Right off the bat in Breck Eisner's remake of George Romero's underappreciated 1973 flick The Crazies, Eisner starts pinching nakedly from other movies. So many other movies that the 2010 incarnation of The Crazies feels like it's almost incidentally pinching from Romero's The Crazies. As an afterthought.
I've bellyached and griped about remakes of old-skool horror movies that are made by hair-gelled sneaker commercial and music video directors who don't seem to actually like the movies they're remaking ... or for that matter like movies in general. (The Hitcher, anyone?) But any guy who steals a classic gag from Dr. Strangelove, an iconic scene from The Godfather and a non-scary scene from Jaws in a Romero remake is a guy who must actually like movies. Bewildering in its implications! There might even be Wages of Fear and Lord of the Flies quotes rattling around in this flick, if you squint right.
The Crazies is a far from perfect movie, but the fact that it's a pretty good movie that respects its source material kind of feels like a victory.
In updating Romero's Vietnam/Watergate-era paranoia parable about an all-American small town ravaged by a virus engineered by the military that knocks people violently off their rockers before it kills them, Eisner and screenwriters Scott Kosar and Ray Wright have taken a pretty obvious post-9/11 tack. The escalation of the crisis feels crawlingly plausible, and the movie flows to a liver-kicking moment at about the halfway point when our heroes realize just how deeply and magnificently they're screwed. It's a great moment of paranoia as the last few bits of the puzzle click into place and people understand the hammer's coming down. Hard. And on that count, it's refreshing to see protagonists in a horror movie who are smart enough to figure out they're in trouble.
But it's after this point that The Crazies starts to lose its momentum, as Timothy Olyphant as the town sheriff, Radha Mitchell as his wife and Joe Anderson as Olyphant's deputy try to escape their besieged town. Eisner is great with the slow burn, using light, sound and framing to good use to build tension and a "hey-wait-minute-this-ain't-right" sense of unease. But once the angst hits the fan, Eisner's almost deadpan control of The Crazies becomes as scattered as the bullet-spattered brains of a few of the movie's victims.
Once things get hairy, Eisner uses the same tricks too many times. He stages action well, but in only one way, which can be broken down to a predictable rhythm. The scenes go: Action! Action! Action! Pause ... PUNCTUATED WITH A BANG! Past a certain point, you can count out the beats as easily as you can those of a crappy pop song. There are waaaay too many Gunshots Ex Machina, when at the very last moment a good guy will blast someone menacing another good guy. And there are far too many moments in which a crazy, infected person is revealed in shot with a slight pan of the camera. These are all good tricks, sure. But Eisner horsewhips them to utter pulp.
And our previously smart protagonists get really dumb really fast, staying nice and visible on the open roads well past the point when they've figured out the roads are dangerous. The movie drags at the end, and the dragging is made even more tedious by the use of "buses" (fake scares named after a famous gag involving a bus in Val Lewton's Cat People) when none are needed.
Still, these faults don't fatally infect The Crazies. There's a genuine bouquet of doom saturating the flick, and the sincerity of the carnage helps take the edge off the real groaners. Horror fans should check it out. Others might want to catch it at a matinee.