I really — and I mean really — don’t want to compare director Breck (“Sahara”) Eisner’s new remake of 1973 independent exploitation horror classic “The Crazies” with Zack Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead” remake. It’s just too obvious. But then, the parallels are too blatant to ignore. And not just because they’re both based on George Romero films.
First off, like “Dawn,” the fact is that “The Crazies” just didn’t need to be remade. The original is as fresh, exciting, and relevant as ever. Sure, Viet Nam is no longer a contemporary issue, but substitute Iraq or Afghanistan vets for the lead characters in the original, and all the issues end up being the same. Biowarfare, massive paranoia in the populace, government fuck-ups and subsequent government cover-ups, and excessive state secrecy — the main political themes in the original are every bit as relevant today as they were in 1973 — hell, moreso.
Secondly, like Snyder’s “Dawn,” this isn’t, on the surface, a bad remake. It’s stylish, exciting, suitably grisly (although, also like the 2004 “Dawn,” not so grisly that it would only appeal to horror fans — this is definitely a mainstream flick not intended solely for a genre audience), competently acted for the most part, suspenseful, and a fun and gripping ride.
Thirdly, it’s respectful to the original premise without being a tired rehash. The basic set-up is the same — plane carrying a biowarfare agent code named “Trixie” crashes down in a small rural locale (this time the fictional town of Ogden Marsh, Iowa, rather than Evans City, Pennsylvania — again, as with “Dawn” 2004, Romero’s story gets transplanted to the midwest), but the characters have the same names and that’s about it, the focus here being solely on David (Timothy Olyphant) his wife Judy (Radha Mitchell) , and David’s best friend Russell (Joe Anderson) trying to both escape and learn what it is that they’re escaping from.
On paper, this should work. The original paid as much attention to the action from the point of view of the military as it did to the plight of its nominal protagonists. And while Romero was able to pull of this juggling act with his usual supreme skill, in point of fact the idea of a small confused group of principal characters who are in the dark as to what is going on so that we learn the truth of events at the same pace they do is, technically speaking at least, better and more gripping in terms of pure plotting.
As always, though, it all comes down to execution, and the creative choices made by the filmmakers along the way.
The “Trixie” virus itself operates in essentially manner as the 1973 film, inflicting loopy behavior followed by violent homicidal madness followed by death. The folks fighting it, though — that’s where the main difference between the two films is to be found, and it has profound implications for exactly what type of movie this remake is.
In Romero’s original, Dave and Russ are Viet Nam vets back in their home town, trying to adjust to a society they no longer quite understand. They’re blue collar guys trying to find their way in a country that has used them up and spit them back out. David’s girlfriend ( or, as the new version would have it, wife) is also blue collar, working as she does as a small town nurse. They are quite literally nothing to the political and economic establishment, outsiders to the system trying to eke out a means of basic survival within it.
In the 2010 version, though, that’s all changed — and with it, so has the tone of the film itself, at least from a political standpoint. You see, this time around, David is the local sheriff, Russell is his long-serving trusty deputy, and Judy is the town doctor. Our heroes, therefore, are no longer outsiders fighting against a murderous virus unleashed by a murderous establishment that’s trying to use a murderous military to clean up their mess — our heroes are yuppie system insiders who used to be part of the establishment but now are expendable to it since said establishment is out to use its military to clean up its mess.
In a way, this shift in focus is somewhat tolerable, in that it shows that the system is more than willing to eat its own to cover up for its excesses and/or incompetence, but on the whole, it’s a pretty serious cop-out compared to Romero’s original vision, because it the message in the 1973 version is that the system is rotten, corrupt, evil, and homicidal and can only be successfully fought by those outside it. The new version, though, sends an altogether different message — yes, the system is rotten, corrupt, evil, and homicidal, and yes, it will even turn on its own, but brave and courageous souls within the system itself can fight it. In Romero’s film, the system was co-opted from top to bottom and rotten to the core. In Eisner’s new version, the system is out to destroy innocent lives, sure, but our best chance for salvation comes from within its very ranks.
Another key difference between the films is that in Romero’s flick, the military were incompetent fuck-ups who were changing their plans on the fly every second and everything they did only made matters worse. This seems much closer to actual reality, as we have $300 million helicopters that can’t fly, “Patriot” missiles that can’t hit their targets, and more red tape and bureaucratic snafus among the brass than you can count. Who many times have we “changed strategy” in Iraq and Afghanistan? Has anything worked?
In Eisner’s version of events, however, the military, while certainly undertaking actions that anyone in their right mind would consider unconscionable, such as wiping out innocents and infected alike in order to prevent the virus from spreading, acts with cold, technical precision and absolute competence. So while Romero was telling us that the money we were shoveling at the Pentagon was wasted, the new, Hollywood-approved vision of “The Crazies” is one with a perfectly capable and dependable military — it’s just that they gotta be ruthless sometimes. You know how it goes.
If you feel like shutting your brain off and going for a well-made cinematic thrill ride that offers little or no actual food for thought,the 2010 version of “The Crazies” works just fine. It’s a pretty solid little white-knuckle rollercoaster of a flick. The effects are solid, the story is involving, and the premise is neat,the ending is pretty damn spectacular — and it even has the guts to show a news report during the closing credits giving the government’s official BS line about what happened in Ogden Marsh. But come on. The government and the media lie? That’s an easy and obvious criticism to make. We all know that.
And here’s where the final unfortunate parallel with the 2004 “Dawn of the Dead” remake comes in. Like that “reimagining,” where Zack Snyder and company managed to set the film in a mall packed to the rafters with excess yet somehow say nothing about consumerism and greed and “the American way of life,” this new version of “The Crazies” takes a classic Romero work of socio-political commentary and almost completely emasculates it. The film takes Romero’s bold and thoroughgoing critique of the entire system itself and makes it safe and palatable. Sure, the government lies, but they’re competent and efficient and there are good people within the system who can change it when things get a little too ruthless and bloodthirsty (provided they don’t, you know, get killed). In the end, Eisner doesn’t seem to have the guts to even seriously criticize the military itself, despite the fact that they’re clearly the bad guys in the film! Go figure.
And that is this movie’s ultimate failing. It portrays a ruthless and inhuman military-industrial complex engaged in full-fledged, wholesale slaughter — and metaphorically, if not literally, lets them, and even more importantly the system they serve, off the hook. The essential theme at the core if the film is no longer “smash the system, it’s beyond repair” as it was in 1973, instead it’s “work from within to change the system — even if it’s trying to kill you, hey, it’s nothing personal.”
As with Synder’s “Dawn,” Eisner here has taken Romero’s work and replaced all its guts with stuffing, while preserving it an admittedly aesthtically pleasing form. You might call that a remake, I just call it taxidermy. And while stuffed birds are nice to look at, they’re not nearly as spectacular as those that are alive and flying.