On paper, The Crazies sounds like a B-grade cliche: Bioweapons-made zombies terrorize small town. But the movie defies expectations. The Crazies is a scary, smart thriller that tweaks its tropes and offers a non-preachy fable about the military's dark side.
When seemingly unmotivated acts of violence break out in a tiny Iowa town, the sheriff begins investigating connections between them. Soon enough, he discovers that a plane has crashed in the river that supplies the town's water, and realizes that there's more going on here than drunken rages. Moving at a pleasingly fast clip, the film catapults you forward into a rage zombie scenario that quickly morphs into a military lockdown situation with everybody being herded into a quarantine scarier than the disease itself. Turns out the crashed plane was full of "trixie," a bioweapon designed to take out targets by amping them up with homicidal madness before they die.
David, the sheriff (Timothy Olyphant), is separated from his pregnant wife Judy during the quarantine, so he and his trusty deputy Russell slip away from some military evacuation buses and head back into town to rescue her - and find out what the hell is going on. There is a lot of serious carnage, with redneck hunter crazies doing target practice on the remaining townspeople and piling them in a truck to "dress them out" later. These people aren't zombies - they're just your friends and neighbors gone bugfuck insane. With guns and threshers and creepy smiles.
As David, Judy, and Russell dodge maniacs and soldiers, it becomes clear that the military is just as crazy as the crazies themselves. They slaughter dozens of people and light them on fire; they shoot on sight; they kill a frightened family. And yet in a deft scene where David captures one of the soldiers and rips his gas mask off, we realize that the evil here is not the soldiers themselves. The young guy under the mask is as frightened as the townspeople are, and knows even less than they do. "I'm following orders," he says, nearly weeping. "I'll let you go. I didn't sign up to kill people like this." And then, as good as his word, he does let our heroes slip away without calling in the firing squads. What we're made to understand in this moment is that the military as an institution embodies madness and horror, and its soldiers are victims too.
Nothing drives this home more than a repeated conceit where we return to the point-of-view of surveillance satellites and outposts around the town. Suddenly, we'll be pulled back from the action and into what looks like a version of Google satellite view, with sparse, digital orders to "contain target." There are a million movies that do this, but it's a very effective device in The Crazies, where for the most part the military is represented by machines and people in so much protective face gear that they look like cyborgs. This is the moral alarm at the heart of The Crazies: A depersonalized, soulless military that cares only about executing its "contain target" orders and never looks its civilian victims in the face.
Those familiar with George A. Romero's original early-1970s flick The Crazies will see homages to the original all over the place in director Breck Eisner's version of the film. But he's updated the story brilliantly, making it relevant to current terrors. For example, the original film's protagonists were Vietnam vets, and many of the death orgy scenes were intentionally staged to be reminiscent of images from Vietnam. In Eisner's The Crazies, we see the face of today's semi-robotic, high tech military instead - a military that uses smart nukes rather than tear gas.
Plus, in a very interesting move, Eisner focused his film entirely on the fleeing townspeople - David, Judy, and Russell. This allows the action to get a lot scarier and more intense, and it heightens our sense of the military as a machine-controlled operation. Gone are the original film's scientist struggling to administer an antidote, and gone are practically any glimpses of the military's perspective on the situation (other than what we see relayed as commands via the surveillance satellite). This is a much bleaker version of The Crazies in many ways, especially when we get to the seriously disturbing ending.
The Crazies is a perfect example of genre film done right. It's a violent, weird science flick that entertains you with a punch to the gut and leaves you thinking afterward.