Liberal remake of a radical film

March 18, 2010

Adam Turl explains how director Breck Eisner missed the point of George Romero's original The Crazies with the 2010 version of the movie.

Warning: This review contains some spoilers.

THE U.S. military releases (probably by accident) a biological weapon into a small town's water supply, a weapon that turns the town folk into raving lunatics. Then the government quarantines the town, and violence ensues.

That's the bare bones plot of The Crazies--both the 1973 original and the 2010 remake. Unfortunately, that's pretty much where the similarities end.

The 1973 film was directed by horror movie maestro George Romero (most famous for creating the modern zombie movie genre in films like Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead). Like his zombie films, Romero's Crazies was chock-full of social criticism seamlessly integrated into a genuinely compelling story.

As the Washington Post put it, Romero's movie "simmered with Watergate-era distrust of authority and made the government's response to a crisis as creepy as the crisis itself." Romero's film wasn't merely meant to be scary (although it was scary), it was meant to be an examination of the nuclear family, military occupation and environmental destruction.

Residents of a small Ohio town fall sick from a contaminant in the water in The Crazies
Residents of a small Ohio town fall sick from a contaminant in the water in The Crazies

The 2010 film is directed by Breck Eisner, son of former Walt Disney CEO Michael Eisner. According to Eisner, he intentionally tried to muffle the "message" of Romero's original in order to appeal to a broader audience:

[Romero] made a film that was in very strong condemnation of the military in the post-Vietnam world. I wanted to make sure we kept that message in the film. And it's definitely there. But at the same time, to get as broad of an audience as possible, I wanted to update the film, make it scarier, make it more of a thrill ride, give it more action.

In doing that, we hopefully will reach a broader audience, and the message will reach a broader audience, versus a stronger message that reaches a smaller audience.

Interestingly, the overtly liberal Overture Films--which also released Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story--released the remake. But Eisner and Overture fail on their own terms.

While the message is definitely weaker (and so vague that it could even be considered right-wing depending on who's watching it), the movie is actually less scary and less well made (despite a much larger budget) than Romero's original.

Review: Movies

The Crazies, directed by Breck Eisner, starring Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell.

IN ROMERO'S Crazies, the director took the opportunity to explore the craziness that already existed in contemporary society, just below the surface (often barely below the surface). Some people went crazy when infected and killed other people (as the infected largely do in Eisner's remake), but different characters took different roads to mental oblivion.

Of particular note in Romero's film are the themes of incest and militarism. A father has sex with his adult daughter, provoking the rage of another man, who is also slowly going crazy and believes he is defending the daughter. Meanwhile, as the military clamps down on the town, the army's behavior seems as irrational as that of the infected townspeople.

Romero's point is fairly obvious, although he lays it out slowly in the film: These "crazy" behaviors already existed before the outbreak (for example, incest and militarism). To make his point, the line between the infected and uninfected is blurred repeatedly.

As the conflict escalates between the townspeople and the military, it becomes harder to figure out who is actually infected.

Unlike the 2010 remake, Romero's film is as much about the military characters sent in to pacify the town as it is about the town itself. In Eisner's film, there's almost no dialogue among the military personnel. Eisner felt it would be "scarier"--as if some alien force had seized the town.

Eisner fails again. The absence of military characters doesn't make the film scarier. However, it does mean that there's little chance for political exposition. There is no sense of why anything is happening other than the vague notion that the government is bad. In the tea party context of 2010, that isn't necessarily a progressive message.

In the original film, Romero dedicates a great deal of dialogue to the incompetence of the military brass and the irrationality of military solutions in a crisis--themes that would be familiar (and quite scary) to many Vietnam and Iraq War vets or survivors of disasters like Hurricane Katrina or the earthquake in Haiti.

While the military is an alien force in Eisner's remake, the townspeople are caricatures.

The 2010 Crazies seems to be set in Hollywood's idea of an Iowa town. Everything is just fine before the infection spreads. People are playing baseball, and the main characters--the town's female doctor and her boyfriend or husband, the town sheriff--are implausibly young and good-looking. They're also about as interesting as department store mannequins.

Romero, by contrast, set the original Crazies in an actual town in Pennsylvania.

The three main characters were firemen (and Vietnam veterans), as well as the town's nurse. Their distrust of the Army was rooted in their actual experience in Vietnam. As the film goes on, you can't help but to draw a parallel between their actions and that of the National Liberal Front (NLF) that was still fighting to rid Vietnam of a similarly arbitrary occupying army.

In Romero's movie, working-class Vietnam War veterans fight off an occupying army--the U.S. Army. In Eisner's movie, a sheriff and a doctor shoot a bunch of townspeople trying to escape after the government accidentally turns their idyllic small town life into a nightmare.

Romero's movie was a criticism of society as it already was (and still is). Eisner's movie is a cautionary "what if?" set in a fictional society where things are already pretty good. At bottom, it's a liberal remake of a radical film.

Sure, the Army is the ultimate problem in Eisner's movie. But that's pretty much par for the course in disaster films--either the government or Corporate America typically courts destruction. Even in the Resident Evil franchise (based on the video game) the ultimate villain is the "Umbrella Corporation"--and at least those movies, unlike Eisner's Crazies, are sort of fun to watch.

Bottom line: Save yourself $10. Instead, rent or buy Romero's original Crazies or another Romero-inspired film about infected people gone nuts, like Danny Boyle's 2002 film 28 Days Later--both good horror movies that don't pull their political punches.

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