“Old Age and treachery will always beat youth and exuberance.” – David Mamet
America has always been for the young. That’s why the called us “The New World,” a place to escape or shake off the bindings of the past. It’s an attitude so ingrained in our culture that TV shows with 100,000 viewers between 18 and 34 are more lusted after by advertisers than shows with a 1,000,000 viewers over 50. And a focus on youth has a lot to recommend.
But it can also mean living in a world where everything is on the level of a kindergartener’s finger painting or an entry in an adolescent’s diary. And the fact I remember what a “diary” is and expect other people to as well tells you how happy I am living in a world that’s always for the young. There are virtues to maturity and that’s what this edition of KIMT’s Weekend Remake Throwdown is focusing on by pitting one of the lesser-known works of a low-budget master against a remake that had all the money and exuberance it could need. It’s “The Crazies” (1973) vs. “The Crazies” (2010) in a contest that reminds us that treachery can sometimes be another word for wisdom.
Written and directed by the Zombie Godfather (Zombfather?) George A. Romero, “The Crazies” (1973) is about the small community Evans City that turns around one day and finds itself overrun by the U.S. military. It seems a plane transporting a deadly bio-weapon code named “Trixie” crashed nearby and seeped a virus into the town’s water supply. As soldiers corral everyone living in the town and the surrounding area, using both commands and deadly violence, a pair of volunteer firefighters named David (Will MacMillan) and Clank (Harold Wayne Jones) slip away with David’s fiancé Judy (Lane Carroll) and a widower and his adult daughter (Richard Liberty and Lynn Lowry) to try and sneak past the armed noose slowly tightening around Evans City. Time is not on their side, though, as the President has authorized the use of nuclear weapons to vaporize everything if “Trixie” can’t be contained.
One of the most interesting things about the original “The Crazies” is that despite having no cure and either killing everyone it infects or rendering them brutally insane, “Trixie” is not the biggest problem faced by the main characters. The most immediate and persistent threat faced by David and company is their own government that wants to scoop them up and lock them away in the local school with all the other raving loons. While the movie clearly establishes “Trixie’s” deranged victims can be dangerous, the body count racked up by U.S. soldiers is far greater. As they try to escape through the countryside, David and his group aren’t menaced even once by “Trixie” but repeatedly have to deal with military squads trying to kill them.
And one of the other interesting things about this film is that in addition to the trials and tribulations of David and company, the viewer is treated to an entirely separate plot line following the government’s efforts to stop “Trixie” before it imperils the whole country. Romero, as usual, didn’t have much money to make this movie so while we do get some scenes of hazmat clad soldiers in the field, we spend most of the time with men in rooms yelling over the walkie talkie at men in other rooms. And what’s most fascinating is that instead of the vicious diatribe about government secrecy and callous disregard for human life you might expect, Romero gifts the audience with a story about basically good men trying to do the best in an impossible situation.
Given the era it was made and that “The Crazies” makes clear references to both the Kent State Massacre and the self-immolation protests of Buddhist monks in Vietnam, it’s a remarkably restrained and nuanced take on the subject matter. Well, nuanced in between all the screaming and people getting shot. There’s a scene where some government officials are discussing what story to give the public to cover up what’s happening in Evans City. One suggests something about a radiation leak because it could help explain the aftermath if they have to nuke to town to prevent the virus from spreading. The other officials are kind of appalled at his cavalier consideration of killing hundreds of American citizens but the guy responds that he’s not a monster, he’s just trying to solve the problem in front of them and does anyone have a better idea?
When things go wrong in “The Crazies” (1973), it’s not because anyone is stupid or inept. It’s seemingly reasonable decisions made in a time of crisis which ultimately have negative consequences that would have been difficult if not impossible to foresee. That’s because George A. Romero, whatever his personal opinions about things, was old and treacherous enough to understand that a crisis is never about one person having perfect knowledge and the power to make every important decision. It’s about countless people making countless individual decisions without knowing how they’ll work out or what anyone else is deciding.
Instead of some simplistic anti-Vietnam War/anti-government parable, “The Crazies” (1973) is a remarkably adult tale of mistakes beyond anyone’s control and the ordinary people who get ground up by them. Well…remarkably adult with a smattering of nudity, depravity, and as much violence and gore as Romero could afford to put on the screen. He was trying to make some money, after all.
That was the same motivation for the people behind “The Crazies” (2010). Making money. The level of maturity brought to the task, unfortunately, was quite different. Transplanting the story from a real town in Pennsylvania to the fictional Ogden Marsh, Iowa, the remake is notable for having a legitimately great first 30 minutes. It does begin with the beyond-tired-even-in-2010 cliché of showing us Ogden Marsh destroyed and then the screen goes to black, “Two Days Earlier.” Can we all agree to just dispense with that dead tired and worn out convention?
What follows that is some genuinely gripping filmmaking about a local sheriff (Timothy Olyphant) having to shoot the town drunk when he walks into the middle of a high school baseball game with a shotgun, a man setting fire to his house with his wife and son locked inside, and David discovering a mysterious plane crashed into the swampland around Ogden Marsh that supplies the town with its water. Because if there’s one thing Iowa is known for, it’s our swamp land.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the first 30 minutes of “The Crazies” (2010) not only looks far better but is better performed and better executed than anything in Romero’s original. One of the reasons low-budget auteurs like him are admired is their genius had to outshine cheap production values, primitive equipment, and bottom-of-the-barrel acting talent. Director Breck Eisner had so many practical and logistical advantages over Romero that it’s almost unfair to compare them…at least for the first 30 minutes of the remake. After that? It still looks great but everything of value in “The Crazies” (2010) peters away as the story falls to dust.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say the last 71 minutes of the remake don’t even qualify as a story. There are some moments. There are some scenes. But a series of events intelligently connected from one to the other and holding some greater meaning than just getting from Point A to Point B? Nah. Screenwriters Scott Kosar and Ray Wright shot their wad right away and had nothing to follow it.
To start with, there’s no real tension in those last 71 minutes because the clock is never ticking. “The Crazies” (1973) tells the audience the military is creating a cordon around Evans City, herding everyone into the high school, and keeping them there until they either find a cure for “Trixie” or nuke the town. That not only established what David and company are getting away from but that they need to do it quickly in order to survive. The remake doesn’t explain what’s making people insane or what the government is doing until it’s more than halfway over and the threat of nuking the town is introduced about 60 seconds before it happens. The result is that unless Timothy Olyphant and his co-stars are actually being attacked by someone, there’s no tension in watching them on screen. You can’t worry about how threatened characters are if you don’t know what’s threatening them and you can’t worry if they’ll make it if there’s no deadline they have to beat.
There’s also a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the 2010 script. “The Crazies” (1973) used the insanity-producing virus as the excuse for the military to roll in and start bossing people around and shooting people who didn’t do as they were told. The central conflict of the film is between the main characters and the military, with our putative heroes trying to save their own lives while the government’s extreme actions are theoretically to save the lives of millions of other people. There’s a real question as to whether either side is entirely right or wrong and that’s the dramatic fuel that makes the original motion picture work.
“The Crazies” (2010) spends its last 71 minutes running on empty. In the remake, the military shows up 30 minutes in and then quickly vanishes, barely appearing for the rest of the film. The sheriff and a band of survivors spend the bulk of the movie being directly menaced by either murderous virus-victims or by the virus itself. The remake is all about how dangerous the virus is. But the more the script emphasizes that, the more it justifies any excessive action taken by the military to contain it. Yet the remake also blatantly paints the military/government as evil. They are clearly portrayed as the bad guys while the movie simultaneously elevates the danger confronting those “bad guys.” Imagine “Star Wars” where the Rebels are fighting the Empire but the Empire is also the only thing protecting the galaxy from an invasion of genocidal aliens. For the remake’s morality play to work, the viewer has to ignore the threat that’s slapping them in the face to focus on another threat that’s absent for most of the film.
There are other little problems with “The Crazies” (2010), like the military being omnicompetent until the plot needs them to not be, or the sheriff getting stabbed with a knife completely through his hand and then using that hand for the rest of the movie like nothing’s wrong. There are loads of virus victims who are supposed to be insane but become conveniently rational whenever required by the plot. And the remake tries to replicate the story arc of a character from the original but does so in such an amateurish and pointless way that I can’t understand why they even bothered.
“The Crazies” (1973) takes this Throwdown because for all its financial limitations, it was made by a grownup who looked at the world around him with grownup eyes. “The Crazies” (2010) wasn’t made by adults. Or if they were, they made something for an audience they didn’t think were adults. It’s like the work of a bright teenager who isn’t nearly as smart as he thinks he is. The work may have its charms but it’s ultimately disappointing.
The Crazies (1973)
Written and directed by George A. Romero.
Starring Will MacMillan, Lane Carroll, Harold Wayne Jones, Lloyd Hollar, Lynn Lowry, Richard Liberty, Richard France, Harry Spillman, Will Disney, Edith Bell, Bill Thunrhurst, and Leland Starnes.
The Crazies (2010)
Written by Scott Kosar and Ray Wright.
Directed by Breck Eisner.
Starring Timothy Olyphant, Radha Mitchell, Joe Anderson, Daniell Panabaker, Christie Lynn Smith, Brett Rickaby, Preston Bailey, John Aylward, Joe Reegan, Mike Hickman, Lisa K. Wyatt, and Justin Welborn.