Tired of gore for gore’s sake, of plots that sacrifice sense in pursuit of cheap thrills, and of horror films that are more about half-naked teens than real human beings? Check out the well-made chiller The Crazies. For a film about people going slowly mad, it’s surprisingly smart.
It’s easy to become cynical and jaded about horror/thriller movies—after all, like rom-coms, there are so many of them cranked out (and much more cheaply) that naturally the ratio of decent to disappointing becomes disheartening. Which is why a well-crafted, relatively intelligent, and unnerving (not to mention entertaining) flick like The Crazies needs to be praised with extra gusto.
Yes, The Crazies is another '70s horror remake—this time of George Romero’s very minor 1973 flick (a sidestep between Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead). Yes, it’s sort of another zombie film (though not really—more on that later). But it’s also a very deftly written, realistic thriller that puts its emphasis as much on sharp storytelling and dialogue as on sharp implements. (Though no mistake, it is R-rated and blood is shed.)
Out of the blue something is causing the citizens of little Odgen Marsh to go, well, crazy. Not lurching, lumbering zombie brain dead, but rather a much more chillingly, calmly, murderously nuts. (I won’t give any more away, in part because the exact source of the homicidal unrest is one of the film’s better reveals and one of its many visual delights.) It also seems to make the once peaceful townsfolk drag sharp implements along the ground or on walls before they get around to sticking them into others.
The town sheriff (Timothy Olyphant, strapping the badge back on after Deadwood), his wife the town doctor (Rahda Mitchell) and his deputy (Brit Joe Anderson in the film’s breakout role) soon find themselves not just fighting their newly crazed friends and neighbors, but also the U.S. military’s harsh quarantine and containment measures. (An angle that plays off rural distrust of Big Government, but also raises issues about what a government would have to do when faced with a deadly virus and how front-line soldiers, told little and terrified of infection, might react.) Add to that the characters’ paranoia as to who—including themselves—might be infected and it’s a harrowing, desperate situation. So they do the only thing that makes sense: they try to escape to Cedar Rapids.
Okay, full disclosure: The Crazies takes place and was partly filmed in a small Iowa farm town, very much like the one I grew up not far from Cedar Rapids. So throughout I was repeatedly impressed by its visual and tonal verisimilitude: That’s what a small Iowa town looks like. That’s how people look and behave. And hey, that’s Bruce Aune of KCRG’s Channel 9 News!
Director Breck Eisner (Sahara, but don’t hold that against him) is after an almost poetic realism—he’s done his Terrance Malick homework and like Badlands, The Crazies lingers on textured shots of surrounding cornfields, barren and brown in pre-planting April; and on grain bins and country highway ditches. When military helicopters start filling the air, they feel alien, out of place, and much more threatening than if this were the usual overwrought Big Budget Action-Horror Flick.
But most of all the script by Scott Kosar and Ray Wright gives us characters who behave like real humans, rather than like stereotypes or plot devices. So many horror films aim for a level of ridiculousness or silly cartoon situations (*cough*Saw*cough), or act like Teen Dream swimwear catalogs (*cough*The Stepfather*cough*), so that the actual horror becomes just a Friday-night date-movie joke, something to screech and giggle at. That’s not the case here. By setting up an authenticity of place and letting events play out and characters respond with more logic and fewer contrivances than usual, The Crazies becomes that much more unsettling.
This is a tightly woven horror film—every scene, every line serves its purpose, moving the story forward, enriching the characters, and jacking up the dread. The dialogue is especially deft for a genre that too often falls back on overwrought melodrama. “I ain’t no world beater,” says Anderson’s deputy, coming to grips with the scope of the crisis, “but I had plans.” And when a neighbor man tries to stop Olyphant from rescuing his quarantined wife rather than getting on a military transport out of town, the sheriff replies, “You don’t ask why I’m not leaving without my wife, and I won’t ask why you are.” That’s good stuff.
Olyphant and Mitchell are solid in their roles as married sheriff and doctor. (The twin pillars of authority and science, forced to face an anarchy brought on by biology!). Olyphant has been steadily building a career based on cool bemused stoicism—he’s either due to break out one of these days as a Major Star or end up on the Billy Zane path. But The Crazies’ MVP is Joe Anderson (Max in Across the Universe)—he takes what could have been another redneck Barney Fife role and enriches it with depth and pathos.
The film also gets at deeper fears than just maniacs with machetes. It nicely captures how a shooting in a small town is a big, devastating deal—it’s not played for laughs or gory glee; it has emotional impact. Believe me, if a cop shot someone in public in my hometown, it’d be talked about for a decade. Hell, if a cop car goes through town with its lights on, it’s Big News the next day. The Crazies gets that right and then uses it to make Ogden Marsh’s rapid descent into chaos all the more devastating.
(It’s also the second film in a year–after The Final Destination–to center a suspenseful set piece around a Carwash of Doom. Take note, film students—there’s a thesis paper to be written there: “Full Wax Cycle: Signifiers of Automotive Cleanliness in Modern Horror Films.”)
This is not a ground-breaking or game-changing horror movie. The Crazies is a small, well-made thriller that rather than spilling brains all over the floor, uses them to tell a gripping, disturbing tale. That makes it a rare and welcome beast: A horror film that remembers to be a good film first and foremost.