Your friends and neighbors want to kill you. It's a simple concept, the basic underlying idea that drives the zombie movie genre, and it's the hook in Breck Eisner's fantastically efficient remake of George A. Romero's 1973 cult film. The Crazies, while not technically a zombie movie, mines that fear of your fellow man losing his damned mind and trying to kill you at all costs to great effect, and throws a touch of government paranoia into the mix in a way that manages to feel fresh.
The reason everyone in the tiny town of Ogden Marsh are turning into thick-veined, red-eyed lunatics is because of a major government screw-up of apocalyptic proportions. Seems a plane full of an unusable chemical weapon crashed on its way to disposal, right in the heart of Ogden Marsh's marsh. What starts as an isolated incident – an otherwise peaceful man storms a baseball field with a shotgun during a high school game – soon multiplies, transforming the town's rural residents into murderous sickos.
Caught in the middle of this nightmare is the man trying to keep the peace, Sheriff David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant, bringing an unpredictable edginess to the role of the small-town hero). It doesn't take long for Dutton to spot the water as the source of their trouble, but, just as quickly, the situation is out of his hands, as the government sweeps in for a surprise mass quarantine. Their solution? Kill everyone. It's not just the crazies that are crazy, but the federal stooges as well, gunning down anyone that's even running a slight fever. Soon, Dutton and his wife (Radha Mitchell, forging a name for herself as a modern scream queen), along with two survivors (Joe Anderson and Danielle Panabaker) are sneaking through Ogden Marsh's barnyards and backstreets, looking for a way out of this living hell.
Don't be afraid of the horror remake stigma here; be afraid of The Crazies' constant, electric hum of dread. Be afraid of the unpredictable bursts of violence and well-earned jump scares. Be afraid of director Eisner's unexpected mastery of the material -- he seems to have been a standout horror filmmaker-in-waiting all this time, and The Crazies shows that off in a huge way. He understands timing and mood and how important a good score is to a horror film (Mark Isham's synth score is noticeably great, like a quiet callback to John Carpenter's way of scoring horror). He gets the actors to take the material seriously, he's not afraid to go bleak and nasty, and he knows how to build suspense (a talent too rare in studio horror). Breck Eisner is the break-out star of The Crazies, working from a lean, mean script by Scott Kosar and Ray Wright, and the film packs enough of a punch to knock the taste of weak sauce remakes like Prom Night or Sorority Row right out of your mouth.
It's not even that The Crazies is shockingly original, as much as it is shockingly well-crafted. Haven't we already seen a Romero remake that opens with a Johnny Cash song featuring survivors on the run from drooling maniacs before? Yes, we have, but The Crazies is a more straight-forward, primal movie than Zack Snyder's jittery, splashy Dawn of the Dead re-do. There's not an unnecessary sidestep in the whole film, just a constant deathmarch tinged with prickly paranoia. The characters are drawn through their actions, not through their dialogue, and the situation feels plausible in a way that a dedicated zombie movie just can't -- we've been around really sick people before; few among us can claim they've seen the dead return to life.
The Crazies just works. It's effortlessly so tough and so fast that it's hard to understand why every horror flick can't deliver with this kind of confidence. Eisner never once winks at the audience, never even comes close to humorous, yet still manages to make mankind's doom really fun. Who knew viral infections and mass hysteria could be so entertaining? It's all in the execution.