Lazy, Hazy, Unamaze-y

For the last decade or two, zombie films have been released with staggering frequency. It makes sense; a producer can hire novice writers and hack directors, and, so long as they have seen a number of zombie movies themselves and can show some propensity for creatively killing off characters, they should be able to whip something up that people will watch. So long as the special effects are special enough and the story bloody-minded enough, people will not be distracted from the scary zombies. It is literally an undead genre; the producers of zombie films eat the brains of viewers and then continue to produce more zombie films. Or wait — are the people who go to the zombie movies actually the zombies themselves? Another zombie-entendre — brain food!

But rest assured, The Crazies is not a zombie movie.

Set in Ogden Marsh Township, some kind of a prototypical, not-crazy American town(ship), The Crazies, a remake of the 1973 George Romero film of the same name, uses spooky thrills and scary chills to examine society’s perspectives of authority, populism and the weltanschauung of the American dreamer.

Statistically, there are zero zombies in the film. In an intrepid deconstructive swish of the film’s original writers’ proverbial basketball, the whole concept of the “zombie” is thrown out the window in this one, usurped by a similar, but vaguely different kind of a creature. It’s this type of genre-bending experimentation that forces the viewer to take a cold, hard look at our culture’s fear of what’s different. And then you can also take another cold, hard look at our culture of authority and centralized power. And then you’re like, “Crazy people are scary!”

The film takes great pains to create a believable back-story that alleviates viewers’ worries that they are, in fact, watching a zombie movie. A big plane of some kind crashes into a stream that feeds Ogden Marsh its water supply. That part’s never in zombie movies. And the plane carried some variety of government thing that infected the townspeople. Again, technically not zombies.

These details are brought to the viewer’s attention in jagged chunks, with the final tidbits delivered by a black SUV-driving federal officer of some kind. Before he can finish, though, he’s shot in the brain. What better “fuck you” to the confines of regulated civilization could there be than blasting a bullet straight through the one thing in the entire movie that has actual information inside of it. The film is about fighting the power. Don’t be a bunch of zombies; be “crazy!” Much as the name of the film fits tightly amongst countless ‘70s punk acts, the “the crazies” are a direct reaction to federal power and authority. As I am led to understand, the original film might have had something to do with the Vietnam War, and something about religion.

But this remake (undead version?) is much more complicated than that. The “crazies” are actually feared enemies, on the loose and wreaking havoc throughout the film. While it was surely the “feds” who created the epidemic with their airplane poison thing, and while there’s a distinctive conflict between the two groups throughout the film, the “crazies” are not the heroes.
In fact, it is sheriff David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant) and his doctor wife Judy (Radha Mitchell) who take up the hero’s sword to fight the power and to beat down the marginalized. Like an old master of oil portraiture, director Breck Eisner leaves no detail behind. The couple fills every box on my checklist of the average American couple: they have a two-storey house, they have careers and she is pregnant — all they want to do is settle down and build a family in their happy little town with all their pals.

The majority of The Crazies is spent either watching Judy and Dave elude “feds” who are trying to kill them to prevent the infection’s spread, or watching as they kill “crazies” who are trying to kill everyone who is not “crazy.” As an archetypal suburban couple, they evade federal combat troops using good ol’ techniques like “hiding in barns.” As action heroes, they kill off scary truckers and town drunks in exciting sequences. Yes, The Crazies does not take the same old path of zombie movies, pitting main characters against a force of unthinking automatons. Instead, it appeals to the viewer’s inner suburbanite, demanding fear and distrust of government and hatred of irregularity.

But for all of these thematic bells and whistles, stylistically the film is exactly a zombie movie. The only difference is that it manages to be a bit less open-minded (less “braaaains”) than your average zombie movie. The concept that people have become “crazy” could allow the writers a lot of flexibility, a lot of room for unpredictability. Instead, “crazy” people are just zombies. Well, not exactly. Instead of requiring the nourishment of brain matter, “crazies” have no apparent motives for killing people. They become infected and then try to kill people. The best thing about “crazy” people is that they are far from one-dimensional. The failure of the film to capitalize on this is a huge disappointment.

To the film’s credit, there are several visually beautiful moments. It has its share darkness, but a significant portion is filmed under direct sunlight. These scenes manage to retain the dark atmospheric pull of the paranoid subject matter, and the dynamic provides a much-needed visual distraction from the rest of the storyline.

However, unless you’re “crazy” for a dark atmospheric treatment of Smalltown, U.S.A., I would recommend avoiding this one like one might potentially avoid a water supply that has been tainted with some kind of a bad government thing.

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