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Danielle Panabaker in The Crazies.

2 out of 4 stars


The Crazies

  • Directed by Breck Eisner
  • Written by Scott Kosar and Ray Wright
  • Starring Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell
  • Classification: 18A

Back in 1973, The Crazies, a typically rambunctious horror flick from George Romero, took dead aim at the bellicose climate of the Vietnam/Watergate era. Now, in the genteel hands of director Breck Eisner, it's been not so much remade as restrained - tamed and dumbed-down and with any sharp political edges safely filed off. All that remains is an occasional bloodbath and a few boilerplate scares. Ours, apparently, is a more sensitive age.

Although the setting has shifted from Pennsylvania to small-town Iowa, the premise is basically the same: Thanks to a U.S. military experiment gone awry, the town's drinking water gets contaminated by a virus that leaves its victims with an incurable case of psychotic violence. So infected civilians feel obliged to kill, in contrast to the professional soldiers who are merely trained to kill. Of course, Romero had tons of fun with this conceit, ratcheting up the metaphoric volume with gleeful abandon. Pretty soon, town officials were immolating themselves like Buddhist monks while, back in the command bunkers, generals debated whether to nuke the place - a play on the infamous Vietnam logic of destroying the village to save the village.

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Here, all that blackly comic finger-wagging is entirely gone, with no attempt to find any contemporary equivalent. Instead, the focus that rested partly on the military, the invading army, now settles exclusively on the brave local hero and his little posse - that would be sheriff Dave (Timothy Olyphant), his pregnant spouse Judy (Radha Mitchell), and his trusty deputy Russell (Joe Anderson). Forced to gun down an old coot with a sudden fondness for foaming at the mouth, our sharp-eyed lawman begins to suspect nefarious doings, a suspicion that deepens when a once-peaceable farmer torches his farmhouse, with his wife and kid inside. Hey, could be something's in the drinking water.

Shortly after, the army descends to turn the entire town into a fenced concentration camp, locking up the infected and the innocent alike. The script tries to get some au courant terrorist mileage out of this - the difficulty of sifting out the crazies from everyone else, and the consequent sacrifice of liberty to security - but quickly gets bored with the effort. Almost as quickly as we do.

This leaves trusty old Dave, bun-in-the-oven Judy, and that increasingly aggressive deputy to scurry hither and yon, doing their formulaic best to seek out opportunities for set-piece gore - here a knife through the hand, there a buzz -saw buzzing toward some guy's nether parts - all the while fending off the uniformed shooters on one side and the more casually attired nutcases on the other. They're a moderately busy trio, to be sure, but it's just business as usual.

And that blandness is interesting. Technically, the horror biz has grown a lot splashier since 1973; thematically, however, the genre has become quite conservative. The blood is certainly convincing these days, but it generally flows only in the safest and most inoffensive, uncontroversial directions. Seems we were so much older then, we're younger than that now.

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