"There are moments when we cannot believe that what is happening is really true. Pinch yourself and you may find out that it is."
The above quote is from Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) but it readily applies to the madness experienced by the residents of Ogden Marsh in the superlative remake of George Romero's The Crazies (1973). As in Romero's film, a government-invented toxin is accidentally released into a small town's water supply, causing exposed members of the population to burst into uncontrollable violence. Unlike the original, however, this update wisely doesn't opt to split its narrative between the plight of the afflicted townspeople and the military's efforts to contain the outbreak. Instead, the screenplay by Scott Kosar and Ray Wright stays with the townspeople from beginning to end, letting us only encounter the military as a hostile, invading force.
While Romero's film spoke to the paranoia and distrust of government that was running high in the US in the tail end of Vietnam, the new Crazies is equally timely in speaking, without any polemics, to the paranoia and distrust of the government of our current Tea Party era (as well as stoking our ever-escalating fears of infection). Throughout the turbulent late '60s and early '70s, the horror genre was rife with cautionary tales expressing distrust towards the institutes sworn to protect us and this new Crazies is a bracing call back to those days. We've seen this type of movie before, yes - but we haven't seen it in awhile, and seldom this well put together.
Timothy Olyphant (HBO's Deadwood) is in fine form as David Dutton, the sheriff of Ogden Marsh. Genre regular Radha Mitchell (Pitch Black, Silent Hill, Rogue) plays his wife Judy, the town's doctor. David and Judy are expecting their first child and life seems idyllic for them and the rest of their quiet community until one afternoon when a man (Mike Hickman) carrying a shotgun wanders onto the baseball field during a high school game and forces David to draw down on him. In the wake of this senseless act, further incidents tell David that something has gone terribly wrong in Ogden Marsh. This is confirmed when all contact to the outside world by way of phones and computers is terminated and military forces start to round up townspeople.
Although its narrative doesn't feel hurried, The Crazies moves at a breakneck pace with the crisis mushrooming from one scene to the next. David and Judy find themselves in enough perilous situations, replete with last minute rescues and resourceful escapes, to make this a potent combination of Grand Guignol and cliffhanger serial. Technical credits are outstanding with special note going to the work of cinematographer Mazime Alexandre for giving The Crazies such a strikingly pretty, yet appealingly grainy, look.
Without ever feeling deliberately retro, Alexandre (who did the cinematography honors for all of director Alexandre Aja's films save for Piranha 3-D) provides The Crazies with the kind of lived-in feel and natural warmth that used to be a familiar sight to genre fans. Had it adopted the same slick look of most modern genre fare, The Crazies would've surely forfeited much of its effectiveness.
I liked director Breck Eisner's episode of the anthology series Fear Itself ("Sacrifice") well enough but The Crazies decisively establishes him as someone with a real talent for horror. This is a remake that's wholly respectful of its source material and yet handily tops it.
Ironically, The Crazies is the best new millennium remake since another Romero redux, Zack Synder's 2004 Dawn of the Dead (in what must be a purposeful nod to Synder's film, The Crazies also uses a Johnny Cash song during its opening). By showing how expendable an American community can be, The Crazies suggests with timely cynicism that the only health the government is ever out to protect is their own.