Interview: The Crazies Director Breck Eisner

Timothy Olyphant stars in The Crazies
(Image credit: Participant, Paramount Vantage, Overture Films)

Thanks to a handful of sloppy remakes, the concept of a horror reboot has gotten a bad rap. Will Breck Eisner’s attempt at modernizing George A. Romero’s The Crazies be any different? Until I get a peek, it’s impossible to know for sure, but based on my chat with Eisner, it certainly has potential.

In the original film, a top-secret biological weapon is accidently released and contaminates the water supply of Evans City, Pennsylvania. We watch the action unfold and the townsfolk go mad from two points of view: a group of survivors trying to outrun the virus and the military desperately working to contain it. In Eisner’s version, the premise remains the same, but the focus shifts to another quaint town, Ogden Marsh. Eisner also opts to change the points of view. Rather than depict the catastrophe from two ends of the spectrum, he’s keeping the focus on the few townsfolk who retain their sanity, played by Timothy Olyphant, Radha Mitchell, Joe Anderson and Danielle Panabaker.

It may not sound like much, but this will ultimately make his version of The Crazies far different from its predecessor. Will this be the key to making it a successful reboot? My hopes are high, but we’ll find out for sure when The Crazies hits theaters on February 26th. For now, check out what Eisner told me about making the film his own while still having it honor the source material.

Were you a fan of the original before you got involved with this film?

I wouldn’t say necessarily a fan, like hardcore fan in terms of some of the ones I’ve met, but I knew the movie. I’d seen it as a kid and remembered it. I’m definitely a fan of Romero and some of his better-known works. When I was first approached by [producers] Michael Aguilar and Dean Georgaris about remaking The Crazies, I’d remembered as a kid seeing it on an old VHS tape so the fact that I remembered it I thought was a good sign.

How closely do you stick to the 1973 version?

We definitely stuck true to the themes and the concepts and the heart and soul of the movie, but there are a lot of things that changed about it. We changed the point of view of the movie. It was this bifurcated point of view originally of the military and the townsfolk and then kind of excised the military’s point of view in the movie and kept it exclusively on the townsfolk’s point of view. It’s also a significantly bigger budgeted movie, although still a small budget by Hollywood’s standards. That ends up making a difference in the execution of the movie.

I like that you pay homage to the original by keeping the character names.

[Laughs] That’s an easy thing to keep the same!

I just saw a UK poster for the film that’s strikingly different from the US material in terms of gore. Is The Crazies going to be heavy on the blood and guts or go more for a thrilling scare?

It is significantly different. The movie is a horror thriller. It’s intense and aggressive and there’s gore and violence during the moments in the movie that are horror peaks in the film, but by terms of let’s say the Saw terms of movies, I wouldn’t say it’s as gory and gruesome as that. It’s certainly got a clear R-rated gore level to the movie.

So it’s scary but not grotesquely overdone.

Definitely not. It’s definitely scary, or at least I think so. My mom does. But it’s not grotesquely overdone, certainly not. I’m a big fan of horror movies but my interest in horror movies is definitely one that is rooted in the late 60s, 70s and early 80s films like The Shining, The Exorcist, The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby, John Carpenter’s The Thing. Those are movies that I really am drawn to and the ones where there’s strong character and character relationships and a world you’re brought into and a journey that you go on with the characters. It’s not just about the violence and the graphic nature of the movie; all that services the movie, but it’s really ultimately more about the story itself and the themes and the characters.

Have you seen Paranormal Activity? That’s one of few recent horror movies I can think of that successfully resorts to something other than gore to scare you.

I need to see Paranormal Activity. I have not seen it yet so I don’t know if it’s similar to it, but it’s a bigger budget! I know that! That’s the thing that really appealed to me about doing The Crazies. As a kid, the greatest horror-going experience I ever had was seeing Carpenter’s The Thing. I saw it in the theater, I remember it clearly and I remember being terrified for weeks after. What was so terrifying was this concept of having these people you’re stuck with that you trust, that you can count on and then all of a sudden they become your greatest enemy and you don’t know who you can trust because you don’t know if these people are who they really were, if they’ve been changed. The Crazies taps into that concept; this idea of your friends or your neighbors or your husband or wife or even your children, the people who you trust most in life suddenly become these violent threats to you. I think it really connects to a primal fear that exists in people from a very young age. Maybe being outcast in high school and maybe having your best friend turn on you for no apparent reason, although not obviously [in a] violent aggressive way, but emotionally and I think that fear of isolation is one that really feeds an interesting thematic idea in a horror movie.

That sounds like a high school horror movie in the making to me.

There you go. Exactly! There’s a pitch. I’ll pitch that next week!

How’d the Lynn Lowry cameo come about?

I actually really am a fan of some of her work and loved her in the original and I wanted her to be in the movie. I thought that would be a nice nod to the original. And also I thought it’d be cool to meet her and have her on set and get a bunch of stories about Romero and the original film and get to ask her a lot of questions while we were shooting the scene.

It’s a pretty effective scene to have included in the trailer, particularly for someone who’s seen the original.

It’s so funny, that got debated a lot within the studio about the inclusion of that because it’s a total non sequitur that scene - woman riding a bike singing a hymn – and taken out of context it’s really out there. That was what I liked about it and I was glad that people picked up it.

What was the make-up process like? Were there certain things that were particularly important to you when it came to creating the infected townsfolk?

Yeah, Rob Hall did the designs and the execution of it and one of our main goals was to make sure they’re iconic, but also not seem like they were zombies. In the movie these people are clearly not zombies, they don’t have a singular goal like eating brains or infecting another person. The people, when they’re infected, retain their own individuality. It’s this toxin called Trixie that unleashes deep seeded rage that exists within each person differently and so I wanted to make sure the makeup reflected that and reflected the idea that these people are alive. It was more about veins that are enhanced because of the aggressive flow of the blood. We used diseases like tetanus where all the musculature and muscles in the body tighten and stay tightened as another signpost to guide our designs.

Perri Nemiroff

Staff Writer for CinemaBlend.