Though George A. Romero is probably reconciled to the seemingly inevitable remake of his entire back catalogue, I suspect that even he was a little surprised when Breck Eisner dusted off The Crazies. Enjoying only a limited release even at the height of his fame, more than most of his works it fell rapidly off the popular and critical radar. I’ve always thought this a shame, though one that was perhaps understandable given its relative incoherence when set against NOTLD, still contemporary enough in 1973 to dazzle audiences and overshadow anything Romero did that didn’t involve zombies.
Eisner (no offence) has no such reputational straightjacket to escape, and undoubtedly uses this freedom to greater effect than Romero. In place of the rambling nature of the original, he delivers a taut and effective case-study on the utter disintegration of a society brought down from within. Though sticking faithfully to the premise – a small town endangered by the crash-landing of military plane transporting a top-secret nerve agent – he pares back most of the loose ends and inconsistencies left by Romero and in so doing gives the film an efficient focus and engaging narrative. It’s a narrative effectively framed by his small-town setting, with Ogden County being sufficiently claustrophobic whilst avoiding veering too far into the twee. As events unfold, the genuine feeling of neighbourliness and community adds to the premise a heightened sense of terror. The eerily horrific encounter during the school baseball game sets the tone and pace nicely. In this context the overhead satellite image sequences are rather clunky and counter-productive, but not fatal to the atmospheric unravelling of the town.
Shorn of most of its social and political commentary baggage, the remake is palpably less ambitious than the original. That is not derogatory of the end product though, as the narrower focus is interesting, inventive and delivered with panache. There is no suitably or doubt about the government’s motives or actions in containing TRIXIE; indeed, the most successful element of Eisner’s remake is his discarding of the duel-narrative of the civilian and military perspective. It means we’re left to confront a force exhibiting none of the self-doubt or humanity of, for example, Colonel Peckem, which gives Eisner’s treatment a welcome relentlessness and enough momentum to overcome what quickly settles into a series of interconnected set-piece action sequences.
That said, the slim-line narrative does have less to sustain it as the inevitability of the town’s fate becomes obvious. Then bleakness approaches perilously close to boredom, and the scenario reveals seem less like steps integral to the plot and more like padding. Though probably 15 minutes or so too long, Timothy Olyphant’s superb performance as Sherriff Dutten is just about sufficient to the task of carrying the plot on his shoulders, and hues closer to the successful leading men of the NOTLD series than we’ve seen in many of Romero’s own recent efforts. All in all, the overall product is that rare thing – a remake that is at least equal to (and perhaps better than) the original.