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March 2, 2010

Romero remake sticks too close to horror tradition

If you hear a noise upstairs, don’t go investigate. And if you and your friends are running from a crazed killer, never split up. Also, don’t ever expect the telephone to work.

The horror genre is notorious for its gimmicky, nonsensical conventions. The Crazies, a remake of George A. Romero’s 1973 film by the same name, seems to take them as prerequisites. What could have been a tense, creative thriller is demoted to something predictable and mediocre simply because it compels itself to adhere to predictable genre conventions.

Ogden Marsh, Iowa, is the quintessential rural American town. Everyone is on a first-name basis with each other, and baseball is the town’s favorite pastime. After an airplane carrying a top-secret biological weapon—a virus code-named Trixie—crashes into the town's water source, the townsfolk start acting, well, crazy. As they become infected, the townsfolk begin killing any and everyone in sight.

Then, as the disease spreads and the military comes to intervene, the town disintegrates into chaos. David (Timothy Olyphant), the town sheriff, and his pregnant wife Judy (Radha Mitchell) discover they are immune to the virus and try to flee the town, now filled with their homicidal neighbors and cruel military men.

The plot isn’t anything new, but the “crazies” are a very unique kind of monster. The virus slowly hemorrhages the brain, causing the infected to bleed from all orifices and driving them into a murderous rage. Yet the crazies, unlike zombies or other monsters, never completely lose their humanity. Even at the height of infection, they can still talk and think. The only thing they lose is their sanity. Between killing sprees, they’ll babble to themselves or stand still for hours on end. And they never show any signs of remorse, sometimes not even acknowledging that they have killed anyone.

The last vestiges of humanity that remains in the infected makes them both terrifying and interesting. They’re as realistic as monsters can get, especially as their murderous instincts mimic newspaper headlines. The crazies don’t eat brains; they seek revenge or walk into a high school baseball game wielding a shotgun.

But the film insists on making the military the true villain. They’re the bad guys who created the virus in the first place, and they go to laughably extreme lengths to rid the town of the disease (and its residents). Whereas the crazies are nuanced, original characters, all of the soldiers wear gas masks to eliminate any trace of individuality. They're The Man in big, capital letters.

It doesn’t help that the army is mostly absent for the rest of the film. Besides instituting a very short-lived quarantine, the soldiers and the crazies don’t interact. Having the military get involved just seems like an easy way to give the virus an original story and make David and Judy’s escape that much more complicated. The couple is inconvenienced to the point of absurdity. At one point, for example, a military helicopter launches a rocket at their car. Seems like a lot of work for two people who don’t even have the disease.

The incorporation of trite, nonsensical clichés like this is what brings the film down. Most of the film’s scares rely on loud noises and people popping out of dark corners—tactics that are far too predictable to be effective.

Yet, there are also moments of brilliantly constructed tension. The opening scene has David confronting the first of the infected after he wanders onto a baseball field mid-game wielding a shotgun. There are no gimmicks—no screeching violins or dark corners. It’s just David asking the man to leave peacefully, which becomes less and less of a possibility as the scene plays out.

The Crazies is a frustrating film to watch. It’s clear that director Breck Eisner could have made a brilliant film, but he couldn’t resist the temptation of goofy horror clichés like big, scary military men and easy scare tactics. Admittedly, the fault may lie with the film’s strict adherence to its source material. Romero’s original follows the exact same plot, and it’s one of his least popular films. But remakes are just that—an opportunity to reimagine the narrative presented in the previous film. Simply having a town full of homicidal nutjobs should have been more than enough.