What are the rules of the sickness in The Crazies?

No, seriously, I’m asking. Because the movie doesn’t make it clear at all, and on more than one occasion seems to break what we’ve been led to think are the rules of the sickness. By the end of the movie we’ve reached a point where this amorphous sickness seems to strike only as the plot demands, and only in ways that serve the screenwriters. And that’s just one of the many problems with this movie.

The Crazies seemed ripe for remake; after all, the George Romero original isn’t one of his best and that’s what we should be remaking – films with room for improvement. But Breck Eisner’s version manages to be less interesting and less thoughtful than the original, jettisoning any psychological aspects that Romero explored in favor of cheap, stupid jump scares accompanied by cacophonous shrieks on the soundtrack. In fact I couldn’t tell you what this version of The Crazies is about in any deeper sense than telling you the points of the plot; there seems to be little to no subtext to what’s going on, and the craziness is a MacGuffin at best, instead of a true metaphor for… well, for anything. The film explores a touch of Tea Bagger paranoia, but then undercuts that by having the hunting/gun loving guys be just as bad as the faceless military.

The movie at least opens quickly, but maybe that’s a bad thing as well. Eisner (and the slack script by Scott Kosar and Ray Wright) doesn’t spend much time setting up the sleepy town of Ogden Marsh; while that means we get right to the action it also means that the idea of a small town of regular folks going homicidally nuts carries almost no weight. We don’t get to know any of these people, and so their turn to craziness is just there to give our heroes a problem to overcome. I don’t know that I would be so bothered by this if the plight of our heroes – a band of survivors led by Sheriff David (Timothy Olyphant), his pregnant doctor wife Judy (Radha Mitchell), deputy Russ (Joe Anderson) and some girl who has about three lines in the film that aren’t just screams or sobs (Danielle Panabaker) – was interesting in any way. They just wander from site to site, situation to situation, without a larger, clear plan or even much by way of interpersonal dynamics. Walk into situation/be attacked by crazies and/or the military/rinse and repeat. And repeat. And repeat.

And that wouldn’t be so bad if Eisner were a horror director. Here we have a movie where normal people are turned into raving, blood spurting murderous lunatics who will stop at nothing to inflict damage on others. And they use weapons! And set up traps! But instead of finding unique and varied kills, Eisner just has people getting knocked off in the least interesting ways imaginable. There’s one interesting kill, and that’s just not enough to carry a movie that’s predicated on mayhem. Combine that with Eisner’s lazy reliance on cheap, shitty jump scares and you get a movie that’s got nothing to offer anybody who doesn’t have hyperekplexia. 

But there’s still more wrong with the film. The Crazies is an endless series of missed opportunities, especially when it comes to craziness. There’s a great idea that the film almost engages – what’s the difference between a sick crazy person and someone driven to the edge by the situation at hand – but the script deftly moves the hell away from that. It also sidesteps any interpersonal friction that isn’t craziness-caused; Romero’s interest in all of his films was the way people bounced off of each other in the extreme situations he would conjure and The Crazies was no different. So why doesn’t this film seem interested in this aspect of a crisis situation? Again and again the moments where the film felt like it was going to engage this – especially a scene with rednecks hunting their fellow townsfolk – melt away into nothingness. These rednecks end up just being infected, and it has nothing to do with deeper, scarier normal human urges.

Speaking of infection, allow me to revisit my biggest complaint about The Crazies: the nebulous nature of the infection. One of the great things about zombie films is the set of rules that George Romero established: the dead rise; those bitten by the undead become the undead; the undead can only be killed by destroying the brain. These are the basic rules that every burgeoning horror hound knows, and these rules give shape to the world of zombie movies. The stakes are known, the dangers are obvious. Romero throws some wrenches into the rules on occasion, but that’s only possible because the basic rules are so well-established – and they’re well established as early as Night of the Living Dead

In The Crazies there are no rules. The sickness comes from a polluted water supply, and at the beginning the vector of infection is plotted according to who gets the town water in their pipes first. So far, so good. But then everything goes out the window. Eisner has the cops incarcerate a crazy, which I thought so that we could see the cycle of the disease and understand it, but he seems to have no interest in being consistent. For some people the sickness begins with a semi-comatose state… but not for others. And especially not for others who are important to the plot. For some people the sickness utterly overcomes their thinking and reasoning… but not for others. And especially not for others whose continued consciousness is dramatically appropriate, if not logically appropriate. And there’s even a captured army guy – Commander Exposition! – who tells us that the incubation period of the illness is 48 hours. And we seem to see that people with the illness die after a certain amount of time. But neither of those things are consistent in any way with what we actually see in the film, and the incubation time appears to be not 48 hours but ‘However long Eisner/Kosar/Wright want it to be.’

That’s really frustrating because it means the movie is basically formless. Add to that the fact that the method of infection isn’t even fully clear – has it gone airborne at a certain point or not? Romero at least allowed us into the military operation to get a basic understanding of the parameters of the sickness (is infection even the right word? I don’t even know if this shit is communicable or if just drinking bottled water would have been enough to save the folks of Ogden Marsh) – and you end up with a movie that just trundles along doing what it wants, not anything that makes sense or works in a larger picture. At one point I was trying to look for clues to see if Sheriff David was sick, and then I realized it simply didn’t matter, as everything was so ill-defined that Eisner could make him sick or not on a whim, without needing any sort of set up. That goes for the military as well – the movie establishes an all-seeing, godlike satellite watching Ogden Marsh that can pick out our heroes at any time… except when the plot needs it to not do so. Most frustrating is that Sheriff David even mentions that the military can find them on any road at any time, and so of course they keep just walking down the middle of every possible road.

For some folks Timothy Olyphant just works. I’m not one of those folks. He seems to be stuck in one growling gear, and I never can find any nuance within him. He feels just as on edge at the beginning of the movie, before a single crazy has arrived, as he does at the end. I get his basic appeal, especially in today’s girlieboy leading man landscape, but he always feels like he belongs in direct to cable movies to me. The rest of the cast isn’t much better; Radha Mitchell is just there for the whole film, screaming a lot and little else. Danielle Panabaker has possibly the most thankless role in modern cinema, short of playing a corpse. 

The only actor who walks out of the film having done anything memorable is Joe Anderson; Anderson’s career to date hasn’t been the best – he was Maxwell in the fairly terrible Across the Universe and the German guy whose leg gets cut off in The Ruins, but he brings something intriguing to Deputy Russ. There’s a quiet, laconic quality to the character in the early half of the movie and Anderson ups the intensity as time goes on. In a better movie the upped intensity would have been ambiguous – is Deputy Russ a crazy or has he just reacted to this situation by becoming violent? – but The Crazies doesn’t have the brains for that. Which is too bad, since I think Anderson could have played that.

I wanted to like this film. It’s competently made, putting it heads and shoulders above its main opening weekend competition, Cop Out, but it’s got little else happening. Eisner proves himself a guy who can shoot a scene but who has no vision for anything beyond basic composition. There’s no point to The Crazies – it’s not much scarier than having someone startling you by clanging pots and pans together, it’s not inventive as a horror film and it has nothing on its mind when it comes to the crazies themselves or how people deal with it all. The film’s greatest triumph is that even in the face of so many faults it manages to be not terrible.

5.5 out of 10