Breck Eisner’s The Crazies might make you believe something this hellacious isn’t just a work of far-flung fiction, but a possible reality. For a Hollywood horror film, that is quite a feat when the weird seems to gush from the wounds of multi-million dollar projects that often strive for shock over true substance or coherency. Eisner, working off of George A. Romero’s 1973 original The Crazies, uses a believable story with the required scares and thrills without succumbing to sheer absurdity or grotesque violence. By using focused and tight camerawork, a narrative that is easy to follow, and quality acting, Eisner delivers a worthy entry in the horror genre that is a pleasure from start to finish, even for non-genre fans.
Set in the present-day small Iowa town of Ogden Marsh, population 1,200, a mysterious toxin has infected the inhabitants and turned them against each other. As Sherriff David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant) and his deputy, Russell Clank (Joe Anderson), try to find out what is causing the townspeople to go batty in various ways, they are suddenly cut off from the world with no explanation. Joining with his wife, Doctor Judy Dutton (Radha Mitchell), and her assistant, Becca Darling (Danielle Panabaker), the group tries to navigate the military’s sudden involvement and survive the nightmare that threatens to tear the town apart.
The plot boils down to thematic qualities inherent in other classics of the horror genre, like John Carpenter’s The Thing, which give us a limited view and incomplete knowledge, and asks who can be trusted. Less trick than clever filmmaking, this take what you can get relationship puts the viewer in the same spot that the main characters find themselves in. Who is infected and how can we tell? While this clearly is not a groundbreaking idea, the journey that Eisner takes us through is where the film pays off during its short 101 minute runtime. Things go squirrelly, fast.
With a farming town in Iowa as the backdrop, we are given an interesting setting and cinematographer Maxime Alexandre makes sure to capture the unspoiled and pleasant surroundings while he can. Not overly gritty or dark, we are given a normal color tone that plants The Crazies firmly in reality as chaos surrounds our protagonists. The town stands in stark contrast to what is going on within its borders. The action is always clearly front and center, and yet Alexandre manages to convey a sense of distrust and tension in some of the most unassuming surroundings, even in broad daylight.
The editing of Billy Fox succeeds on the basic level of keeping the audience reeled into the action while cutting from set piece to set piece. The plot is fairly linear and the action rarely strays from our main characters, so this is more functional than anything: it just simply works. Fox also sets up stressful moments that result in a few clever scares that don’t feel cheap. Meanwhile, the film will never be accused of running too long, and with a story of this nature it is best to keep it short and to the point. There aren’t a lot of narrative hoops to jump through and the basic premise is clearly setup within the first third of the film, so the real fun is had in the action and anxiety.
Of course, all of this would be for naught if The Crazies was dragged down by its cast. Luckily, with the always charismatic Olyphant starring, Eisner gives us a credible lead that never feels out of place and helps convey a sense of what the hell is going on. We immediately connect with the Ogden Marsh sheriff and he finds a nice blend between optimism and sincerity. Olyphant even brings a sense of humor to the table, cracking a few jokes that help break up the uneasiness a bit and keep the film from feeling too heavy. The real standout, though, is Anderson and his role as the deputy. More on edge than anyone in the group and always ready to shoot first and ask questions later, he tightropes the fine line between sanity and craziness without ever jumping off the deep end.
A slew of misconceptions always rise up when people talk about anything Romero was involved with, especially remakes of his films. Everyone seems to want to know if the people are zombies or not. If you want to know, read on. If not, skip the next paragraph.
The creatures causing chaos are not reanimated corpses; they are infected humans that have been twisted mentally with varying results. Significant steps were taken to make sure the infected are not confused with zombies, and the final effect of the eyes and vascularity are rewardingly frightening. There is no hive-mind mentality here or rambling undead moaning and tottering about. Hell, they don’t even eat flesh. They just go crazy, as the title of the film suggests.
The Crazies is not likely to become a classic piece of horror filmmaking, but what it sets out to do it clearly achieves. With an effective cast and an easy to understand plot, Eisner aimed to recreate some of the scares of the classic movies of the horror genre in the ’70s, and manages to pull a lot of the best parts and piece them together to create an entertaining film. Above all else, the film stands out in a time when horror is not necessarily dead, but strays in odd directions and often feels absurd. This isn’t filled with gore and sex prevalent in so many of the horror films of today. Instead, The Crazies relies on suspense and marque acting, creating an apocalyptic thrill ride that makes you wonder if the premise is just crazy enough to become a reality.