The Crazies Review: A Jolt to the Gut, Brain, Country (B+)

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I’ve tried to omit most major spoilers for this review, writing in a more general and all-encompassing fashion. I’ve clearly marked out the one paragraph below where we engage in a half-detailed plot analysis.

George A. Romero’s The Crazies was all about America’s growing distrust of its government. Opening in theaters amid the insanity of Vietnam and only two months before the Senate officially started holding hearings on Watergate, it presented three different lines of reasoning as to why our government and armed forces were not just fallible, but could well make a bad situation much, much worse. First off, our leaders would not hesitate to drop men with guns on unsuspecting Americans if order ever collapsed. Second, any people in government who would morally object to martial law would be brushed aside by those “just following orders.” And finally, in the process of sending in the ground forces, the action would likely spark a revolt that was far worse than whatever chaotic situation those forces were trying to contain.

As Americans, we have a love-hate relationship with authority, dependant on the government to help when the going gets tough but terrified about their ability to trample our civil liberties. Romero’s The Crazies toggled between such extremes, contrasting the well-meaning bureaucrats with the terrified – and terrorized – citizenry, as seen through the scopes of military rifles. (More at Techland: Breck Eisner, Crazies director, talks Romero)

If the 1973 Crazies is more interesting than it is scary today, then the 2010 Crazies helps to skew that love-hate dichotomy towards something closer to hate-fear-survive-at-any-costs. In the ‘70s, we were grappling with a government that was starting to encroach ever deeper into our lives; in this new century, however, we can be watched, tracked, eavesdropped and killed all via drone or satellite. The balance between the individual and the state is less a tug of war today than one of David vs. Goliath.

So appropriately enough, it’s the slash-and-burn ferocity of the 2010 The Crazies that is most startling (and ultimately most haunting). From minute one, we sense the imbalance between this cheerful and naive Anytown, USA, and the cold and calculated national government lurking overhead, underwater, and on all sides. There is always a larger drama playing out in the background that we only see glimpses of, that the characters (and the audience) fail to fully comprehend, or anticipate. Actually, in hindsight, this is what I loved most about this very good thriller: There are a couple scares that have to do with bloody stares and blood-curdling screams, but the far more terrifying aspect of this production is how quickly the ground is yanked out from under our heroes’ feet. Law and order ceases in the blink of an eye. One wall is peeled away, to reveal a far more terrifying proposition lurking behind it.

And then another.

But now I’m just fawning. Here’s my quick synopsis, with the only major *spoilers* I’ll divulge (and really, this film should be seen knowing as little as possible): The calm and quiet of Ogden Marsh is shattered by two incidents that are so unsettling they rattle the otherwise unflinchable Sheriff David (Timothy Olyphant). A man with a shotgun walks onto a baseball field, with a crazy look in his eye – the same look that David sees later outside a burning house, where a man has just killed his wife and child in the blaze. David locks the second man up in the jail, only to discover that as the hours drag on, his face takes on a more and more demented appearance. Something is clearly poisoning this former husband and father, resulting in violent outbursts that have already taken the lives of the two people who mattered to him most. David’s smart, far smarter than we initially expect, and he starts analyzing what could be causing this breed of mass psychosis. Like any smart investigator, he starts with the water supply, and on a trip out to investigate the body of water that provides the town with H20, the film suddenly – and abruptly – cuts to overhead satellite imagery. They are being watched. A quarantine begins, and as David discovers that the cell phones are dead and the internet has been deactivated, the plot veers further and further out of his reach. This isn’t about him versus the infecteds anymore; soon black SUVs are on the streets, soldiers are on the ground, David is being taken into custody, people are being shot, and citizens are rebelling by any means necessary. *End of major spoilers*

As I hinted above, it’s the speed at which all this happens that left me wide-eyed. And the real horror is how quickly a sunny day in the suburbs can turn into a scene of merciless martial law that we would typically associate only with the era of the Iron Curtain. (More at Techland: Flipping through the Crazies comic books)

This is complete and utter anarchy with every person out for himself, as the idealistic American dream gives way in real-time to the darker impulse of self-preservation. And Romero (serving here as executive producer) is no doubt proud of the ways in which this telling emphasizes the dispassionate disconnect between government and populace. His Crazies was partially about government as both savior and devil. But Breck Eisner clearly sees something far less balanced in this era of pre-emptive wars and Wall Street bailouts. The halls of government don’t lead to Main Street any more; if Main Street was ever wiped off the face of the planet, surely the corporation contributions would keep trickling in.

There’s a definitive moment here, in which David, his wife and his deputy are all speeding down a highway to safety, where we begin to comprehend that the government is every bit as dangerous as the infected/zombie-types. There’s a close encounter, where David fights and claws his way to escape from the crazies, only to realize that waiting around the next corner is a military missile with his name on it. When the going gets tough, it would appear, the government’s priority is only to restore order. If that means cracking a few eggs, then that’s the collateral damage they deem acceptable. (More at Techland: Percy Jackson and the all-time best child superheroes)

The marketing has made this movie look like a bloodbath, and there’s plenty of gore to go around. But even the violent scenes refuse to play out in the way one might expect. A woman stands in a barn, in front of the swirling blades of a combine near midnight, and I was positive that we were about to see a body torn to shreds. Similarly, that guy with the shotgun in the baseball stadium (who we’ve seen in all the ads) doesn’t wreak the sort of havoc we initially expect. Eisner has something far more insidious up his sleeves, and he knows it; He doesn’t go for the routine shock tactics, and the film’s smarter as a result. Combine his respect for the audience with his insistence that the story move at a sprinter’s pace, and I found myself lagging behind for a change. I was trying to catch up, to understand what was happening to these infecteds, why the government showed up, what the fallout of the rebellion might be, and whether or not our heroes might also just be the film’s biggest villains. As they try to get around the barricades, could they in fact be spreading this disease further? Through the very last shot, the implications grow wider.

The Crazies is universally ugly. Ugly zombies kill people in ugly ways, while the healthy people resort to ugly tactics in hopes of evading a military behaving in the ugliest fashion fathomable. It’s terrifying any way you look at it, but impossible to dismiss. Post-Katrina, post-Great Recession, our love-hate relationship with the government has skewed towards the latter. There are a lot of people who feel like we’ve entered an era of every man for himself, and The Crazies is a horror film made about – and for – them. It takes our worst fears about modern America and runs with them, right to the brink.

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