By Lisa Brown
JOPLIN, Mo. —
This time of year, people always go a little crazy from the heat. Weird things start happening, and law enforcement, EMTs and firefighters seem busier than usual.
These thoughts were in my mind as I popped “The Crazies” into the DVD player. This remake of the 1973 George Romero film is a new addition to the Joplin Public Library’s collection, and it’s not your typical horror film.
Romero has been a long-time favorite of mine, since I first watched his classic “Night of the Living Dead.” For me, the man is synonymous with zombie movies. But he’s also known for something else: horror films that make a socio-political statement, putting the spotlight on rampant consumerism, racism, class differences or a government that can’t be trusted.
Although Breck Eisner directed this remake, Romero served as executive producer and co-writer. Indeed, his stamp is all over the film. The themes of a threatening government and ordinary people caught up in unimaginable events are prevalent.
“The Crazies” opens on images of a town in fiery ruins. A banner bearing the words “Ogden Marsh” flutters down. Cut to two days earlier, and the good people of this small Iowa farming community have gathered to watch a baseball game. A lone figure walks purposefully and silently onto the field, holding a rifle. Moments later, he is dead, shot down by the sheriff in front of shocked onlookers.
From there, things just get worse. And strange. People start behaving oddly and lashing out violently and coldly toward their friends and family.
While investigating the incidents, Sheriff David Dutten soon learns how they’re connected: a plane has crashed in the swamp that serves as the town’s water supply, and something on that plane is making people go crazy. That something is “Trixie,” a biological weapon designed by the U.S. government to destabilize a targeted population.
Within hours of Dutten’s discovery, the government swoops in. Ogden Marsh is cut off Ñ no phones, no Internet, no way out. Gun-toting soldiers round up everyone. Those deemed sick are separated from their families, monitored by personnel in haz-mat suits, and tied down to their beds to await the inevitable madness.
Containment has begun.
From that point, “The Crazies” becomes about survival. Dutten, his pregnant wife, his deputy, and a teenage girl struggle to find a way out of their town while avoiding the government that wants to keep them there and the crazies that want to kill them.
There are some moments that will make you jump, but the movie is more skilled at steadily ratcheting up the tension. (It’s also good at not giving you what you’re expecting. When you reach the scene involving a combine, you’ll know what I mean.)
The frights come from familiar people doing terrible things: A husband burns down his house with his family locked inside, good old boys hunt humans instead of wild game, the town mortician practices his craft on someone who’s still alive, the school principal stabs students with a pitchfork and soldiers gun down frightened townspeople.
The performances are solid. Timothy Olyphant’s sheriff is similar to the U.S. marshal he portrays on FX’s “Justified” Ñ low-key, steely, very good with a gun. As “The Crazies” progresses, he doesn’t hesitate to release his inner action hero, at one point making creative use of a knife to kill an attacker.
Radha Mitchell, as his wife, is a welcome change from how women are typically portrayed in horror films. She does do a lot of screaming, but she, too, is adept at unleashing her inner action hero, particularly during a scene that takes place in a car wash.
Joe Anderson, as the deputy, gets perhaps the richest material to work with. The viewer witnesses his arc from a loyal deputy who always has his sheriff’s back, to someone slowly consumed by the toxin that has infected him.
The extras are excellent. There are a couple “making of” pieces, the obligatory special-effects makeup documentary, some pretty cool animated comics that focus on two of the crazies and a nice homage to Romero.
What struck me most about this remake of “The Crazies” is that it’s as relevant today as the original was more than 35 years ago.
We live in a fearful age. Two wars have further eroded our trust in our government. The threat of domestic terrorism is very real after the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11. Last year’s H1N1 outbreak led to increased concerns about a pandemic that could wipe out significant populations.
Think about these things when you sit down to watch “The Crazies.” Yes, it’s a horror movie, but it’s so much more.
Lisa E. Brown is the Administrative Assistant of the Joplin Public Library.