The Crazies (Breck Eisner, 2010)

Most cinema is far too vague, far too populist to be taken seriously as critical essays on the state of our society. I’d even venture to say, at least in it’s mainstream incarnation, to even attempt to make some crucial political point is pretentious… Yes, I’ve joined the ranks of the elitist witch-hunts. Those damned elitists… cinema should be about escape, not your fucking agenda! Wait, that’s not what I mean at all. What I mean is, the films that aren’t shoving ideas down our throat are far more interesting as critical and reflective documents about the current state of the world we live in. The question always remains, do we take queues about “normal” behaviour from cinema, or does is it simply a mirror to our true selves? The easy, uncomplicated answer is probably that it’s a hybrid of both…

In horror, there is an opportunity to really understand the emotional state of a nation. More than most genres, it’s easy to map out pervading anxieties and social pre-occupations within the horror genre that are probably far more telling and apt than the year’s big message picture. What does The Crazies say about us? Not much that we haven’t seen before, at least from an anthropological point of view. What do we fear? The Millitary, chemical/biological warfare, social dissolve, government conspiracies, etc. You only have to look at films like 28 Weeks Later or the Mist to get an understanding of what I’m getting at. The Crazies perhaps refines some of these ideas, bringing them to new and perhaps outrageous extremes. We have soldiers in masks, who if they show their face will “die”. One of the characters speculates that perhaps the disease is now airborne, but this seems to be refuted by the protagonist’s apparent survival. They will die because they need to remain anonymous; they have to be an institution, not an individual. A face is dissent; dissent is unacceptable in every and any respect.

What other extremes? We have soldiers’ shooting down innocent people in 28 Weeks Later. It’s disturbing. We have that in The Crazies? What else do we have in The Crazies? We have organized killing. Not a random call, an act of impulse that is refuted… we have organized murder. The Holocaust is never mentioned, but the charred bodies piled up, the medical bracelet’s still around their wrists, we understand the association. These are images that never fade.

We no longer trust government institutions. They have the weapons, they have the man-power, they have the violence. We can fight back, but for how long? If our government can wage an unjust war, one that the people do not agree with, one that the people find abhorrent, what else can they do? If people are dying in the streets, and they do nothing, how are we supposed to respond? Even with new government, we have lost faith in the safety net that the government provides. We may no longer be in a cold war, but the sentiments of repression and fear have been re-ignited. Institutional violence is and always has been the most widely accepted kind of violence, since it is most often perceived as being “what’s best” for us. The enemies and the methods fluctuate but it remains a social constant. Sometimes the scales tip though, and people become aware or wary of what is happening. What was once sure is now a carefully veiled “conspiracy” and paranoia ensues.

It is not the individual who is responsible, because individually, we find this behaviour abhorrent. We know it’s wrong, and we would never commit ourselves to such violence. You assemble a mob though, or an organization, and it suddenly becomes easier… suddenly, it’s no longer violence, but an act of the State. This is essentially what we fear most. We fear that we are a part of these institutions that we knowingly engage in the “machination of death”.

What about form? The Crazies form is better than it ought to be. As potentially interesting as the screenplay may be, it is somewhat repetitive.  The editing is spot on, absolutely precise to inspire the strongest reaction from the audience. There are very few shots that are superfluous, which I have to say is absolutely refreshing. The horror is succinct, the way that it ought to be. Tonally, the film is wonderful. Though some of the imagery, notably some that I’ve mentioned, is disturbing, the film never takes on a tone of overt-seriousness, which is an almost unforgiveable crime in horror. Both Joe Anderson and Timothy Olyphant seem to have an unconscious understanding of the nature of horror writing, and spike many of the phrases and actions with a giddy kind of levity. Despite the horror that surrounds them, they never allow it to remove the sheer absurdity of the trappings of genre cinema either. Aside from a bit too much chase and fight, chase and fight, the film’s only other major “malfunction” is the use of the satellite POV… it’s ridiculous and feels out of place. It makes some interesting reveals, but is poorly executed, and feels as though formally, it belongs in a different film. Overall, I liked the film, especially for it’s outrageousness. It’s effectively scary, and pulls off a bunch of crazy shit that I normally wouldn’t let fly.

Or maybe the film is simply a deluded fantasy concocted by the Sheriff as a means of handling his own act of violence at the onset of the film. It’s a disease, we are not capable of real violence… a bit outrageous, and as much as I hate crazy readings of films, I think it’s one worth considering. The CRAZIES in the film remain somewhat human, they have memories and affectations. They are not soulless monsters, they are too close to being one of us, to the point where we are unsure who is and isn’t one of them. The line becomes more blurry as the film progresses, which I find ultimately fascinating. The film plays with these expectations and tricks constantly, and to a very disturbing effect.

13 responses to “The Crazies (Breck Eisner, 2010)

  1. Drat, another Romero remake! –I hope he’s getting paid from *this* one . . .

    Robin Wood was interested in this film, I think he thought fairly highly of it, though not as well as the Living Dead films (trilogy and then “Diary”!). Definitely he was interested in the issues of our culpability over our violent urges, as well as to what extent Authority projects its own inclinations for violence onto the ‘disorderly’ elements in society (this makes me think again of a recent piece somewhere about the British authorities’ use of blasting Classical music at metro stations and the like to drive away loitering youths. Now, I happen to think British youth are particularly loitery, unpleasant and distasteful, but are sonic whistles, blinding lights and now Mozart proper tools for dealing with the ‘Youth Problem’?!?)

    Maybe that’s “Crazies”esque behavior or not! But I hope, as I always do when these remakes float about (so they’re doing Suspiria after all, eh?), that somebody might throw a bone to the original filmmakers who are still working. John Carpenter, can he get a job? And Romero, will there be a general release for “Survival of the Dead”? (or is that already on dvd?!).

    Sheesh. Ok, I really do wonder why these remakes get done at all. Maybe the Old Masters are flattered and well-paid too, one could hope. But one could also hope the teenyboppers would take advantage of netflix and actually watch canonical films instead of needing a spoonfeed digitized ‘update’.

    PS. I still think the scene in “Juno” where she gets converted from Suspiria to that Z-grade goreflick (whatever it was) is dangerously indicative, not only of Smartypants McStripper (*what’s* her name?)– Diablo Cody, but of the rest of the horrorhipster dilletantes out there– they think horror is somehow, you know, *ironic*, or about laughing while stoned or something, instead of an emblem of the sublime. And that’s my jeremiad for the day! . . .

  2. Also, in this case, I have not seen the original film. I’m pretty mixed on Romero. As much as I like Dawn and Night, I am okay on Day, and don’t like Martin at all. I’ve turned off his more recent adventures in zombies.

  3. Wonderful writeup, and quite agree with you on most points. I actually watched the film a second time tonight, and it was better this time around. I was more relaxed in terms of anticipating the scares, and just more observed the events as they unfolded, although some scenes still shock no matter what. There’s a more to this movie than just gore and jolts. It is lean and never really lags. Hell we get our first scene of horror not five minutes into the film. And I think something needs to be said for Olyphant’s performance…he was quite effective, showing bravado within his every-man demeanor. He’s made me a fan.

    First viewing: 7.5/10
    Second viewing: 8/10

  4. You did love the remake of “The Last House on the Left”, so I can see you’re getting some benefit out of this bumper-crop of remakes!

    I guess I overstate if I sound like I have an objection “in principle” to remakes– my problem is more along the lines of, it’s so unpredictable, it gives me a cynical resignation along the lines of “oh, they’ll try anything” (cf. Soderbergh’s Solaris, which Aurelle– *big* bone of contention between the two of us!–prefers to Tarkovski) and a kind of possessive love that wants to rescue one’s beloved film from the fire of a hack-remake. Plus you know you could go into a room full of teenagers (I just typed ‘fool’–haha, Freudian slip!) and try to make some big point about cinema or society drawing on “Dawn of the Dead” and they’d just look at you blankly and finally, quizzically ask, “oh you mean the OLD one?!? . . . .” That kind of thing just kills me.

    Romero does seem uneven, though I’m sure budget constraints have been a big part of this. Wood seemed to struggle to find any strong merit in most of the non-”Dead” films (I would love to see the monkey movie again, though). I guess his Exec. Producer nod means he got the check!

    Pardon my gabbyness, I’m much too wired for this time of night. It’s snowed and perhaps I won’t go out tomorrow– laundry can wait till Thursday? Lasagnas in the freezer!!

  5. Interesting, Rouge.
    I’ve been asked to give a lecture on how horror films reflect our communal fears and document the history of the national apprehensions over the 20th Century into the 21st, to the LSU Medical School’s Psychiatry department, so this IS my kinda topic. I was just mulling over an essay I may write on Apocalypse Now and all the different little ways it expresses who and what we feared we had become in 1979, and thinking how Coppola did this without making the agenda so obvious at all (for possible inclusion in the lecture, if time permits). It’s really timeless and yet also a snapshot of a particular time.
    But I would argue, as an elitist, that films with obvious political and social agendas are actually BENEATH the true elitist for discussion. A film like New Jack City is not in the same intellectual league as The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and yet both actually have an equally strong socio-politial message.

    Horror is generally an excellent example of this, because the “message” is frequently completely over the head of film critics, because they expect it to be beneath them. They’re looking in the wrong direction.
    But if you read Philliips’ PROJECTED FEARS or Stephen King’s DANSE MACABRE, you will find incontrovertible explanation and discussion of how and why horror films may be the BEST barometer of our national mood. From the xenophobia so obvious in DRACULA, to the EXORCIST’s reaction to parents’ loss of their children to a new counterculture they feared and could not understand, to the intensely grim tone of terrorism-era horrors like HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, FUNNY GAMES, HAUTE TENSION, and WOLF CREEK, horror seems a fairly literal translation of our collective concerns. Take for example the rise in “home invasion” horrors after the US was attacked on its own soil. Pretty literal stuff.

    Yet NONE of these films is overt about its message, and the elitist critic ALWAYS seems to overlook how the pulse of the nation and perhaps the world is frequently taken by the horror film and not the Academy nominee.

  6. Oh, and I’d also like to say that your review is better than Ebert’s.

    He misses the point (as he usually does with horror). You don’t.

    Bravo.

  7. Wooley, you make some very interesting points nad have, I think, a very promising lecture on your hands which I daresay readers will appreciate a posting of somewhere online!

    I remember well the passages in “Danse Macabre” to which you refer: if memory serves, he used Romero’s Dawn of the Dead as an instance of liberal vs. conservative responses to horror (Pauline Kael walks out during the first reel, while– not the Boston Globe, surely? but some paper of a right-leaning bent, puts the film on the front page of the Arts section). King’s gist, I think, goes with the intuition that overtly secular mindsets don’t want to admit to themselves all the irrationalities bubbling up inside their own heads, or in the ‘natural’ world around us– though King may have leaned too heavily upon this thought, since he seems to have convinced himself that Kubrick’s “The Shining” doesn’t ‘work’ because Kubrick is an atheist . . .

    I don’t mean to make *too* much of an expressly ideological spectrum of response to horror, but it’s true that a sort of generic liberal like Roger Ebert, who doles out a lot of 4-star reviews for generic Oscar sap (though not Godfather II!) seldom gets horror, or anything else that’s truly emotionally strenuous. I haven’t kept score of how he rates Indiewood these days, but I can just imagine him gushing over Little Miss Sunshine or 500 Days of Summer. I’d rather have the horror remakes instead!

    That said, since Wooley has bravely pronounced his elitist credentials (which more than pass muster with me!), I will fearlessly admit that I just don’t get most of these sans coulotte [is that how the plebs spell it?] horrors nowadays. I’m not as Apollonian in my tastes as Camille Paglia, who thinks zombies reflect a northern European body-phobia and puritanical lust for self-soiling, but still, what horror today crosses my path looks so *grungy*. Someone needs to put the haute back in horreur.

  8. If you think I’m gonna post a text version of a 50-minute lecture, you’re insane! ;p
    I’ll give you the Cliff’s notes, god knows I’ve written enough down for 10 50-minute lectures. If I brush up I can probably do a separate lecture on each decade and how the evolution of the public mood over the course of a decade (for example, say, from Altamont, through Watergate, post-Vietnam, the energy-crisis and rampant inflation, and finally the transition into the 80s) is documented in the horror films of that time (say, from the fading of the comparatively innocent Hammer to the grisly underground response that was The Last House On The Left, to the mainstream-shocking Exorcist, and the leap even from there to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Jaws, the invasion of the quiet neighborhood by Michael Meyers, and the explosion of the slasher). Hell, I could easily do 50 minutes just on the 70s children-gone-wrong genre (Exorcist, Omen, Exorcist II, Omen II, The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane, Carrie, The Brood, etc.).
    If people take time to think about it, it’s usually fairly clear and obvious, but as Emma points out, horror rarely beats you over the head with it.
    Hell, it’s been postulated by many that most horror films are not aware that they are channelling societies true concerns.

    As far as King and Danse Macabre, it’s a fairly schizophrenic book, so one must extract what one can. Specifically, with regard to The Shining, he refers to it as both an excellent film and a complete miss in the same volume. The whole affair is sullied by his own arrogance throughout, but if one can wade through it, there is gold in them there hills, especially in his discussions of the horror and sci-fi of the 50s and 60s. But here I was specifically invoking his insights on The Exorcist and Carrie.

    I think that Ebert is fairly legit, and I think his reviews of The Last House On The Left and The Devil’s Rejects show that he can have an open and thoughtful mind on these things, even decades apart, but he still doesn’t “get” horror outside of that made by Hitchcock or Polanski, he just seems to occasionally get a whiff of it. He never got the slasher, and he never will. But his reviews of The Deer Hunter and Grave of the Fireflies equally vindicate him. He’s willing to take some punishment in the name of art.

    And I think what you’re experiencing (that bit about Paglia is hilarious; how the erudite can so often miss the obvious while mulling about in their own conceits), is simply a normal reaction to the horror that reflects the feelings of today. It doesn’t gel with me either. I’m just too old.

  9. So much to catch up on! This is what I get for neglecting my blog for just a few days!

    Mark: Strangely enough, even as someone who is very sensitive to horror, I didn’t find the Crazies particularly scary. I don’t mean this as a criticism, because I find the film entirely compelling nonetheless, but it’s just an observation worth marking. I think Olyphant is great, though I am a fairly big fan at this point. He has a very compelling screen presence.

    Jason: Remakes can be interesting. Often unfortunate, but just a bit of interest is fun.
    I can understand what you mean, then again, I have had to learn often times to abandon any concepts of how people around me look and understand film. It’s not really an outright dismissal of their opinions, but an understanding that their passion does not match my own. Just as I would hope they don’t take my ideas and conversations about math for anything more than a fool’s rambling.

    Wooley: Sounds like a very interesting lecture, and there is a huge amount of available material. I think horror film is such an interesting kind of social measure. Your mention of home invasions are interesting, and very true. I also think, looking at how zombies have transformed from the undead to the “infected” is a very telling change in society. How the government and military reacts to these moments of crisis also seems to be a fairly new trend that I don’t really see reflected in horror films from the previous decades. It’s incredibly misanthropic and anarchic. I love it.

  10. Rouge, I’m tickled with your delightfully enthusiastic concluding lines (“It’s incredibly misanthropic and anarchic. I love it.”); truly, it is after my own heart to juxtapose such grim comforts in such a delighted way! If I see renewed evidence of such misanthropic sentiments in current films, I will have to give them fresh attention.

    I’ll have to think, though, about whether this focus on dastardly military/governmental responses is entirely novel or just an ongoing thing. You’re right, of course, to point out that ‘infection’ in a naturalized, biologic sense (as with the plague in the 28 Days/Weeks series) is a very different set-up than the inexplicable return of the dead in Romero’s pics. But if we set that aside for a moment, there’s plenty of portrayal of the failed and morally faulty response of police, military and the ‘experts’ in at least the first 3 Living Dead entries (Land of the Dead is more about a freelance kind of ‘government’ and mercenaries, of course commenting in part on run-amok capitalism as well as aspects of the war in Iraq).

    I’m thinking too of Stephen King’s The Stand, which I’ve been intermittently reading in its 1980 version (for various reasons, arguably superior to the 1990 ‘revision’). I’m not too keen on it anyway, in part because (among other failings) the run of the plague feels pretty much like a long set of vignettes about just such military responses– martial slayings, fragging reprisals, in a tedious series. Or one could think of DePalma’s The Fury, or other films with secretive govt. agencies or programs run amok. But maybe there is a new emphasis on more ‘public’ sorts of malfeasance– uniformed military as opposed to cloak&dagger type people? That may be, but I don’t know.

    Of course, I’m totally out of my league on contemporary horror films, so I should defer to your judgment anyway! I’d be interested to see you and Wooley follow up on the home invasion motifs. Wooley, you may have to produce a book-length collection of essays, decade by decade, out of your material. I sense that writing your lecture is more a question of producing the ‘Reader’s Digest’ version of stuff you’ve already composed.

  11. I would just mention that as far as the infection thing is concerned, The Crazies is originally from 1973, and The Andromeda Strain was released in ’71, written in ’69, so I’m not so sure how much of a sign o’ THESE times, that “infection” them is.

  12. Excellent review, by the way. And I think that this is one of the better horror remakes in recent memory, as well. Unlike some recent horror movies the gore is properly ultilized, and the acting is surprisingly solid as well. The car wash scene sticks out the most, if only because its freaky despite taking place in the day-a rather risky bit that pays off quite well.

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