Saturday, July 10, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Crazies (2010)

Breck Eisner's well-reviewed remake of the 1973 George Romero film, The Crazies (2010) opens to the familiar strains of "We'll Meet Again," a 1939 hit from singer Vera Lynn that became famous a second time when Stanley Kubrick dubbed the song over images of nuclear apocalypse at the end of his masterpiece, the black comedy Dr. Strangelove (1964).

That song and its lyrics -- forever since linked to the blazing imagery of mushroom clouds -- suggests a kind of insanity driving the pro-military/government mindset of our country. Post-Kubrick, the song intimates mankind's unchanging, self-destructive nature. We're always on the brink of wiping ourselves out with some new, high-tech weapon.

Doomsday, we shall meet you again...don't know where; don't know when.

This is a powerful and welcome note to begin The Crazies on; one that suggests that this impressive-looking production carries an intention to be the spiritual heir to Dr. Strangelove and Romero's incendiary original, both of which showcased the lunacy behind international war, and also behind ever-more insidious weapons of mass destruction.

Since The Crazies involves the occupation of a small American town, Ogden Marsh (population 1,260) by the U.S. Army and the contamination of the innocent populace by a bio-weapon called "Trixie" (designed to "destabilize a population") the tune "We'll Meet Again" and the oblique Strangelove reference are appropriate and even a little subversive.

So it's terribly tragic then, that the movie proceeds to drop the ball entirely on virtually every thematic front imaginable; refusing even to take genuine advantage of today's anti-government Zeitgeist and the pervasive fear (especially on the Right) of Federal Authorities usurping local ones.

For instance, there's a moment when a soldier blandly informs a citizen "It's okay, Ma'am...we just gotta process you" that intimates the terror of Big Government/Big Brother or a Socialist State working against its citizenry in a fearsome (but seemingly routine...) fashion. But the film doesn't push any of this sub-text beyond mere lip service. Almost like it doesn't want to offend anybody.


Instead, the U.S. Army is present in the picture largely as but another obstacle for the protagonists to navigate around and to assure more action-sequences, including a nail-biter involving a chopper and sanctuary inside a car wash. One soldier even sympathizes with the innocent refugees and doesn't rat the heroes out when he has the opportunity. I can imagine that someone in the studio marketing department must have demanded that the military not be depicted too negatively in The Crazies, or the movie would be accused of not supporting our troops during wartime, or some such nonsense.


The idea of a citizenry bullied and controlled by its own armed forces and overreaching government was far more powerfully conveyed in the original film (which by miraculous coincidence, I first watched in the year 2000...on the very weekend that Federal Authorities broke into a private residence in Florida to remove a Cuban boy, Elian Gonzalez at gun point.)

By the remake's last act, things have degenerated even further into generic action movie cliches. Everyone who you expected to survive from the first frame...does survive. There are no surprises. And this resolution occurs despite the fact that the two leads repeatedly -- and stupidly -- split up, so they can be independently-menaced by the Infected.

Adding insult to injury, the film's climactic set piece actually involves a heroic couple outrunning a nuclear mushroom in a stolen truck...and making for civilization...alive and well.

Judy -- a doctor, mind you -- even gazes directly at the nuclear blast; an act that in reality would have burned out her eyes and resulted in total, permanent blindness.


Which, of course, doesn't happen here...

This silly climax and such mock, predictable heroics represent an absolute collapse of the promising and challenging aesthetic that opens the film (with "We'll Meet Again") and which so powerfully informed both Strangelove and the 1973 original

I find this turn of events disappointing and also depressing. The original The Crazies was an unrepentant taboo-breaker, one that violated the established decorum of Hollywood movies of it's era in powerful and deliberate fashion.


In the original, the Trixie contamination, for instance, caused one man (Artie) to engage in sexual intercourse with his own biological daughter. In the original, an American priest immolated himself in the town square, and the image alluded to a real incident with a Buddhist monk in Vietnam; thus equating the Army's actions in Evans City with the War in Vietnam...a leftist and incendiary implication, certainly, for "The Silent Majority" that had just re-elected Richard Nixon in a landslide.


And then there was the film's final existentialist -- nay, nihilist -- bent. An infected pregnant woman (and the film's heroine), Judy (Lane Carroll) was murdered by the occupying military force, and her fiancee, a fireman named David (W.G. McMillan) learned that he was immune to the contaminant. But rather than aid the bullying military (and his fellow man too), David kept his mouth shut...and let the apocalypse spread. Out of revenge, perhaps. Or perhaps just because he believed that humans, as a species, weren't worth saving.

The original The Crazies also featured Strangelove's sense of the absurd...of life as a cruel comedy. A cure for Trixie was discovered by a scientist, but the military mistook him for an infected man, and the cure was lost. Forever.

So, incest, political commentary, the establishment's murder of innocence (a pregnant woman, for heaven's sake!) and a downbeat, absurd, nihilist ending. These were the things that -- in addition to a frenzied pace created by Romero's brilliant editing -- made The Crazies a singular initiative, a horror movie eminently worthy of the overrused term of genre "classic."

I don't feel that I'm spoiling anything to let you know that there is very little critique of the military or the government in Eisner's The Crazies. Rather the film's anger is directed at the easy target of rednecks with trigger-happy instincts. Furthermore, the pregnant woman survives (and likely carries her baby healthily to term, despite having battled the infected and coming in close proximity to a nuclear blast...).

And one character, a local deputy, proves so innately heroic that he literally wipes out Trixie's powerful influence over his sick mind, and nobly sacrifices himself for the married couple and their unborn child. Quite the opposite of a disease so insidious that it makes a father engage in sex even with his own kin in the original, no?

Long story short: The Crazies is not nearly crazy enough, and certainly not even half-as-crazy as the Romero original of a quarter-century ago.

Contrarily, this re-do is an entirely safe horror movie that carries no meaningful subtext and, ultimately, does the open psyche no real harm...because it isn't about anything other than surviving another zombie-like apocalypse. Romero's original film has been thematically neutered here. This movie is but a Michael Bay-styled roller-coaster ride.

What makes this such a sad lobotomy, unfortunately, is the fact that Eisner is clearly an immensely skilled director, and working with a fine cast (headed by Timothy Olyphant of Deadwood and Radha Mitchell of Silent Hill [2006] and Pitch Black [2000]). Eisner stages many fine horror moments and "jolts" throughout the picture, and I can say without reservation that they are brilliantly, artfully-achieved.

A scene in a coroner's office featuring a bone saw is disgusting and downright harrowing. The now-trademark scene of the Infected Man with the pitch-fork is also wrung for maximum suspense, though the scene's punctuation is disappointing and predictable: a re-affirmation of the film's total and utter lack of descended testicles. There's even a great surprise reveal in a baby nursery that will have you leaping out of your seat.

What this comes down to, I suppose, is what the viewer seeks in a horror film. If you are looking for the equivalent of a roller-coaster ride, an essentially harmless exercise with loops, dips and jolts, the movie is undeniably effective. Still, even on this front, it doesn't achieve anything that 28 Days Later (2002) or the Dawn of the Dead (2004) re-make haven't already achieved with greater success.

But if you are seeking a horror movie that speaks meaningfully about your world, and that conveys something important about the human condition -- as the original The Crazies did -- you are going to be severely disappointed by this by-the-numbers, Cliff-notes version of superior material.

Empty-headed, mainstream remakes of horror gems?

I'm sure we'll meet again...

8 comments:

  1. Your review nails the zombie on the head unfortunately. I can't disagree with you on a number of fronts [apart from the politics]. I think the cliches are pretty notable.

    It's entirely well-executed, but it's pure formula. I can't comment on the original. I have no reference point there, but this is easily a formulaic film.

    Still, I enjoyed it quite a bit and I suppose it was in large part due to the fine direction of the film and less the serviceable script. The acting too was a cut above. These factors have me differ with you.

    I do think it is better than some remakes of late. I'm not saying it touches the original. I don't know, but I do think the material is elevated by the director and the actors.

    A few other points, not so much political, but I didn't feel as negatively toward the portrayal of the army or the writers in their efforts not too offend.

    I thought the government and military were a shadowy, force and it was pretty clear to me who the bad guys were without having to beat me over the head with it.

    i also didn't feel the soldier was sympathetic, but simply scared [like anyone in his role might be]. I felt he was a pawn in a much bigger game with a job that he didn't necessarily support. So I didn't think they were trying to avoid offending. Resident Evil and other films are pretty cliched in their portrayals and this one isn't any different in that way, but I didn't see it as nefarious by the filmmakers or political in any way. Just my take. Your coverage on the original film obviously speaks to major differences here.

    Also, doesn't your point about Federal authorities removing the Cuban boy, under the Clinton administration, somewhat speak to fears by American citizens in general as a legitimate concern. Call me crazie.

    Your dissection of the film is solid. I think it begins very well and does grow sillier by the film final third with the mushroom cloud as youput it, the diner scene, etc.. It definitely rolls into Resident Evil guilty pleasure territory for me, which is probably why I still enjoyed it despite the preposterous final act.

    Your comparisons to the original offer plenty of evidence why this film is a pale imitation. It seems rare to see films push the envelope anymore at all and when they do it is a rare treat. This wasn't one of them, but not much out of commercial Hollywood is. It definitely needs to come from another avenue usually.

    Finally, I agree that 28 Days Later is a far more interesting zombie film, one that I look forward to watching again soon.

    Your review is completely fair John and certainly detailed in your comparison to the original. Sorry, if I went a bit long here.

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  2. As SFF said, you've written another solid dissection and review, John. I have no fault with it. But like SFF, I feel differently about the film. Perhaps, since it's been quite awhile since I've seen the original (I think I've seen it a long time ago), or that it's a Romero that didn't register as much with me, I didn't feel negative toward the remake. I did connect with the lead married couple (plus, I've a growing appreciation of Timothy Olyphant and a long time admirer of Radha Mitchell).

    Yes, the film is derivative of other movies (as usual, you pick them off with deftness in your analysis). The homages portrayed (like palpable THE THING paranoia and flamethrower use) were done well, for me anyway. But like the film Doomsday (2008), that was cribbed from Escape from New York and other greats, there was a fun admiration in its imitation. It's nothing like the originals, but I enjoyed it. Plus, George Romero did executive produce this. And if there is anyone I enjoy more on this subject, and is responsible for the likes of 28 Days/Weeks Later or the Dawn of Dead remake, it's this man.

    It's strange for me to be defending a modern remake of a original horror classic. I may be a pod person -- remember, the original Invasion of Body Snatchers was filmed throughout my home town ;-). It's always enjoyable to read your reviews, John. This one certainly makes be want to revisit the 1973 original. That's for sure. Thanks, my friend.

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  3. Hello, my friends,

    Thank you both for the well-thought out and enunciated comments here.

    You guys are the best -- I appreciate your point of views and the fact that you enjoyed The Crazies more than I did.

    Frankly, the movie did receive very positive reviews overall. It was very well-received, and I think that is because it is entertaining, well-produced, well-acted and scary at points.

    Yet still, I longed for a little more of the original's spirit of transgression and decorum shattering.

    Sci-Fi Fanatic: I think you offer a good perspective on the military aspect, and an alternative reading that tracks...very interesting. I also appreciate your description of the film as a Resident Evil-style guilty pleasure. On those terms, I totally see how the film works. It is well directed, it is punchy, and it has big jolts. It's fun...and why not enjoy a fun movie?

    LeOpard13: You make good points as well (as usual!). The leads are immensely likeable here, as you note. I just wish I felt they were in more jeopardy...that you could lose one of them. There's no doubt that The Crazies has many strengths...perhaps I'm just looking too much through the lens of the original film.

    My best to both of you and thanks for the food for thought.

    best,
    John

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  4. JKM
    We certainly know what you're looking for and, as you put it, more a bit of dessert fun rather than a solid, blanced meal. But I feel your pain in the expectation department.

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  5. John, I liked the film a bit more than you did, but was ultimately disappointed in it. I think are large part of my enjoyment comes from the fact that I could probably watch Timothy Olyphant discuss gardening for an hour and a half, and find it exciting. But I do think the movie lost considerable steam during the second half.

    If I have one disagreement with you it's that the movie is a bit darker than I think you remember (Major Spoilers to follow). While it's true that no one committed incest, it's also true that there is a scene in which a man locks his wife and (more importantly) young son in a closet, and sets them on fire. While that doesn't match Romero's original, it is a bit more beyond the pale than your standard Hollywood fare.

    More importantly, the very last shot of the film seems to imply that not only is the freedom the leads enjoy quite likely fleeting, but that they and the entire city of Cedar Rapids are about to suffer the same fate as Ogden Marsh. Not exactly a happy ending.

    Certainly not as dark as the original, but not your typical happy ending for the 2000's either.

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  6. Wow, I really thought you would've liked this film more! I certainly respect your opinion and you make some very good observations I guess the formulaic conventions it recycles didn't bother me so much and are, in a way, almost comforting.

    I think that the film establishes a fantastic mood and atmosphere and I like how they depicted the infected, showing them in various stages of the disease. I disagree with you at how they depicted the military. To me, they were largely depicted as faceless and detached and rather frightening in the way they cooly collected the townsfolk and quarantined them. Compare this to the warm, humanized treatment we get in Romero's version where we actually sympathize with one of them. No such luck in the remake which really presents them as the enemy.

    Now, the thing I was wondering was that a nuke that was used at the end of the film? I was trying to listen to the faux newscast at the end to see if they mentioned if it was or not or just some really big, conventional explosive that was used.

    I dunno, compared to recent FRIDAY THE 13TH and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET remakes, this film was definitely a cut above these retreads.

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  7. Hi folks!

    BT: You are right to bring up the horrifying act of a father/husband burning up his family. That's pretty darn dark, I think you are right to assert.

    I agree with you that the first half of the film is stronger, and that the last half is sort of a fall-off, a generic action picture.

    J.D. I can't deny that this movie is much, much better than Friday the 13th. I haven't seen the new Elm St. yet...

    But I can see your points, definitely. I still feel the formulaic, take-no-risks elements of the last half-of-the-film render it somewhat toothless. The final punctuation (the infection and impending containment of a big city...) played to me like a last minute joke, rather than a legitimate thematic point. But that could just be me.

    Yep, looks like I'm in the minority with my assessment this one!

    After it was over, I turned to my wife, Kathryn (who said she thought it was about a "C") and said, "you know...I kinda hated it."

    best to you both, and thank you so much for the intelligent commentary! I love to read your points (and I think that J.D. and Sci-Fi Fanatic have some good points about the treatment of the military vis-a-vis this remake...)

    best,
    John

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  8. John,
    I avoided reading your review of this film until I had a chance to see it and write one of my own. I just managed to blog it a few hours ago. I got a really strong conservative vibe off the film, as though this were the Tea Party's version of what the hippies were producing in the '70s.
    While this film isn't quite a current topic anymore, if you have the time, I'd really love to hear your impressions of that interpretation!
    http://horrorreviewer.blogspot.com/

    Respectfully,
    Jackson

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