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The Crazies (2010)
Director: Breck Eisner

review by Jonathan McCalmont

The depressing fact of the matter is that, as far as American horror is concerned, the remake is currently king. If America is still turning out viscerally unpleasant horror comparable to French films like, Inside (2007), or Martyrs (2008), then they are not even making it onto DVD, let alone foreign cinema screens. Similarly, if some American film school graduates are cutting their teeth on quirky psychological thrillers like Exhibit A (2007), or The Hide (2008), then we are not getting to see them either. Instead, we get a steady stream of remade slasher films. Films like Patrick Lussier's My Bloody Valentine 3D (2009), and Rod Zombie's Halloween (2007). Weak remakes of films that have not aged well...

Breck Eisner's The Crazies bore all the hallmarks of fitting quite snugly into this depressing commercial cul-de-sac. Not only is The Crazies a remake, it is a remake that failed to attract the attention of any notable actors, it is helmed by a director with only limited experience outside of TV, and it is a remake of a film littered with crippling problems. However, despite such hideous augurs, Eisner's remake of George A. Romero's The Crazies (1973) is a surprisingly successful film with a commendable, if not always entirely clear, political subtext.

Welcome to Ogden Marsh! - A small farming community in the middle of rural Iowa. Ogden Marsh is one of those 'heartland'-style towns that right-wing Americans consider to be a true expression of their nation's character. It is a laidback place where people are basically good: there is a pretty lady doctor named Judy (Radha Mitchell) who really cares about the people of her town. There is also a morally upstanding sheriff (Timothy Olyphant) who refuses to accept free coffee from local businesses, and a sheriff's deputy (Joe Russell) who wanders around in jeans and a baseball cap as though he's just hopped off the nearest tractor. These are good people. But then things start going wrong...

In the middle of a baseball game, a recovering local alcoholic wanders out of a corn field with a shotgun. When challenged by the sheriff, he refuses to lower his gun and winds up being shot dead. Then one of the locals decides to lock his family in the house and burn it to the ground. If these are good people, why are they acting so strangely? The answer is that a transport plane containing vials of the experimental biological weapon 'Trixie' has crashed in the local river which gives the town its water supply.

As the Trixie virus works its way down the pipe from the pumping station, more and more of the locals start to turn homicidal. Within a couple of days, Ogden Marsh's picturesque main-street is a mess of burned out cars and rubble. With the madness threatening to spread to other towns, the government bring in the troops who start to round up the villagers and corral them into holding pens. Predictably, the containment procedures fail and suddenly it is every man for himself, leaving the sheriff, his wife, and his deputy, to try to escape the town before the government decides to blow it up.

Structurally, The Crazies is built around a series of road movie-style set pieces resulting in a narrative that feels overly episodic even when, late in the film, psychological tensions and disease-related paranoia give proceedings a psychological edge that is regrettably absent from the first two acts. Mercifully, though, Eisner directs the set-pieces with an eye for detail and a real talent for visceral tension and imaginatively gory death. Whether it is Judy straining against the bonds keeping her in a hospital bed while a villager calmly pitchforks the rest of the ward, the sheriff's near escape from a bone-saw, or a terrifying trip through a car wash, The Crazies' set pieces are systematically imaginative, systematically stylish and systematically effective.

A good deal of this efficacy flows from the film's use of Iraq War iconography. Using a visual language made up of dusty highways littered with burned out cars, black suburban vehicles carrying government officials, and terrified American soldiers sticking their guns in the faces of innocent townspeople, The Crazies clearly sets up a parallel between a chaotic collapse of civil society caused by the release of a WMD and the collapse of civil society that occurred in the wake of the toppling of Saddam Hussein, and the ill-advised destruction of Iraqi public institutions that followed. In other words, Trixie replicates the effects of America's buccaneering foreign policy in the middle of the American heartland.

This reading of Trixie is further supported by the different ways in which the disease affects the townspeople. While some locals simply descend into psychosis and paranoia, others begin acting upon the kind of violent impulses that would normally remain well buried by the social pressures of civil society and the retributive powers of the rule of law. Indeed, with no government inhibiting their actions, some people attempt to exact a bloody revenge for past injustices while others go on a murderous rampage, collecting the bodies of their friends and neighbours and stacking them in the beds of their Taliban-style pick-up trucks like deer during hunting season.

This commentary upon the failures and inefficiencies of the US military is something that Eisner's remake shares with Romero's original. However, where Romero struggled to weave his social satire into anything resembling an action or horror film, Eisner makes the most of a larger budget and a shift of emphasis away from the military and onto the 'crazies' themselves to paint a broad picture of a society in a state of hysteria. However, this broadness is only possible thanks to the degree of fluidity that the script accords to the Trixie disease.

Because the disease affects people in lots of different ways, Eisner can examine the different reactions that people have to living in a war zone. However, the broadness that comes from Trixie's fluidity comes at the expense of satirical precision and analytical power: because Trixie has no fixed symptoms, it is never clear whether the different forms of insanity encountered throughout the film are caused by the disease or the collapse of local government.

If people are turning to violence because they are infected by a disease then The Crazies should be read as a comment upon the infectious and maddening experience of war. However, if people are turning to violence simply because there is no government in place to stop them, then The Crazies might better be understood as arguing for a fundamental savagery to human nature and that the only difference between 'Main Street, USA' and downtown Baghdad is the presence of a local sheriff.

This lack of thematic precision means that, rather than presenting a coherent political thesis, The Crazies comes across as just another American film to borrow images from 24-hour rolling news. Which is a pity as, thematic fuzziness aside, The Crazies is one of the more impressive works of horror to come out of America in the last year.

The Crazies, remake poster



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