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Paranoia Cuts Deep in ‘The Crazies’

The sleepy town of Ogden Marsh, Iowa – the “friendliest place on earth,” as its roughly 1,250 residents are fond of saying – is about to undergo an extreme makeover. It begins, inauspiciously enough, with the town drunk, who wanders onto the baseball field on Opening Day, armed with a shotgun and a thousand-yard stare. From there, things go downhill fast.

David (Timothy Olyphant, of HBO’s Deadwood) is the levelheaded sheriff responsible for cleaning up the carnage as madness grips the locals one by one, turning even the gentlest into savages. (This being Iowa, their weapons of mass destruction include pitchforks and corn shredders.) It’s a scenario familiar to fans of post-apocalyptic terror, who in recent years have seen humanity turn on itself, with consistently ghoulish results, in movies like 28 Days Later and George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead.

Romero, whose Living Dead movies have inspired countless imitations over four-plus decades, directed the original Crazies in 1973, and though Breck Eisner’s slick-looking remake seems less concerned with social satire than with bloodcurdling chills, Romero’s unsettling paranoia endures.

The psychosis sweeping Ogden Marsh is not supernatural. Biochemical bacteria, engineered by the government as the latest weapon in America’s rapidly growing arsenal, has contaminated the town’s water supply. The Army’s response is swift and merciless: Contain the outbreak by slaughtering the locals, even those who show no sign of infection.

David and Judy, his pregnant wife (Radha Mitchell, of Surrogates), are among the few lucky enough to keep their heads, literally and otherwise, as the military mows down their friends and neighbors. Can they escape Ogden Marsh intact? David has his doubts, but he’s desperate enough to keep trying, even as legions of killers descend on two fronts.

Perhaps the biggest surprise about The Crazies is Eisner’s reluctance to tweak the original formula by adding gratuitous gore. The movie earns its scares the old-fashioned way – it’s more a taut psychological thriller than a geek show. And in doing away with its predecessor’s reliance on dialogue to make clear its ideological thrust, Eisner has crafted a leaner and more effective film.

Credit the likable Olyphant with giving David and Judy’s struggle with the intensity it requires. As in Deadwood, Olyphant rises to the occasion as an authority figure under siege, a reassuring presence in a world gone mad.

Compelled to protect his town from the same government operatives whose warmongering and incompetence have transformed a quiet community into a mass grave, David is the calming force at the eye of the movie’s storm, determined to preserve some measure of sanity even after the concept has become laughable. But what choice does he have? If the zombies don’t get him, the Army’s faceless hit men will.

The Crazies is neither a brilliant nor a necessary remake, but it’s slyly thought-provoking, tapping into our fears of anarchy and viral outbreak. In a time when the threat seems omnipresent and distrust of the government runs rampant, Romero’s paranoia still resonates.