Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
'Crazy' is one of the those over-used words that can be imbued with all kinds of meaning, running the gamut from ‘great’ and ‘cool’ to ‘oh my’, ‘head for the hills!’ and ‘*%&^@#~!’.
This film, a remake of one of horror master George A. Romero’s least-heralded works – a flop in 1973 – uses the word in the vein of the latter descriptions; the ‘crazies’ in the film are not zombies, but humans infected by a deadly bio-toxin accidentally released in a small American town.
The highly contagious weapon had been designed to ‘destabilise’ an enemy population. Days after an aircraft carrying it had crashed into their water source, the unwitting townsfolk start to exhibit terrifying signs of derangement and violent tendencies.
The town sheriff, David (played by the versatile Timothy Olyphant) and his deputy Russell (Joe Anderson, not to be mistaken with Mackenzie Crook) appear to be the first ones to discover the suspicious circumstances surrounding some strange behaviour leading to a handful of unusual deaths.
Their discovery is rather swift, perhaps implausibly so, but the film directed by Breck Eisner (Sahara) – yes, he’s the son of former Disney chief Michael – opens with such aplomb, with a memorable scene on a baseball field, that shoddy plot development is given a free pass.
Most of us unfamiliar with the original, which was little-seen even in the US, would have anticipated zombies as the feared unknowns in this horror-mystery, especially since Romero is the godfather of movies featuring flesh-hungry ‘living’ dead.
The truth, however, is a little more unnerving. The infected are not relatively mindless drones as zombies are typically portrayed (See Zombieland, for reference). They start off seemingly depressed and out-of-sorts, before they begin to put homicidal schemes into place.
These could involve toting firearms, brandishing pitch forks, or living a pyromaniac’s fantasy – all higher functions beyond the reach of mere zombies.
What makes The Crazies an effective frightener is the sense of isolation and doom that pervades, and the many layers of horror inherent in the plot. On one hand, there is the fear of suffering violence at the hands of afflicted family, friends and neighbours – and having to subdue them.
On the other, there is fear of being slaughtered by the cold-blooded military, who have moved in to cover-up and contain the contamination, with a zero-tolerance, shoot-as-necessary policy.
Then there is the constant fear of infection, of gradually becoming one of ‘them’. As in Romero’s original, the line between toxin-induced insanity and regular garden-variety lunacy and savagery is blurred. There is a comment here about the nature of insanity, and how easy it is to cross the line.
There is also the fact that the toxin is man-made, and self-inflicted, and a sense of voyeurism. Observing the sorry state of the crumbling town and its dying denizens amounts to watching a train wreck – it’s sad but fascinating in a macabre sense.
While the above subtext is good to have, it is equally important for this film to have enough first-rate, well-earned scares to make it a quality horror flick. On this count, the film largely succeeds.
Many of the protagonists, in the disconcertingly quiet country setting, begin to realise that whenever they think they’re alone, they’re usually not. The sheriff’s wife (Radha Mitchell) is one in particular who falls victim to this rule.
The film sets a chilling mood with its small-town depictions and growing sense of dread, as the survivors start to see their options for escaping dwindle.
The tension seldom slackens, making this one of the more enjoyable scare-fests to hit screens this year, one which does not resort to gratuitous violence or profanity. The fact that more horror films aren’t made with such sophistication and economy is, to me, kind of crazy.
About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.
"Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in!"
– Michael Corleone, The Godfather Part III