On opening day for baseball in Pierce County Iowa's Ogden Marsh, Dr. Judy Dutten's (Radha Mitchell, "Surrogates") nurse Becca Darling (Danielle Panabaker, "Mr. Brooks") begs out early to watch her pitcher boyfriend Scotty McGregor (Justin Miles) on the mound. Dr. Dutten's husband, Sheriff David Dutten (Timothy Olyphant, "A Perfect Getaway"), is also there with his deputy, Russell Clank (Joe Anderson, "The Ruins," "Amelia"), never expecting he'd have to shoot the town's reformed drunk, farmer Rory Hamill (Mike Hickman), when the man enters the playing field threatening with a rifle. Neither does Sheriff Dutten yet realize that Rory was only the first of the doomed town to show full symptoms of becoming one of "The Crazies."
Once Hollywood figured out that there was money to be made recycling horror classics from the 70's and 80's for today's audience, there's been no stopping the parade. Most of them, including "Crazies" screenwriter Scott Kosar's updates of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "The Amityville Horror," have been awful. And yet, along comes Kosar with first-timer Ray Wright and director Breck Eisner, whose own update of "Sahara" didn't exactly set the world on fire, with one of the few winners. Writer/director George Romero's 1973 original is, rather inexplicably, one of his lesser known works. He produces here and his low budget Government paranoia film, a reaction to the Vietnam war, is upgraded from the drive-in circuit of the era with slicker production values and a more experienced cast.
Kosar and Wright have ditched the dual-perspective of invading military forces and townspeople from Romero's original to focus on the horror of those who do not understand, at least initially, what is going on and it works. Now the faceless military are always faceless and, therefore, even more frightening. Here is a Government keeping secrets, overreacting to threat, signing up troops for jobs they never, ever anticipated. I miss the doctor-racing-for-a-cure of the original, the martyred Romero good guy played with delicious hamminess and faux Brit accent by Richard France, but nothing else. Some details are kept (the plane carrying bioweapon TRIXIE which crashes, the hero's pregnant partner, the holding pens, the rural landscape) while other aspects are modernized (town vehicles all booted to prevent escape, the mayor right out of "Jaws" who overrules the Sheriff's advice for economic reasons, holocaust imagery). Most impressively, the remake is not just used to string together a series of nasty killings at the hands of the crazies, something implied by the film's poster (although there are a few).
It's actually Judy Dutten who is first exposed to a TRIXIE victim when Deardra Farnum (Christie Lynn Smith) brings her husband Bill (Brett Rickaby) in. He seems almost catatonic, but not murderous. Later that night, already shaken by having killed Rory Hamill, the Sheriff gets a call to respond to the Farnum farm where Bill was discovered mowing his lawn after locking his wife and son in a closet and setting the house on fire. Bill is planted in the town's holding cell where he stands and stares straight ahead. When three hunters come across a dead pilot whose parachute is entangled in a tree, Dutten sets out to find his plane, wondering why there has been no report of it. For its discovery, Eisner and cinematographer Maxime Alexandre ("Haute tension") compose a stunningly creepy image of a small rowboat floating above a submerged military transport plane that is a visual metaphor for the widespread Government coverup about to unfold. Having figured out their water supply is contaminated, the Sheriff realizes they are in deeper trouble when the Internet, land lines and cell phone signals are cut. The townspeople, including medical and emergency personnel, are rounded up and separated based on temperature. Judy's pregnancy lands her in with the infected, helplessly strapped to a table. Dutten will not board a school bus transport, escaping to save his wife. They, along with Becca and Russell, face increasing horrors as they try to make their way to Cedar Rapids undetected.
"Deadwood's" lawman Olyphant is good here, troubled over a necessary action, always moral ('Don't ask me why I can't leave without her and I won't ask you why you can') and supportive, a man who makes good decisions, the man to follow in this type of crisis. Radha Mitchell, who began her career with strong indies like "Love and Other Catastrophes," "High Art" and "Everything Put Together" has never really built much momentum, so it's good to see her, at least, in strong genre fare like this. The good looking Anderson is made a bit ferrety as the Deputy, perhaps an inadvisable attempt to paint him a red neck. Besides those mentioned, some of the creepy crazies are played by Richard Kelly perennial Lisa K. Wyatt as Rory's revenge-driven wife, Olyphant's "Deadwood" costar Larry Cedar as that pitchfork-wielding Ben Sandborn and "Junebug's" Frank Hoyt Taylor as Ogden Marsh's overly enthusiast mortician.
Director Eisner mostly resists cheap jump-out-at-you scares (there are a couple) and has achieved a nice, clean look for his film. The flat Iowa landscapes are well utilized as are scenes set in a funeral home and a car wash. The film's climax in the penultimate scene rejects the usual cliche. "The Crazies" is one of the rarities, a remake better than the film upon which it is based, and one which riffs on the helplessness of the common man faced with the disastrous decisions of his Government.
Robin did not see this film.
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