Low budget horror again, and who’d have thought that a remake of a relatively forgotten George Romero film would be one of the best films of the year? The Crazies lost the (faint) political leanings of the original, but made up for it by adding a level of paranoia and hopelessness that the original film lacked. It also helped that it managed to be genuinely terrifying without ever resorting to gore for gores sake, something of a relief as horror films began to exchange extreme violence for ideas.
More than any other genre, low budget horror requires the audience to root for its protagonists and in Timothy Olyphant’s Sheriff (channelling an early career Bill Paxton) it manages that. He never feels super human, striding through events without care for the consequences, but neither does he feel out of his depth, rather than competently trying to save his family rather than the town as a whole (he pretty much determines that the town is doomed near the start of the film) but is dependent on other people as well as himself. Likewise Rahda Mitchell is good as his wife / the town doctor, who interestingly is unable to find a cure for the disease (an interesting departure from the original which at least offers the slim hope of one) but rather is trying to ensure that the small band of survivors make it out of town (and rarely falls into the damsel in distress category either). Indeed, the whole cast is strong and it doesn’t introduce an antagonist to create tension into the party, realising that the situation itself creates more than enough. And despite the film centring on a threat caused by people acting unpredictably, it never feels the need to use the threat of sexual violence to increase drama, not because it would be out of place (although it would make the film far darker than it already is) but because it doesn’t feel the need to.
Whilst the original tapped into fears of the governments meddling in the Vietnam era, the remake only hints at the fact that this is part of a larger government plan (although the executions at the end of the film make it fairly plain what they are willing to do to protect themselves), a way of dealing with insurgent forces (whether at home or abroad is never explained – indeed the true scale of the experiment and whether the plane was deliberately crashed are never explored. Like 28 Days Later, part of the fear is that the true reason as to why this is happening is left to the audience to decide. How The State reacts is important, but it isn’t the focus. Likewise very few other survivors are encountered, so the threat is always comes from the infected rather than man, this isn’t a film about the potential violent nature of people (the film clearly establishes that those that are infected have no possibility of redemption once they have reached a certain point), but rather surviving against an almost animal threat. In that sense its closer to Romero’s zombie trilogy than the original.
It’s interesting to note that at a time when horror films were generally following two paths, gross-out torture fests or (largely) toothless teen appeal, The Crazies followed neither path, presenting a film that relied on the inherent tension of the situation and suggestion to raise the stakes. Whilst it occasionally resorts to jump scares (most notably the excellent car wash scene) more often than not it builds tension through the question of “will they escape” but rather “how”? The violence is often short and brutal (this is a film that pushes the extremes of what is permissible at 15), but never without reason, like the other horror films on the list (and I accept that the genre is overly represented on the list, but make no apologies for this) The Crazies implies rather than shows. I’ve long lamented the rise of torture porn as a genre, especially as the extremes of the genre seem to have replaced the ideas of earlier films. The Crazies doesn’t do anything new, but it is willing to explore the ideas surrounding it rather than just try to gross out the audience.
The Crazies never sought to change the nature of filmmaking, nor even the nature of the horror film. It’s fair to say that its direction is mostly competent rather than awe inspiring, and whilst the acting is generally better than many films at this budget, elements of it remain firmly in the genre (not that that is a bad thing, sometimes ham acting can get in the way of the idea). However, it’s also one of the most enjoyable horrors of the last decade and a fine addition to a genre that sometimes seems intent on destroying itself.