“Remake” has become a dirty word thanks to Hollywood’s ever-increasing disregard for creativity and originality. Reactionary studio big-wigs no longer even sniff at projects that aren’t in some way associated with a comic book, toy, or some other established film property. The result has been an ocean of refuse amassed through the hiring of cheap talent to make a quick buck and increase licensing revenue from action figures and video games. But it’s not all bad. One of the natural byproducts of repetitive action is that aptitude for that action invariably increases over time. In other words, Hollywood is getting better at making remakes. Exhibit A: Breck Eisner’s “The Crazies.”
Based loosely on George Romero’s 1973 semi-cult-classic, Eisner’s “The Crazies” is the story of a small Iowa town rocked by a mysterious virus that turns the infected into zombie-like killing machines. The town sheriff (Timothy Olyphant) and his wife (Radha Mitchell) are among the few survivors and must navigate surprisingly clever gun-wielding crazies and over-zealous military action to make it out alive. These monsters can’t be classified as traditional zombies because they aren’t undead, so to speak, and they possess remarkable reasoning and motor skills. Following an initial phase of eerie, empty-eyed staring and “playing statue” the crazies develop the ability to set traps, handle weapons and even communicate.
What’s great about “The Crazies,” photographed rather nicely by Maxime Alexandre, is that it never becomes overly ambitious in attempting to transcend its B-movie status. Sure it has high productions values, better than average performances and a generally competent script, but it is as clichéd as they come, which, in this case, is a good thing. Ever since Quentin Tarantino’s aberrant success in elevating genre schlock into art house and legitimate drama territory, we’ve seen the market flooded by slickly produced horror and genre fare that just tries to do too much. “The Crazies” wisely embraces its silliness and lets the jump scares, saved-from-death-at-the-last-second and the you-know-that-guy-is-gonna-die conventions reign supreme. Even its considerably bold political commentary lacks substantial motive or proper context.
Eisner, who directed the coldly received “Sahara” in 2005, has dramatically improved his effectiveness at manipulating tone, mood and emotion. Though not as gory or cartoonish as other films of its kind, “The Crazies” succeeds thanks, in large part, to Eisner’s direction. One scene in particular, that finds our heroes trapped in an automated car wash, exemplifies the effective building of suspense. Thick soap blankets the car windows, blinding those inside immediately after one member of the party catches a glimpse of an ominous figure not far away. How many crazies are out there? How close are they? Why won’t the car start? The suspense is unbearable. The editing is perfect. The direction is deliberate and sure. And I know I’m not the only one who was freaked out by those car washes as a child.
Of course, there are some false moments and poor filmmaking decisions. Perfection is a fool’s errand, after all. The town deputy, a loyal colleague and good friend of the sheriff’s, has a strange and ill-conceived flirtation with the infection. It is not-so-subtly suggested that he may have succumbed to the virus. Instead of exploring this further the character, played by Joe Anderson, is promptly disposed of, snuffing out a world of possibilities.
“The Crazies” is a solid B-movie and one of the few remakes that actually surpasses the original. But there’s still one thing I don’t understand. Romero’s version is considered one of his minor works. Not many have heard of it, even among horror fans. So why not just do away with the connection completely? The films are certainly different enough. Is Eisner’s film really served by its loose association with Romero’s? Doubtful. Though I suppose I should know better than to ask why Hollywood does what it does by now.