March 18, 2010

A Crazy Good Remake

Print More

Much has been written on the irreverence and un-necessity of horror remakes. It’s a disgusting trend of the past decade, to take old gory classics and “update” them by taking out the plot and social significance and inserting painfully stupid and gleefully promiscuous teenagers instead. Usually this is a criticism of slasher flicks built on the moral premise that premarital sex warrants a gruesome, pornographic mutilation at the bloodied hands of a masked psycho-creeper.

George A. Romero dealt with a different school of film in his heyday. The man made zombie flicks, and they had within them all the social commentary of post-apocalyptic neo-Western combined with scathing indictments of mass-marketing and collective consumer culture. Night of the Living Dead was pretty solid in its original form. Why remake it? Because its message, as millions of iPod, iPhone and now iPad owners can begrudgingly admit to, fails to become outdated. Just create a want in society and then tell everyone it’s a need.

Zombies want brains, and need to infect others to create more zombies. The satire writes itself.

However, Romero also directed a 1973 film called The Crazies, in which he decided to tackle another sore spot entirely: the U.S. campaign in Vietnam. His film was a smart film, though blatantly anti-military, and the zombies in that film were actually people, U.S. citizens in Pennsylvania, “accidentally” infected with a U.S.-created biological weapon. The Army’s job was to mow them down, husbands, wives, teachers, young, old, cute, rich, poor, whatever. Eradication. It was uncomfortable to watch, because Romero was commenting on our treatment of Vietnamese, in documented historical tragedies such as the My Lai massacre.

Fast forward nearly 40 years, and the U.S. finds itself in another controversial campaign to combat tyranny in the world, and The Crazies provides an actual opportunity for a worthwhile and necessary remake.  Does it deliver? And how. And. How.

The director is now Breck Eisner (Sahara). The setting is now Iowa, and the production value and scenery definitely have been updated to depict rural life in the 21st century. Timothy Olyphant (Transformers, Die Hard 4) plays Sheriff David Dutton, a man enforcing the law in a town so small, that when he point-blank fires on a deranged man threatening a town little league game with a shotgun, the repercussions are felt by everyone. The film does not shy away from the reality of what it must mean for the sheriff of a peaceful town devoid of violent trouble to execute someone when he’s never had to discharge his firearm in the line of duty. He becomes somber and withdrawn, while his wife, Judy, played by Radha Mitchell (Pitch Black) as the pretty and caring town doctor, attempts to comfort him. She is starting to see signs that something is amiss when catatonic patients are surprising her at the practice. Her lab assistant, Becca (Danielle Panabaker, Mr. Brooks, Sky High), is the fresh-faced type just waiting to get shanked by Freddy and Jason, but manages to have enough personality to refuse expendability.

Back to the plot — the dead man’s wife and son confront Sheriff Dutton at the funeral home, and the audience realizes this is a film that understands the consequences of a life taken. How rare for a horror film, especially a zombie flick where the body count is expected to be astronomical, even compared to a slasher movie. This sets up the emotional impact of what will happen to this small town in the next 48 hours.

Dutton and his deputy Russell, played convincingly by British actor Joe Anderson (Becoming Jane, The Ruins) figure out the source of the infection, connecting the dots after a local man burns his family alive in his house. An airplane full of chemicals landed in the swamp outside town, which feeds into the branch that provides the town water supply, and the flow of water from the supply plant explains the order of crazy disease-victims. Normally, such a deduction would be a coincidence or an implausible psychic revelation by an unexplainably creepy child or mystical black grandmother, but we believe Dutton and Russell are smart enough to figure it out.

In fact, The Crazies is a fun film to watch because the characters are smart. Clichés are presented and then swiftly swept aside. The mayor would be the money-hungry politics-focused fool like the one in Jaws, except Dutton is smart enough to ignore his idiocy and turn the water supply off. A woman stands in front of a running combine just long enough for the audience to expect her to be stupidly mowed down and turned into hamburger, until she quickly steps aside. When Dutton rescues Judy from an infected man stabbing live bodies with a freaking pitchfork, and subsequently asks her if she’s okay, she responds, “NO. Not really.” It only serves to underline how ridiculous it is when characters ask each other that while being chased by horrible things in the night. And friends are actually loyal. True love saves lives, not teenage lust

There’s a scene with an amputating saw chasing a man desperate to protect his genitals that filled the theater wall-to-wall with audience screams. Audience count: five people in a Thursday matinee showing. Yeah. That intense.

And as for Romero’s anti-war, anti-military message? When the crazies get crazy (we’re talking Rio if Brazil lost the World Cup to the U.S.) and the town gets wasted, the military is quick to show up in E.T.-handling suits to probe people and separate screaming babies from their mothers in slow-motion. However, even this incubation and containment process is done smartly. It’s been updated to match a war that boasts our advances in military professionalism and the murky ethics of conflict. A soldier sent in to exterminate the threat is captured by our heroes, and he provides the insider’s view of following orders and the ability of military professionals to make little judgments that can humanize the ugliness of war.

Lastly, the film is surprisingly low in gore, opting more for the psychological tension that comes with knowing your loved ones seem the same, but have degenerated into mindless forces of destruction under the surface. Something to think about before witnessing Spring Break in Cancun firsthand.

4 Towers

Original Author: Naushad Kabir