One of the First Movies Made During the 2010s’ Zombie Renaissance Was Also One of the Best
The decade gave us way, way too many zombie movies, but a few gems have slipped through the cracks.
After the 2000s revived the zombie horror, the 2010s appeared to squish and squeeze it for all it was worth. Yet amid all the genre fatigue, a handful of films staked their place in the canon of the great undead. And one of the finest, adapted from a George A. Romero cult favorite, was the first out of the block.
Hitting HBO Max this month, The Crazies has been largely forgotten since its February 2010 release. But although not as game-changing as Train to Busan, visually striking as World War Z, or side-splitting as the Zombieland sequel, it’s as tense and taut as its zombies’ bulging necks.
Stuck in development hell for several years, The Crazies finally moved into gear when Breck Eisner came on board. The director didn’t appear to be a natural or promising fit. His only other big screen effort had been Sahara, the pre-McConaissance desert adventure renowned as one of the all-time box office flops. His only effort since is 2015’s plodding Vin Diesel vehicle The Last Witch Hunter.
However, with a talented cast at his disposal and a screenwriter with encouraging form (Scott Kosar penned the effective remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Amityville Horror), Eisner found all the stars aligning. He certainly doesn’t waste any time setting up the craziness ahead, either.
Avoiding any backstory bloat, The Crazies starts cranking up the tension and the paranoia from the opening scene when reformed alcoholic Rory (Mike Hickman) wanders onto an active baseball field brandishing a gun. Believing the man has simply fallen off the wagon a little too hard, sheriff David Dutton (the ever-reliable Timothy Olyphant) tries to reason with him before he’s forced to kill in self-defense. When the toxicology report comes back, however, Rory’s alcohol level is unexpectedly zero.
Things get even more disturbing when another mild-mannered local, Bill (Brett Rickaby), traps his young son and wife in their farmhouse closet before setting the whole building alight; while lesser films might revel in the pair’s agony, Eisner simply lets their harrowing screams do the talking. When the emergency services arrive, the arsonist is busy mowing the lawn without a care in the world. Has the fictional farming town of Ogden Marsh suddenly birthed two psychopaths out of nowhere? Or is there an even more troubling explanation?
Turns out there’s literally something in the water. David and his deputy Russell (Joe Anderson) soon discover a decomposed pilot in a nearby swamp alongside a crashed military plane that had been transporting a biological weapon. The subsequent switching off the town’s H2O supply comes just a little too late. Tough break.
As with the 1973 original, those who become infected don’t turn into your average lurching, brain-dead zombie. Eisner was adamant their look should be “hyper-alive,” full of blood vessels ready to burst at any moment. They’re also a terrifyingly resourceful, intelligent bunch capable of wrong-footing their victims at every turn, and with an impressively wide range of weapons, too. In the film’s most wince-inducing sequence, school principal Ben (Larry Cedar) straps a dozen townsfolk to gurneys before coolly butchering each one with a pitchfork.
Of course, the crazies in the title could just as easily be applied to the military personnel, whose callous disregard for life escalates the situation to entirely avoidable levels. The movie might not be as explicitly political as Romero’s anti-Vietnam War allegory, but the scenes in which crying kids are torn from their mothers and innocent individuals are gunned down by the powers that be ensures The Crazies still resonates on a deeper level.
Best-known for his work with Alexandre Aja, cinematographer Maxime Alexandre also helps retain the ‘70s vibes, his gloomy shots of Iowa’s wide-open spaces and generally grainy aesthetics recalling the classic exploitation movies of the era. There are even echoes of Leatherface during the morgue scene in which a crazed doctor very nearly castrates David with a circular saw.
And while The Crazies avoids the wise-cracking post-modern approach, it’s not entirely without humor. There’s an amusing natural rapport between David and Russell, particularly when it’s not clear what’s turning their patch into a murder hotspot.
Kosar not only gives us characters to care about, but also feeds them dialog which, a few exposition dumps aside, feels refreshingly natural in the outlandish circumstances. “I don’t want to die like this,” screams David’s pregnant wife, Judy (Radha Mitchell), as their getaway vehicle is ambushed by a horde of handsy zombies while trapped inside a car wash. The heroes here aren’t necessarily of the fearless, gung-ho kind. They’re scared, bewildered, and emotionally devastated, and with no master plan other than to get as far away from all the carnage as possible.
Sadly, the remaining survivors’ attempts to evade both the undead and the dead inside prove futile. Having kept things resolutely bleak throughout – this is a film in which a mom and teenage son’s bodies are burned to a crisp within seconds of their brutal murder – a happy ending would have felt like a copout.
David and Judy do manage to escape the infected town just before it’s blown to smithereens by an atomic bomb. Though unknown to them, and the Cedar Rapids newsreader reporting on the toxic mushroom cloud that followed, the containment area is about to expand. It’s a grim denouement, but one that stays true to everything that’s gone before. There’s no safe space in The Crazies, an unsettling yet always compelling B-movie that sits up there with 2004’s Dawn of the Dead in the pantheon of great Romero remakes.
The Crazies is streaming on HBO Max.