1973's The Crazies isn't exactly a "great" movie, expecially in comparison to director George A. Romero's early and more famous story of rural Pennsylvanians trying to survive an onslaught of murderous subhumans (namely, Night of the Living Dead), but it is quite good. And most if its goodness comes from the tremendous specificity of its message relative to its era: it is unmistakably a post-Vietnam film, concerned with the abuses of the military in that war and full of the uniquely 1970s paranoia that took root in the first generation of Americans to actively mistrust their government.
So deeply mired in its time is the story, one would assume that it would be fundamentally impossible to remake it successfully, but given the unwritten rule that every single horror film of the 1970s must be remade eventually, it's not at all surprising that somebody finally tried. What is positively staggering, though, is that the new Crazies is pretty decent itself; not as good as the 1973 film, obviously. It's nowhere near as intelligent: the anti-military paranoia has been entirely jettisoned except as set-dressing, and it's about as much a satire against Iraq as it is a farcical retelling of the Napoleonic Wars. But given a much less socially ambitious goal - given, indeed, the only goal of a late-winter horror film, which is to be sufficiently diverting that it gives genre fans a few jolts and some gore effects - it absolutely gets the job done. It doesn't light the world on fire - actually it does, but only literally, not metaphorically - but it's not trying to and it doesn't want to. Which makes it not only one of the best of all '70s horror remakes, but also suggests, curiously, that Romero's films are unusually receptive to being remade successfully, despite being some of the most socially specific horror movies ever made (I am here thinking of the 2004 Dawn of the Dead, the best horror remake of the '00s).
The scenario is quickly dealt with: in Ogden Marsh, Iowa, something terrible is happening to make ordinary citizens become insane killers. Fighting this peculiar spate of violence is Sheriff David Dutt*n (Timothy Olyphant); it's "Dutton" in the credits, but "Dutten" the one time we see it spelled out in the movie, and I'm willing to assume that's just a cheeky and/or incompetent set dresser at work. David is aided by his deputy, Russell Clank (Joe Anderson), and by his doctor wife Judy (Radha Mitchell), and pretty much nobody else; and when the U.S. military comes in and quarantines the town - and starts massacring the diseased - David, Judy and Russell pretty instantly stop worrying about saving anybody else and instead focus on getting the hell out while there are still gaps in military cordon.
In the original, the revelation that the mass psychosis was caused by a designer disease codenamed "Trixie" is a large part of the point; in the remake, it's mostly just giving a nod to the audience's desire for answers. Really, whatever the hell is driving the people to Ogden Marsh to violence is of secondary concern to depicting that violence, and replacing the social commentary with action and shock scenes, and every word I've just written makes it sound like I'm slagging on the remake. That is not my intention. As an action and shock-driven horror flick, it's pretty damn good; at any rate, it has some of the most effective jump scares that I can think of in any film since The Descent way back in 2005. It's very easy to bitch about the prevalence of jump scares; to accuse them of being a watery substitute for permeating psychological terror and a cheap way to wring screams out of nervous teenagers. Aye, but only because so often in so many horror films, they are used crudely and without inspiration, and often are just plain cheap: the heroine backing into a hand oh but it's just her dumb boyfriend, that kind of set-up. In The Crazies, director Breck Eisner (whose outstandingly douchey name is only made worse when you learn that he is in fact noted film executive Michael Eisner's son) not only plays exceedingly fair with the jump scares - generally speaking, if somebody sees movement, it is one of the crazies, and not a dream or a cat or any damn thing like that - but they are often developed very well, with lots of slow buildup and the like so that you're already kind of ready to pop when along comes the scare and you finally do.
The creation of mood is done rather well here: this has a lot to do with Mark Isham's better-than-necessary score, and some pretty sharp cinematography (especially in the composition department) by Maxime Alexandre (who formerly used to be the only really great thing about Alexandre Aja's films). It's enough, anyway, to keep you cranked up for 100 minutes, though I can't imagine anybody really mulling the movie around in their head for hours after leaving the theatre. It's more of "pow! and you're done" sort of experience. Which, hey, horror movies that can't even manage to be remotely effective for the duration of the running time are plentiful. A movie that successfully gives you the creepy-crawlies for an hour and some, while also being handsome to look at, that's a pretty fine thing to grab hold of and say, "Yes, I am pleased this exists".
Admittedly, the human element is pretty flimsy, despite three fairly solid central performances (it confuses me fiercely that Mitchell and Anderson haven't been able to find legitimate careers for themselves, and Olyphant acquits himself just fine). They're just not very interesting, appealing, or lifelike characters; they are points in a box filled with well-crafted horror movie tropes. This makes it rather hard to care if they live or die, and say whatever else one might, the most effective horror movies tend to be those where we're invested enough with the protagonists that we legitimately fear for them. Well, I guess you can't have everything. Besides, it is a first-quarter horror movie, and they are by their very natures meant to be a bit trashy. The Crazies is no more than a bit trashy, and at the very least it has a nice look and good, solid atmosphere and casually R-rated violence. Like I said, it gets the job done; no more, and thankfully, no less.