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With its lurid title and anti-government paranoia, The Crazies bears the stamps of the 1970s original from the start, but it fits our times remarkably well. We're discovering poison in baby formula from China, so how much of a leap is it to get to tainted drinking water? And when you learn the U.S. government has covered up actual torture, it's no stretch to see them quarantining an entire town just to mask the fact of their own monumental screw-up.
And while Breck Eisner's take on the original George A. Romero film doesn't do much to reinvent horror or paranoid thrillers, it's surprisingly entertaining and even a little smart. Whether it's because of that politically tinged plot or the sheer fact that it's a horror movie about grown-ups, The Crazies refuses to talk down to its audience the way most of its genre would, allowing many of its scares to creep up on us. A handful of jump scares aside, the movie earns its moments of horror with a combination of deft editing, elegant cinematography and an unrelenting sense of dread. It doesn't exactly stick with you, but it's perversely enjoyable all the way through.
Timothy Olyphant gives great hero-face as local sheriff David Dutton, the kind of guy who can shoot a disturbed neighbor in front of an entire baseball game, but feel awful about it afterward. David quickly surmises that his crazy-eyed neighbor was the victim of a plane crash that poisoned the local water supply, and as the water travels through town, they'll all be next. Before he can do much of anything, though, faceless government authorities round up the citizens and separate the healthy from, well, the crazies. David's wife Judy (Radha Mitchell) is mistakenly put with the sick, so with the help of his deputy Russell (Joe Anderson), David stages a jailbreak in a ward full of not just his zombie-like friends and neighbors, but an even worse threat: the U.S. government.
From there David, Judy, Russell and teenager Beeca (Danielle Panabaker) are on foot and trying to escape, plagued by broken cars, lurking crazies, and black government helicopters prepared to shoot first and ask questions never. The movie becomes a sort of haunted house video game, where every new location offers a different kind of foe and different ways to escape. Some are utterly predictable (that truck with blood coming out of it might be full of bodies!), but others, like an attack inside a car wash, make inventive use of the ultimate playground that is an abandoned town.
Olyphant and Mitchell are fairly believable as a couple with only one another to cling to, and while Anderson hams it up a bit with his redneck-with-a-rifle character, he provides most of the film's comic relief as well as the ongoing sense that the danger might be within the group, too. Panabaker does her underwritten part just fine, but several side characters manage to make a much bigger impact, particularly two family members who wind up napalmed on their front lawn by the government-- chilling, but just a touch believable too.
Every time the movie threatens to undo all its good work, by over-relying on scaring the audience by having the lead characters startle one another, or repeating the same gag a few too many times, the emotional and psychological underpinnings of the story come back to save it. What if your neighbors were suddenly turned into killer zombies? What if people you'd wronged in the past were suddenly willing to murder you for it? What if the government just wanted to get rid of you as the evidence? It's not exactly a plausible scenario, but The Crazies makes it feel that way, at least for the length of its taut, thoroughly entertaining running time.