The Crazies (review)

A Sickness Among Us

A man — the town drunk whose recent sobering up hasn’t improved his local reputation — wanders onto the baseball diamond on high-school opening day, carrying a shotgun. The sheriff is forced to confront the man and, when the man raises the gun in a threatening manner, shoots him dead.

A woman brings her husband in to the office of the local GP, asking the doctor to check him out, that he’s just not right. The doctor finds nothing wrong and sends the man home… and that night, he douses his home in gasoline, sets it afire, and burns his wife and young son to death.
It’s an interesting thing that connects that sheriff, David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant: A Perfect Getaway, Stop-Loss), and that doctor, Judy Dutton (Radha Mitchell: Henry Poole Is Here, Finding Neverland), and it’s not the fact that they’re married to each other or that they’re expecting their first baby. It’s that they’re united in blaming themselves for something they shouldn’t be blaming themselves for and yet, because they’re decent people, cannot avoid doing: they did their jobs to the best of their abilities, and it didn’t end well. But the cards were stacked against them and their best intentions.

The Crazies doesn’t linger on that guilt, but it underscores at least the beginning of the disaster that unfolds here, in this surprisingly thoughtful — yet not quite thoughtful enough — zombie-virus-apocalypse flick. That the film doesn’t linger longer on the human-drama side of the end of the world is too bad: neither the script, by Scott Kosar (The Amityville Horror, The Machinist) and Ray Wright from George A. Romero’s 1973 original [Amazon U.S./Region 1] [Amazon Canada/Region 1] [Amazon U.K./Region 2], nor Breck Eisner’s (Sahara) direction seems too intent upon diverting too far from what’s expected. So we have zombielike folk staring out at the world with dead eyes and a terrifying sort of quietude before they go all medieval on the asses of those around them. Cue the great escape from the massacre by the as-yet uninfected.

There’s probably not quite enough bloody, gory mayhem to satisfy those who require only that from their zombie-virus-apocalypse flicks, and yet the film doesn’t go quite far enough in the other direction — the metaphorical, social-commentary, aha-it’s-really-all-about-this-other-thing! direction — to satisfy the likes of, you know, me, who doesn’t mind the bloody, gory mayhem as long as it’s attached to something more meaningful beyond that. There’s hint of something more, for sure, in the sensibly paranoid, we-can’t-trust-the-gubmint vibe that’s all over The Crazies… which is a distinct difference, as far as I can tell from not actually having seen it, from Romero’s 1973 movie. We’re in an isolated Iowa farming community here — the “big city” of Cedar Rapids is a bit of a haul away — and so it’s not that difficult, logistically speaking, for armed troops and moonsuit-clad scientists to descend and cordon off the area when the news of the infection gets out to the powers that be. Which probably isn’t a newsflash to them at all, actually: a secret government plane has gone down, and the wreck is leaking something bad, something no one would ever want to admit it was carrying in the first place, and you just know that whoever lost that plane had only been waiting around for stories about people behaving really oddly and really violently to start showing up…

That’s no spoiler: it’s part of the film’s early setup, which gives way to imagery and notions that are much more horrifying that the usual zombie stuff. I’m talking chainlink fences and people in cattle cars and U.S. troops rounding up U.S. citizens — real black-helicopter, FEMA-is-not-your-friend stuff. It’s scarily plausible… but the film doesn’t really confront these ideas in any significant way. It’s almost as if The Crazies was stunned to suddenly discover what hot-button, real-life stuff it had stumbled upon — can there really be any doubt that niceties such as civil liberties would go by the wayside in the event of an outbreak of something so wickedly contagious and destructive? — and pulled back in terror.

In the meta sense, then, The Crazies is sorta fascinating, as an artifact of how mistrustful and cynical our culture has become; as recently as 1995, the thematically similar Outbreak gave us hero doctors trying to medically solve the problem, but here it’s all about simple flight and survival for the sheriff and doctor protagonists, no hero doctors to be found (as there were in Romero’s version). As a satisfying film on its own, however, there’s a slightly disappointing sense of neither-here-nor-thereness about it that makes me wish it had the nerve to take some sort of stand for itself.

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