Timothy Olyphant as David Dutton
Radha Mitchell as Judy Dutton
Joe Anderson as Russell Clank
Danielle Panabaker as Becca Darling
Directed by Breck Eisner
The key to a successful Romero remake has apparently been revealed: Have a killer opening and feature a Johnny Cash song. It worked for Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead in 2004, when he cut apocalyptic worldwide chaos to Cash's "The Man Comes Around." And it works for The Crazies, Breck Eisner's vigorous re-telling of the 1973 film of the same name, which explodes onto the screen from frame one with a shot of Ogden Marsh's torched Main Street. Cash's rendition of "We'll Meet Again" then carries us through the town's scenic farmland from, as the on-screen title card tells us, two days before the portrait of fiery doom. Naturally, the tone is severely different from Snyder's Dawn, but the combo works. Surface value aside, the immediate question any review of a remake to a poignant Romero film should be: Is it relevant today as the original was when it was made? In some respects, it is.
One has to wonder, however, how much more potent the film could have been had 28 Days Later and its follow-up, 28 Weeks Later (which shares some similarities to The Crazies), never existed. Still, we have to look at what we got and what Eisner has delivered is a taut, go-for-the-throat retelling of a government bacteriological weapon, en route to being destroyed, that finds its way into the town of Ogden Marsh's water supply. Whoops. The result of this accident? The townspeople start to go a little loopy, killing their loved ones and anyone else who get in their way. Strapped to deal with this situation is Sheriff Dutton (Olyphant), wife Judy (Mitchell) and his deputy Russell (Anderson) - the professions of the leads deviate somewhat from Romero's original, but the gist is the same.
But where Romero's film juggled the common man's struggle to breach a quarantine with the government's follies to clean up their mess, Eisner's approach adheres strictly to the former. So, Eisner presents a suspenseful first half of the film as we learn the capability of those who are infected by "Trixie" and as Dutton begins to put the pieces together.
The film moves breathlessly during this time, leaping from one jump scare to the next as if the very celluloid itself was contaminated by the virus. And Eisner is clearly having a ball with his maniacal residents - who grotesquely transform (via FX by Almost Human) the longer they're infected. One man hauntingly whistles a tune (one of a few subtle nods to the original) from the back of a pick-up truck while his family burns inside their home while another walks through a parking lot of corpses asking each body, "Did they call?" The problem with each scare set-piece, however, is they are orchestrated in such a way that you can predict how the protagonist will get out of the situation, stifling the sense of danger. Nevertheless, the scenes are violent, brazen and loud - getting the job done. This is Romero's original vision on crack.
The story settles into a somewhat quieter rhythm as the survivors of the film's mid-point quarantine attempt to flee town. Anderson's Russell is allowed to shine has his character takes some surprising turns (surprising to those unfamiliar with the original story) and Danielle Panabaker's Becca takes the narrative in a few welcome deviations, including an implausible, but no less fun, car wash sequence (that car could have found traction, I think). It's around this time, too, that Eisner amplifies the military threat, creating an effective bogeyman effect.
First and foremost, The Crazies is a roller-coaster trip. And while sometimes the strengths of Romero's themes are muted by the buzzing of an out-of-control medical saw, vicious attacks by the crazies, slick photography by Maxime Alexandre (who lensed High Tension and The Hills Have Eyes) and aggressive finale, those themes nevertheless linger like a persistent virus you can't kick making this a worthwhile remake you can stand behind.