Back in 1973 George A. Romero gave us a taste of what it'd be like if a biological weapon were let loose on society in The Crazies. When someone comes in contact with Trixie they lose their minds and become violent. Think the army can save you from the madness? Think again. Not only are the military men just as afraid of contracting the virus, but they're trying to protect themselves from the crazies too; basically, they're willing to kill everyone and anyone not in a biohazard suit. The Crazies is a film particularly fitting for the remake treatment. It's dated, yet the general concept remains powerful. That's where Breck Eisner comes in. He takes his source material trims away the fat and the obsolete elements and packs it with exactly what horror audiences are looking for: sheer terror. Eisner's The Crazies is one of my favorite films of 2010, but I'm going to leave the critique at that and deliver this comparison using just the facts. However I can't say the same for spoilers because they're all over the place in this article, so beware.
Eisner incorporates the very first scene of Romero's film in his updated version: the burning home. The first characters we meet are two little kids, a brother and sister, whose playtime comes to a deadly halt when they find daddy smashing up the place with a crowbar. The boy also notices that the floor is drenched with kerosene and, sure enough, daddy lights things up. The difference is how the two approached the situation. Eisner goes right for your heart letting us see poor Nicholas and his mother locked in a closet as the fire creeps up the stairs and down the hall guaranteeing their demise. However, the victims of Romero's fire scenario are left with a fighting chance.
Evans City vs. Ogden Marsh
Both are small towns, but the folks from Ogden Marsh are much more close knit than those of Evans City. Judy and Dave (Lane Carroll and Will MacMillan) recognize an old man in the back of an army truck in the original, but otherwise don't seem as familiar with their neighbors as the Judy and Dave (Radha Mitchell and Timothy Olyphant) in the newer version. Perhaps it's only because she's the town doctor and he's the town sheriff, but between the two of them, they seem to know every resident.
This is the most glaring difference between the two films. The men in masks may portray the armed forces, but the military plays an entirely different character. Unlike Eisner's version, Romero's splits the screen time between a group of townsfolk's fight for survival and the army's effort to contain the situation. Yes, Romero's men in suits use brutal tactics to ensure Trixie doesn't breach the perimeter just like Eisner's, but Romero's also shows something devoid in Eisner's: weakness. Eisner's army runs around in full control, torching every helpless citizen in their path while Romero's engage in close-range combat, are killed by angry residents and even fall victim to the virus themselves. The soldiers are practically in the same situation as the Evans City residents. This vulnerability leads to something else lacking in Eisner's armed forces, remorse.
Standard Uniforms vs. Biohazard Suits
Romero's got his army boys running around in white biohazard suits. The only time we get a glimpse of one of those in Eisner's film is when Judy is wheeled into the high school for testing. Otherwise, minus the gas masks, the military men are dressed in their standard uniform as though they could be fighting a war.
Unless you're watching a superhero film, flamethrowers, fire guns or whatever you want to call them, aren't commonplace. But in both versions of The Crazies, the army comes fully equipped with the weapons so they can torch dead bodies to ensure they eradicate the virus.
In Eisner's film the water is the clear culprit when it comes to spreading the virus. However, in Romero's film, only a few oddly attentive shots of drinking water and mention of the plane that crashed in the hills above Evans City that responsible for the contamination references the water issue specifically. Eisner points a finger at the tap water several times. He's got the group of hunters actually discover the plane wreckage on one occasion, followed by Russell (Joe Anderson) and David doing so shortly after. Then there's David's attempt to get the mayor to turn off the town water supply and when he doesn't go for it, David does it anyway. Finally we get the culmination of the depleted water supply when Judy cracks open a nice fresh bottle of water at a truck stop and indulges.
If you come across a crazy in Ogden Marsh, you know it. They may start off as versions of their former selves minus a personality, but as time goes on their veins protrude, dark circles form under their eyes and they look, well, sick. But that's not the case in Evans City. The only way you know someone has lost it is if you knew them well before. Otherwise, it'll be impossible to detect a difference – well, unless they're so sick they're sweeping up the grass after a gun battle. Romero's crazies are more of a mass whereas some of Eisner's crazies are memorable characters. They get sicker and sicker, but still retain their personality; they just exhibit certain traits in an extreme manner. For example, we've got the trio of hunters who transform their interest in shooting wild game to putting bullets in their neighbors' heads. There's also Peggy and Curt Hamill who's remorse over the loss of their husband and father become a desperation for vengeance post-infection.
High School-Turned-Holding Pen
The local high school is used for the same purpose in both films, but in an entirely different way. The 1973 version has person after person being stuffed into the building, constantly pushing and shoving one another, screaming, laughing, smiling – it's absolute hysteria. On the other hand, Eisner turns the school into a twisted hospital strapping those believed to be infected to gurneys and shuttling them through the hallways into rooms where they're left to lose it or become test subjects. When a disturbance outside the building lures the army away, it makes this eerie scene the perfect setting for one of the newer film's most frightening moments.
Romero's version has hope while the main players in Eisner's are seemingly doomed. In the original film, Dr. Watts (Richard France), one of the members of the Trixie development team, is sent to Evans City to try and find a cure. No such person exists in Eisner's version. In fact, a cure is never even discussed. Plus, when you factor in the hoards of crazies running around and the seemingly inescapable armed forces, our main characters are left with little hope for survival.
Minus Romero sitting as Eisner's executive producer, Lynn Lowry is the only physical connection between the two films. In the first she plays a young girl who meets our three main players, Judy, David and Russell (Harold Wayne Jones) in an army transport. She joins them in their escape effort, but soon finds out that running won't do her much good because she's infected. Her grand finale is particularly unforgettable when she aimlessly wanders off into a pack of soldiers. Eisner includes her in his film in a subtle, yet eerily memorable way. Remember when David looks over his barren town before the roundup? Some crazy lady rides a bike around him in circles while singing a song. That whacked out woman is Lowry.
Harold Wayne Jones vs. Joe Anderson
Judy and David may hold onto their names in the second film, but Russell is a character that retains his name as well as his personality. In the newer version he's David's deputy and in the original he's his war buddy and fellow firefighter. He's loyal, but a bit reckless and always eager to pull the trigger, which, in both films, works to David and Judy's advantage and disadvantage. Another sad similarity is that we see both Russells deteriorate from the virus. Yes, Judy and David are our top concerns, but Russell is a very likable character and he instantly earns our sympathy, which makes his demise particularly heart wrenching to watch.
Political Subtext vs. Blatant Scares
Romero is well known for hiding messages in his films, although not very covertly. Romero clearly takes a jab at the armed forces showing soldiers snatch money from victims' wallets, shooting innocent people without a second thought and, as a whole, flat out lying to the citizens of Evans Falls. When Eisner did away with the prominence of the army, he also did away with the insinuation. Instead, he packed his film with what people want nowadays, scares and gore. The attention is put entirely on our four survivors, strengthening our connection to them and leaving us more concerned with their situation. That way, when they're holed up in a barn waiting out an army raid or being attacked by crazies lurking in a car wash, the terror level hits a max.
Both films are all about containment. The army's top priority isn't to ensure the safety of the town folks, but to do whatever it takes to keep Trixie from spreading., In both cases that doesn't happen and that's when Trixie becomes the true villain of the film. In the 1973 version we're so focused on the military brutality and neighbors turning deadly that by the time we find out Col. Peckem (Lloyd Hollar) is being dispatched to another city to handle a similar situation, the ease at which this virus can spread is slammed back in your face. The same goes for the 2010 version. When the smoke clears and Judy and David emerge from the wreckage of their vehicle ravaged by the nuke blast and make their way towards Cedar Rapids, we feel somewhat at ease. Well, that's until we get a computerized overhead view of the city with text establishing the area is contaminated and the message "initiate containment protocol."
The grand finale of the 2010 film may come as a shock to some. It isn't until a countdown begins on the army radio Judy and David snagged that some may realize they're not just driving away from the town disaster, but something much greater, a nuclear bomb. Before we know it, the background explodes behind them and Ogden Marsh is wiped off the map. In the original, the idea of nuking away the problem is brought up in a scene rather early on in the film and even offers a little explanation about how the army will get away with it, by passing it off as a training mission. Lastly there's the biggest difference of them all, one town actually gets nuked and the other doesn't.
This is an unusual case of a horror reboot where it's not simply recycled material. Eisner took the best of Romero's version, updated it and made it his own yet still paid homage to his source material. Both films are worth seeing if not for pure enjoyment, for a look at a horror remake done right.