3 out of 4 stars
Breck Eisner's insane-in-the-membrane update of the George A. Romero cult horror movie "The Crazies" opens with a brief shot of fire, devastation and small-town apocalypse, followed by a title card that takes us back to the same Iowa farm community two days earlier.
We see white-picket fences, clapboard houses and good neighbors, and hear birds warbling and Johnny Cash singing "We'll Meet Again," a song whose title hints at the nature of the alarming events about to transpire. When these Middle American folks do meet again, those pitchforks they're carrying won't be intended for bales of hay.
Romero sandwiched his 1973 "Crazies" in between his more celebrated zombie movies, "Night of the Living Dead" and "Dawn of the Dead," both of which have been remade, too, with varying results.
While "The Crazies" isn't a zombie movie per se, it derives much of its horror from the same fear -- the enemy lurks both within and without you. There's a very real chance you might turn into a monster.
Eisner's remake maintains the dynamic of that unease, while Scott Kosar and Ray Wright's screenplay gives the audience a rooting interest by whittling down the political subtext and making the movie more of a survival story.
It helps, too, that Eisner's budget probably exceeds that of all of Romero's movies combined. Eisner puts the money to good use, delivering a beautifully shot film that contains equal measures of style and gore.
We first sense something might not be right in Ogden Marsh when Rory (Mike Hickman) wanders into the middle of the high school baseball field during a game. He's carrying a shotgun and wearing a faraway look in his eyes. The town sheriff (Timothy Olyphant) assumes he's drunk and tries to talk Rory down. He doesn't succeed.
After that, locals begin trickling into the office of the beautiful doctor (Radha Mitchell), complaining of fevers and being tired and not feeling "right." Germs seem to be spreading -- and so is the news. Soon, we see Ogden Marsh from satellite, with the words: "Initiate containment protocol." Uh-oh.
Romero made his mark during the Vietnam and post-Vietnam era, and, as he went along, his anti-military broadsides became bolder and more pointed. He split his "Crazies" evenly between the military containment forces and the infected townspeople. Heroes were in short supply.
Eisner narrows the focus to the farm folk, while holding onto the idea of a federal government that will stop at nothing to cover its tracks. Interpret that as you like.
What "The Crazies" really taps into is our pervasive unease over disease, that moment when the person sitting next to you on the subway or airplane or, yes, the movie theater sneezes or breaks into a coughing fit and you realize you're unarmed. Never mind the pitchfork. Just don't leave the hand sanitizer at home.