The Crazies is a smart horror movie remake, and there aren't many of those.
Smart because the original 1973 film is fairly obscure, lending an element of surprise rather than disappointment when a remake doesn't measure up to memories.
But also because director Breck Eisner gutted the dull parts of George Romero's movie, replacing talky passages and cheesy kill scenes with imaginative violence. Toss in a budget to buy decent actors and gore effects that Romero couldn't, and The Crazies remake works.
The plot essentially remains the same: Residents of a small farming town begin displaying violent tendencies, which are traced to contamination by a mysterious airborne virus. The source is the Army's new chemical weapon that escaped. Some unaffected citizens try to stay alive while infected neighbors chase them. These aren't flesh-hungry zombies; they just have uncontrollable urges to kill, which is scarier because it's often the nice guy next door who snaps.
Timothy Olyphant (HBO's Deadwood) is Sheriff David Dutton, who senses something going wrong when it's already too late. Before David, his pregnant wife Judy (Rahda Mitchell) and loyal Deputy Russell (Joe Anderson) can high-tail it to anywhere safe, they're rounded up by menacing troops intending to wipe out all witnesses, infected or not.
Romero's version of The Crazies got bogged down with details of the military's conspiracy, making a thematic connection to Vietnam. Eisner works without all that exposition, creating a Kafkaesque predicament; it's creepier when there's no reason for violence to happen, it just does. The new version is leaner and meaner, with enough twisted humor to open with Johnny Cash singing We'll Meet Again, which ended Dr. Strangelove, which has something in common here.
Best kill scenes? The morgue tussle involves a nice gag with a bone saw, and the carwash scene can make you think twice about using a drive-through again. But Eisner isn't exclusively into gross-outs. He finds morbid beauty in the pink mist from a clean head shot, and terror in the sound of a pitchfork scraping the floor rather than its puncturing of flesh.
Sick? Absolutely. Smart? Like few gore flicks, especially remakes, are today.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.