In 'The Crazies', A Town (And Tale) That Sanity Forgot When a plane crashes in small-town America and contaminates the water with a government-engineered virus that turns people into homicidal maniacs — you know you're in for ... well, at least you know you're in a '70s-horror homage.
NPR logo In 'The Crazies', A Town (And Tale) That Sanity Forgot



In 'The Crazies', A Town (And Tale) That Sanity Forgot

Walking Tall, Running Scared: Timothy Olyphant (right) and Joe Anderson (left) play the sheriff and deputy of a small town, where the locals run amok after being infected by a government-engineered virus. Overture Films hide caption

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Overture Films

The Crazies

  • Director: Breck Eisner
  • Genre: Horror
  • Running Time: 105 minutes

Rated R for bloody violence and language

With: Timothy Olyphant, Radha Mitchell, Danielle Panabaker, Joe Anderson

Watch Clips

'Big Plane'

'There's Somebody Outside'

'Is He Dead?'

The recent vogue for remakes of classic '70s horror has been a boon to studios looking for fast and cheap products that are sure to turn a profit. For genre fans, though, it's generally meant a dearth of new scares and a dilution of cherished memories. But why? Why is it so difficult to effectively remake films that were themselves made on the cheap by inexperienced upstarts?

Purists may decry the trading in of yesteryear's grit for a new generation's gloss, but the fast and loose production values were not what made the early works of Wes Craven, David Cronenberg or George Romero into instant cult classics. The defining aspect of the best films of that era — the thing that makes them worth remembering — is that they had something to say. There's a subtext of smart social commentary percolating just below the blood and body counts.

Romero was particularly adept in this regard, and his 1973 small-town epidemic thriller, The Crazies, touched on biological warfare, the bureaucratic ineptitude of government in crisis situations, and the breakdown of social rules in a widespread panic. Breck Eisner's remake starts from the same premise: A government plane crashes outside a small town, tainting the water with an engineered viral agent that turns residents into the titular homicidal maniacs.

As the town is quarantined and the locals get rounded up to prevent the spread of the bug, a handful of people attempt to avoid capture and get out; they're led, in this version, by the town sheriff (Timothy Olyphant) and his pregnant wife (Radha Mitchell). But instead of putting us in the middle of the authorities' disaster-management effort — a potential gold mine of material for post-Sept. 11 and post-Katrina America — Eisner hands us a faceless, two-dimensional occupying force. And rather than attempting to get inside the mentality of a town put on lockdown, he assumes a few mobs breaking through fences will suffice.

More important, the movie doesn't try to make much sense. We're expected to believe that quarantine and recovery efforts wouldn't have begun until days after the crash. In fact, the government seems to have completely forgotten about their downed plane until people start getting sick. Eisner and his screenwriters also conveniently change the symptoms and severity of the infection to suit how lucid they need a character to be in a given scene.

The incoherence is made all the more disappointing because Eisner displays a great deal of raw talent for the genre's tone and set pieces. There's an iconic horror-movie beauty in the image of a woman standing in front of a roaring combine, the spinning blades casting flickering lights on her face. He strikes just the right measure of bloody dread in a quiet, darkened clinic, with patients strapped to gurneys and a madman on the loose with a pitchfork. Meanwhile, a shot of a circular autopsy saw skittering out of control across a mortuary floor toward the sheriff's groin and a battle within an automatic carwash manage to strike an effective Raimi-style balance between campy laughs and heart-pounding thrills.

The film might even have earned a pass as a mediocre yet entertaining exercise based on these strengths. But it succumbs to its worst inclinations in the final reel, leading to an unbelievably nonsensical climax that renders The Crazies, like too many of its fellow retreads, both pointless and forgettable.