Ogden Marsh, Iowa, is one of those remote towns even the flyovers don't fly over. But for decades its citizens' decency has matched the town's anonymity. Dr. Judy Dutton (Radha Mitchell) takes care of the births and the ordinary illnesses; her husband David (Timothy Olyphant), the local Sheriff, keeps the peace with the aid of his Deputy, Russell Clank (Joe Anderson). Nice town, y'know what I mean? Until that day during a school baseball game when Rory Hamill strode out of center field carrying a shotgun he wouldn't put down, and David had to shoot him dead. That caused a little stir. Then Bill Farnum locked his wife and son in their farmhouse and set the place on fire. Each of the perpetrators had this strange dead look on his face. Pretty soon, one by one, the good folk of Ogden Marsh were turned into psycho killers. The normals had become the crazies. And all because they drank the water.
That's Act One of The Crazies, directed by Breck Eisner from a script by Scott Kosar and Ray Wright. The story fans out from its Anytown-Goes-Crazytown first half-hour into a besieged-heroes scenario, in which David, Judy and Russell are hemmed in both by the zombie-ish locals and the military in hazmat suits, who have come to contain the plague at the cost of Ogden Marsh's very existence. It's an efficient thriller, with scare weapons ranging from the primitive (a pitchfork) to the apocalyptic (an A bomb). The acting is only horror-film-functional, and you might wish that our trio of renegades knew a few basic laws of the genre don't go anywhere alone, and please leave your vehicle before it's sent into the killer car wash but you have to give Eisner points for knowing where all the bodies are buried, and how to unearth them suddenly for maximum effect.
This is a remake of the 1973 The Crazies, by George A. Romero, whose 1968 zombie classic Night of the Living Dead has been the inspiration for countless remakes and rip-offs. (Romero's latest film, Survival of the Dead, may go direct to video.) The Crazies about people whose minds are poisoned by the town's water supply wasn't quite so trailblazing. It built on that potent science-fiction trope, the takeover of personality by an alien entity, that dates back to Philip K. Dick's 1954 story "The Father-Thing," in which an eight-year-old suspects that his father's not quite right and finds a menacing replicant in the garage. A year later, Jack Finney fleshed out the premise in his novel The Body Snatchers, the source for the 1956 Invasion of... movie version and its three remakes. Alex Garland's script for 28 Days Later..., in 2002, blamed the plague on a virus injected into monkeys. In The Happening, two summers ago, M. Night Shyamalan reprised Romero's Crazies concept, except that the toxin is transmitted through the air, not the water, and turns its victims suicidal, not homicidal.
Romero expanded this premise into parable of a government experiment gone horribly wrong in wartime. He posited that a plane containing a deadly virus crashed in a lake near a small town; the military then takes drastic actions to contain it. Made during the Vietnam war, and just after the revelations of a My Lai massacre, the original Crazies had an unmissable Vietnam analogy: the military must destroy this village to save the country. The local folks could almost be seen as Vietnamese civilians, politicized by attacks on their village and fighting back by any means necessary. There's also the fluoridation angle, which played into suspicions, held mostly on the Right, that the Communists could poison us in our kitchens without ever firing a shot. These days, a tap-water plague would be more limited; in ritzier communities, the drinking glasses and the dog bowls are filled with Evian. But for its time, The Crazies functioned as a compendium of paranoia. Rarely has a conspiracy thriller exploited so many fears.
In the original film, Romero tested the viewer's sympathies, partly balancing the plight of the few uninfected townsfolk with the attempt of a Colonel and a scientist to find a cure. The remake dispenses with these nuances, turning the military into a vague, malevolent force that spies from above on Ogden Marsh, then quarantines or removes the townspeople. By doing so it exploits the enmity, across the political spectrum, for people in power. Its sour view of government intervention would suit both the American Left in the Bush-Cheney era and the Tea Party today. As we watch the three people we care about go through the familiar motions of trying to elude capture and escape the plague, we have to find interest in their different reactions to having to kill former friends on sight. For Sheriff David, the more logical, liberal one, becoming a vigilante is a burden; for the more trigger-happy Russell, it's liberation.
Of course, if the heroes didn't go a little gun-crazy, The Crazies wouldn't be a horror movie. The truly radical approach would be to depict an ordinary place, let its people stay ordinary and find meaning and drama in their lives and deaths. But nobody wants to remake Our Town. Everybody wants to remake Romero.