Lest we make the mistake of underestimating George A. Romero's influence in the realm of contemporary horror cinema, now might be a good time to take pause and reconsider. Director Breck Eisner's remake of Romero's intensely grim 1973 horror thriller isn't just a rousing exercise in pulse-quickening tension, but an exciting reminder that the man responsible for Night of the Living Dead gave us much more than the iconic, shambling flesh-eaters that lunge at us onscreen and lurk in our nightmares. In some ways, the loony, murderous psychopaths of the original Crazies foreshadow the demonic ragers of Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later and the sequel that followed, and with foreign films like Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza's [REC] embracing the same basic concept, it's obvious Romero's influence isn't limited by language or borders. Much like literary horror icons Bram Stoker and Edgar Allan Poe, Romero has laid a solid foundation for our imaginations to build on. And while the modern reinterpretations of Romero's works may be largely lacking in the stinging social commentary that punctuated many of his own screenplays, efforts like Zack Snyder's surprisingly effective Dawn of the Dead remake and now The Crazies prove that, when handled with care, the central concepts still have the power to shock and entertain.
Ogden Marsh is the kind of small, tightly knit community where the local Little League game marks the onset of spring, and the town doctor still knows all of her patients by name.
In just 48 hours, however, Main Street will burn.
The local water supply has been contaminated with an unidentified toxin that first disorients its victims, and then sends them into a violent, murderous rage. Just as Sheriff David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant) and Deputy Russell Clank (Joe Anderson) begin making headway in their investigation, however, all local communications are terminated and swarms of gas-masked foot soldiers start herding the townspeople into the local high school. Once there, the sick are separated from the healthy and quarantined. Sheriff Dutton's pregnant wife, Judy (Radha Mitchell), the local doctor, is running a temperature. Upon learning that Judy is being held for examination, the determined sheriff vows to rescue her and escape. Once they've managed to get out of the school, however, Sheriff Dutton, Deputy Clank, Judy, and frightened nurse Becca Darling (Danielle Panabaker) quickly discover that a perimeter has been set up around Ogden Marsh in a last-ditch effort to contain the virus, and that in order to survive they'll have to fend for themselves while fighting for their lives against the people they used to call their friends and neighbors.
The biggest surprise about The Crazies is that it actually works. Read any horror-movie message board and you'll quickly discover that a gore-geek's favorite pastime is to whine about how there are no more original ideas and how contemporary filmmakers are cannibalizing their favorite transgressive fright flicks to create watered-down clones suitable for mass consumption. To be fair, they often make some valid points. Even so, deny an entertaining redux solely due to your affection for the original, and you may find yourself missing out on some worthwhile thrills. This is most certainly the case with The Crazies, a film that exists primarily to entertain, yet still retains flashes of the socially conscious themes that made the original so memorable -- especially in the earlier and later scenes.
While he might not possess the kind of filmmaking background that would single him out as a master fear-maker, director Eisner (Thoughtcrimes, Sahara) proves that he's perfectly capable of ramping up tensions with competent, effective suspense sequences that more often than not climax in a satisfying pay-off. Sure there are a few too many scenes where someone in peril is rescued in the nick of time, but thanks to the film's brisk pace we're often too busy anticipating what's going to happen next to bemoan the film's occasional contrivances. Scott Kosar and Ray Wright's terse screenplay keeps the action kinetic while skillfully toying with audience expectations regarding a few key characters, and the central players all do a fantastic job of playing up their character motivations and questionable mental states.
Respectful re-creations of two of the original film's most shocking scenes (the opening blaze and a fiery front-lawn barbecue) show that the filmmakers' hearts were no doubt in the right place when it came to crafting the remake, and the decision to jettison the original's military/scientist subplot in favor of following the protagonists on their desperate flight serves to better connect the audience to characters they genuinely care about. Oddly enough, by excising this portion of the story, Eisner, Kosar, and Wright successfully manage to temper the heavy-handed approach favored by Romero (a filmmaker who has never been accused of being subtle), and make the authoritarian figures even more intimidating by virtually stripping them of all humanity. Considering Romero's obvious disdain for authority (and the fact that he has an executive producer credit on the film), it's difficult to see him objecting to that approach. The Crazies themselves may be dangerous, but if you're looking for the real enemy, he's the guy wearing military decorations and calling all the shots from behind the scenes.