, and Eisner deliberately reworked the concept to push it into more of horror-orientated direction. In a way, this version actually condenses the whole moral dilemma down to one scene in which the tables are turned and a young soldier is captured by our heroes - the horrific wrongs and the desperate rights of the matter brought home in a simple, under-pressure exchange. You could claim that the script actually backs down from the political argument that it could have made, but the current climate is different (despite the War on Terror) and angry filmmakers with the courage of their convictions are very few and far between these days.
Without being too obvious, or patronising, Eisner allows his film plenty of sly riffs on and nods to the original. Lyn Lowry (Kathy from the earlier version) cycles past the Sheriff down a deserted main street, singing a sweetly manic lullaby. The rebel song that formed part of the blackly satirical musical theme of Romero's statement is heard being hummed as an ironic aside to the sight of the troops. Deputy Clank even belches out a Special Forces “Hoo-yaa!” before taking himself off on a little covert mission of his own, mimicking the shared Vietnam camaraderie of the original's survivalists. And, in a marvellously shoehorned-in homage to Jaws, of all things, we get a town mayor who refuses our astute Sheriff's request to shut off the area's water-supply. This is farming land and it's a good summer ... so what if people are dying and something horrible is lurking in the vicinity - we need farming dollars, damn it! Definite shades of Murray Hamilton's belligerent Mayor of Shark City (aka Amity Island) in Spielberg's classic of small town bureaucracy and Great Big Sharks. Now this could have come across as just plain stupid to genre-buffs, but I think it is a nice little aside that neatly addresses the blinkered attitude of closed-off blue-collar communities. The vast farming belts of Iowa, Idaho and Wyoming (all environs that were scouted by the filmmakers before they settled on Georgia) are spectrally eerie plains and it is quite cool to see their arable limitlessness in place of the more conventional deserts that the genre loves so much. The sublime photography from Maxime Alexandre sustains this open-air claustrophobia excellently, following-on from his sterling work on the tweaked Hills Have Eyes and the awesome Haute Tension, both, of course, for the genre-acclaimed director Alexandre Aja.
And speaking of which, there is a vague similarity to Aja's remake of The Hills Have Eyes with the visual tracking imagery, a ferocious red-neck trio of infected nut-jobs and the, ahem, ultimate strategy of containment. A brighter touch regarding this trio of deranged hunters, by the way, could have been that they were not, in fact, infected at all and were merely enjoying the disaster for their own despicable purposes. This would have confirmed Middle America's terror of its own country-folk and added a bonafide “human” horror aspect to the scenario - the very thing that Romero would have championed, if you know what I mean. However, as with the majority of those stricken with Agent Trixie, they become monsters with purely savage intentions, which makes them, as well as all the other infected people, easily dismissible as unfortunate victims, themselves. Their appearance is quite striking at times. Whilst some just look like Rage-victims from 28 Days Later, others, and most notably the big walrus-moustachioed hunter, have the mutant eyes of the vamps from 30 Days Of Night and the gleaming vein-networks of the Dark Seekers from Will Smith's take on I Am Legend.
Along with the monstrous make-up, FX team, Almost Human, provide the many gory flash-points punctuate the film. The poster image of the pitchfork is not just thrown there for symbolic purposes. Eisner wrings some real tension out of horrific use of the implement in a protracted scene of trapped terror. He also likes to egg-on some of the more gruelling moments of intense jeopardy with sadistic glee. A scrap with an electric bone-saw has some skin-crawling, blood-spraying delights, and an Evil Dead II-style hand-skewering leads to a seriously demented predicament. It is apparent that Eisner is having fun with his mayhem, creating some elaborate episodes of danger and carnage. There are even enough vehicular thrills and spills to please Mad Max. Trips to isolated farmhouses should be avoided - didn't they ever see Night Of The Living Dead? But the car-wash sequence, although presented with balls-out violence and a couple of mega shocks, comes very close to being giggle-inducing as our hapless heroes cower inside their police cruiser from those big washer-things and tremble at the sight of all those soapy suds pummelling the windows. If it wasn't for “nasties” who are really lurking in there as well, this would be a true howler of a scene! Eisner's film contains some narrative poetry too. The jolting opener is neatly capped-off with a later sequence that, even if slightly contrived, actually makes sense. And there's another little snatch from Jaws in this side-plot, too.
Upon closer inspection, the film panders too rigidly to genre convention. There is a steadily repetitive device of putting Mitchell's character in jeopardy, which runs the risk of becoming corny and tiresome, but just about skirts the issue by courtesy of the sheer gusto of each situation that she finds herself in. Such time-honoured and clichéd moments as hiding amongst a jumble of corpses, and lying in paroxysms of helpless terror as a killer stalks towards you are still doled-out with verve by Eisner despite their unavoidable familiarity. Radha Mitchell, something of a veteran in these sorts of extreme circles, handles such typical sequences with a fair degree of conviction, it should be said, which goes a long way to tightening the screws and whitening the knuckles. But, far too often, the screenplay places somebody in serious trouble, with seemingly no chance of escape ... only to have a surprise saviour come to the rescue with a timely bullet. These aren't necessarily things that you really pick up on first time around, but when you return to the film there's a chance you may find yourself rolling your eyes at the same old nick-of-time routine being dragged out again and again. Eisner, himself, seems to realise this and, at one point, subverts his own programming with another startling bullet, which does shock.
Another potential problem is with the momentum of the film. Eisner spends an agreeable amount of time setting up the succession of unusual occurrences, linking the threads of the growing mystery together with a traditional hick-town mentality of gradually building unease. Dutton and his Deputy (try as I might I couldn't help but be reminded of Mackenzie Crooke whenever Anderson was on screen) return to the jailhouse after some detective work and then we are suddenly flung into the Twilight Zone of a deserted hamlet, phones and power cut off, no mobile signal can be found and there is a weird vehicle with blacked-out windows skirting around the end of the street. “We're in trouble,” Dutton understates. We buy into this sudden madness from their viewpoint, naturally, but from the perspective of a linear narrative, we can't help but feel that something has been missed out. It seems that the township went crazy at just the second when they were looking the other way. Things like this deny Eisner's otherwise finely crafted exercise in nerve-shredding the class it could possibly have attained.
After the miscue of Hitman, Olyphant finds his stride again as the exasperated Sheriff. He seems to be going for a semi-Bill Paxton routine that, given his genuine charisma, actually comes across quite well. And, if you look for it, he's also nailed that Jeff Fahey grin, too! There is a whiff of the 30 Days Of Night dynamic of a husband-and-wife battling the inhuman odds in the blighted wasteland, but their relationship is actually on-the-money. In broader terms, it is improbable that a whole lot more people don't attempt to rescue their loved ones in much the same way that Dutton refuses to leave Judy behind. But, for the purposes of this story, it works well enough to establish their do-or-die commitment to one-another as something quite unique and tender. “What do want to do? If you want to just sit here and die ... I'll sit here and die with you,” he tells her at one point, and even if the pathos of the moment doesn't quite hit the right note, the sentiment of the characters is true enough and almost touching. Olyphant, though, is much more impulsive an actor, and his attempts to wrangle deep emotion and poignancy from the situation can, sadly, come across as though he is impersonating someone like Paul Walker, which is a shame because he is a much, much better actor than that. Perhaps wisely, then, Eisner keeps the emotional angst to a minimum, never allowing a sequence to play out without some form of menace to foul things up and get the pulse pounding again.
After the sombre syth-tones of The Mist, Mark Isham composes another score of ambient dread and slow-burn electronic melancholia. Sounding like the “dark side” of Moon (from composer Clint Mansell), his Crazies score is depressing, tonal and continuous. The pulse of a lethargic lunatic, say. Personally speaking, although I often like music of this kind, I don't think it suits the film all that well. Yes, it picks up on the grim mood of the story and the anguished, frightening plight of our four refugees, but it just sounds too generic and identity-bereft to me to have any real impact. However, as we shall see in the Audio comments section, the film does have a tremendously aggressive sound design around this moody score.
So, at the end of the day, The Crazies 2010-style is a solid thriller, offering plenty of shocks and an agreeably nasty atmosphere of all-pervasive dread and futility. Did the original need to be remade? Well, many people think Romero's low-budget template is poorly made and amateurish and, for them, Eisner's revamp is obviously going to appeal a whole lot more. But I am a big fan of the original. Back in those days, the nightmare scenarios that Romero created, NOTLD included, actually benefited from their rawness and their threadbare, seat-of-the-pants, verite-style realism. Eisner's take, along with a great many modern horror films, feels altogether too slick, too orchestrated. Too much in control. Which, in this particular story isn't such a conducive quality. The encounters with the infected and, by turns, the military, are just a little too elaborate. Romero's film genuinely gave the impression of having been done on-the-hoof, the largely unknown cast providing an authenticity that the more established actors here cannot hope to emulate. Plus, Romero gave us lots of white-clad soldiers getting bloodily decimated, which handed us the delicious gift of some righteous payback! However, I enjoyed the film quite a bit. Its sudden violence is exciting, and its anti-military stance surprisingly well handled without being preachy or verbally condescending. Playing the piece without seeing it from the Army or Scientific point-of-view is a brave new conceit, despite my preference for how Romero divided our attentions. The original was novel in that it could play it from both angles which, of course, gave us a more rounded appreciation of the situation and the tactics that both sides are employing in dealing with the plague. Ditching the authority's perspective almost completely makes them almost unflinchingly the “bad guys” and not just the foot-soldiers trying desperately to contain an unimaginable horror in a literal race against time. For this version, this perspective works ... to a point. We see the hard-line approach adopted by the troops. We also make a few appalling discoveries behind the scenes, but they become nothing more than faceless goons making only periodic appearances. The symbolic threat of the anonymous, alien face-masks and chemical suits goes for nothing when those pulling their strings aren't held up for some sort of scrutiny. But Eisner is still able to provoke memories of the period that spawned his version. Look, for instance, at the scene when the emergency station is about to be overrun by the contaminated townsfolk and the Army helicopters lift off in a hasty evacuation that is very similar to the desperate US escape from Saigon after it fell to the North Vietnamese.
The theme of the “infected” scampering about on the rampage seems as though it will never run out of steam. I Am Legend, 28 Weeks Later, more and more zombies on the munch. I'm not quite sure what this fascination is anymore. When Richard Matheson wrote his SF/Horror classic way back in the McCarthy-led paranoia of the Cold War, and the movies then stood up and took notice, opening the door to The Last Man On Earth, Night Of The Living Dead, The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue, The Omega Man and various other early harbingers-of-doom, society's insular fear of outsiders, the government and then, ultimately, of itself made sense. Metaphor was written large across these nightmarish visions of isolated pockets of “normals” besieged by the “abnormal”. Nowadays, we've been through the fear of Sarin, the chemical extermination of the Kurds, the anxiety of “dirty bombs”, and Swine Flu, so this current vogue seems sort of out-of-synch. Which, of course, means that we are just using the theme for purely escapist purposes. And there's nothing wrong with that, of course. But when you are remaking a film whose story actually said something about the time and the society that spawned it, you need to remember what your own specific reasons for re-opening the wound, so to speak, actually are. For some reason, the new adaptation of The Crazies feels slightly out of step to me. Romero's story was born of societal, political and cultural anger. Vietnam hung poised over it like a cancerous pall. Eisner's version is, when all said and done, just a horror movie.
But this is still a well-produced chiller that packs a punch where necessary and delivers some fine set-pieces, the car-wash sequence just about getting past its innate silliness to ram some brutality home. In a rash of irresponsible remakes and re-imaginings, this is actually a lot better than it probably deserved to be.
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