A true story: February 2010, a good friend and I headed out on a Saturday afternoon to catch the remake of George Romero’s 1973 The Crazies. Though in high school, we were both of age to see the R-rated feature. We’d never been ID’d previously but there is a first time for everything and sure enough, we are both asked for our driver’s licenses at the box office. From my first viewing, I absolutely loved The Crazies. So much so, I asked my girlfriend (now wife) out on a date to see it for herself. She didn’t turn 17 until June of that year, but what are the chances we are asked again? High, apparently, because we were turned away immediately. Months later, The Crazies was released on DVD and for the first time ever, I was ID’d at the checkout counter!
While it might not appear so strange with no background on my local theatre or department store, I couldn’t figure out the sudden stringent age policy surrounding The Crazies. That same friend and I witnessed unaccompanied kindergartners running around the same theatre during a screening of Jennifer’s Body, released just a few months earlier in September. The Crazies had no nudity or sexual content. Gore wasn’t a real major factor. So what was it? Well, I have a theory.
“Because the film was grounded deeper in plausibility, particularly relating to the military quarantine, the MPAA (I believe) took it’s R rating more seriously.”
There was something about The Crazies that separated itself from the likes of, say, Jennifer’s Body, or Night of the Living Dead. Very few characteristics of the film escaped the boundaries of plausible reality. No flesh eating zombies of the living dead, no supernatural demons or ghosts, no indestructible serial killers. In The Crazies, though unlikely, most everything that happened in the fictional town of Ogden Marsh, Iowa could theoretically happen today. Sure, creative licenses are used and situations undergo dramatizations but the fact remains: Just because what you see in the film may be exaggerated, doesn’t mean you’re home free from it. Because the film was grounded deeper in plausibility (particularly relating to the military quarantine, the MPAA (I believe) took it’s R rating more seriously.
The 2010 remake of The Crazies, through superb filmmaking and a conceivable premise, stands out among the countless other apocalyptic-outbreak films due to its sanity. Good luck finding your way through that dense fog of irony. From the fictional virus itself to the military response it prompts, I’ll cover exactly what makes the film one of horror’s finest, most unusual pieces. First, a quick refresher. Spoilers Ahead!
Strange, deadly occurrences begin to plague the town of Ogden Marsh, Iowa. Sheriff David Dutten (Timothy Olyphant) is forced to kill town local and notorious drunk Rory Hamill after the man walks into a high school baseball game with a shotgun. The next day, David’s wife and town physician Judy Dutten (Radha Mitchell), examines a local farmer who’s wife brought him in for exhibiting strange behavior. Meanwhile, Rory’s autopsy confirms his blood alcohol level to be 0.0. Later that night, the farmer burns down his home with his family trapped inside, and firemen arrive to find him out mowing his lawn.
After discovering a dead pilot and his crashed airplane at the edges of town, all communication is severed, and the US military begins a massive hostile quarantine of the area. Sealed off from the outside world, the military sets up a massive concentration camp to separate the infected from the sick. With no antidote, the infected are resigned to a fate of raging, homicidal behavior before certain death within three days. Judy is mistakenly labeled as infected due to an elevated temperature from her pregnancy. David returns with Russell to free her and the others, and begin their journey out of the military quarantine to nearby Cedar Rapids.
Realizing he’s infected, Russell sacrifices himself to allow David and Judy to sneak past a checkpoint. While fighting past some of the infected citizens, they realize that even those labeled “clean” and organized for evacuation were exterminated anyway. Barely escaping Ogden Marsh before a nuclear weapon is detonated on the town, a military satellite finds the two on the outskirts of Cedar Rapids, and initiates another quarantine on the larger city.
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The Small Town Environment
A change from the 1973 original, the 2010 The Crazies takes place in the fictional town of Ogden Marsh, Iowa. While the location name may be fictional, director Breck Eisner truly captured the small-town Midwest environment like few movies have. I grew up in South Dakota, surrounded on all sides by towns with populations ranging from 7 (seven!) to 4,000 citizens. Everybody knows who you are. In most cases, yes, there is a Rory Hamill-type town drunk. High school sports dominate the community. Having been around my father-in-law, a former state’s attorney for a small county, the dialogue between Sheriff Dutton and Deputy Clank perfectly encapsulate rural America. Per example via the script:
Russell: You know, last week, Travis Quinn was going around saying he heard something crash out by Hopman Bog. I didn’t think nothing of it–
David: On account of him being full of shit?
Russell: As a general rule.
Painting an accurate portrait of the Midwest, Eisner avoided falling into the typical Hollywood misconception that the area is entirely dominated by hillbillies, country music, and Friday night barn dances. My biasness aside, it simply is not. You’re way more likely to find a Principal Sandborn or Dr. Judy Dutton here instead of the Sawyer family from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That being said, I have never seen anything like Mayor Hobbs’s in-ground swimming pool mere feet from tilled cropland. That’s a bit of a head-scratcher.
Coined “Crazies” by the occupying soldiers, the infected aren’t your regular zombies. In fact, they can’t really be classified as “zombies” at all. Separating themselves from the undead, flesh eating humans that dominate the genre, crazies don’t re-animate from death. Like a typical virus, those infected with “Trixie” merely get sick over a 48 hour incubation period. They don’t increase in superhuman speed, such as those infected by the “rage” virus in 28 Days Later. They don’t become desperate for human flesh like the zombies of Dawn of the Dead. Rather, the crazies are simply regular human beings with fictional exacerbated aggression and a host of non-fictitious symptoms. I’ll get into just how close to reality a virus like “Trixie” could be shortly.
Even more terrifying, the crazies don’t become mindless, stumbling Neanderthals. Instead, they maintain a large amount of motor skills and intelligence. Once infected, the poaching hunters who discover the dead pilot turn their sights away from ducks and onto their fellow neighbors. Rory Hamill’s wife and son, who blame David for their patriarch’s death, set a trap to enact revenge for the killing. Peggy Hamill even goes as far to acknowledge the gun she takes from David is “the gun that killed your father.” Humanity has shown to be capable of truly horrific actions just like any movie monster, and that capability is on full display in The Crazies.
The “Trixie” Virus
Getting into the science of a zombie-like virus usually derails a film’s plausibility. Not so much here. It is revealed that the “Trixie” virus was a biological weapon prototype in the Rhabdoviridae family, designed to destabilize populations. For those who want to save a quick trip to Google, the Rhabdoviridae virus family includes one of the more horrifying diseases known as Rabies. In an interview with Popular Mechanics, director Breck Eisner mentioned just how he came up with the symptoms of “Trixie”. Eisner revealed that he based the microscopic nightmare on several diseases, including Rabies, Tetanus, Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, and Ebola. Consulting with the Center of Disease Control, he combined the worst symptoms of each into a cocktail of nightmares.
The carriers experience five stages of infection. “The ‘One’ was being uninfected and the ‘Five’ was an Ebola-like bleedout, full-collapse death,” Eisner says. The stages in between allow for other emotional and physical transitions. “We looked at all the muscles tightening up and becoming taut in the neck and face areas,” the director says. “We played around with increased blood flow and heart rate and the idea that the veins would start to bulge out and become pronounced. “From the time of infection, the unlucky inhabitants have about three days until they die.”
But is an infection that thrusts it’s victim into an insane, aggressive rampage real? Excluding Rabies, which comes with a buffet of other terrifying neurological symptoms, “Trixie” is entirely fictional. But is it somewhat possible such a violent disease could be manufactured? The answer is a horrifying Yes. Technically, a virus such as Rabies could theoretically be engineered to infect a specific area in the brain resulting in crazies-like behavior. This area of the brain is very real, according to a paper cited by a Discovery Magazine post. Geneticists and bio-engineers work tirelessly to attempt to alter the behavior of cells, viruses, and things of that nature to better mankind. It’s not hard to fathom that someone, somewhere could take that progress and weaponize it.
While we are currently safe from anything resembling “Trixie”, the crazies are only part one of the pair of threats the citizens of Ogden Marsh face. If you replace the fictional virus with a very real disease such as Ebola, the next segment could become very real.
The Military Quarantine
When you stop and consider what would actually happen if a virus such as Ebola became weaponized and infected an entire community, it might send shivers down your spine. An all-encompassing quarantine would be necessary to prevent the epidemic from becoming a nationwide pandemic. With no cure, the uninfected would need to be separated from the infected, whether that be some stranger or your wife/husband. In the same interview with Popular Mechanics, Eisner again mentioned his consultation with the Center of Disease Control when designing the military quarantine in The Crazies.
There were two elements that we talked about: the workers and how they would be handled, and the containment zones. We took artistic license with the way the actual containment was set up, but the main concept of a central staging zone where they would triage the sick and get the healthy to a secondary location was the basic tenet for the setup.
Granted, cutting off all communications with the outside world to prevent the news from getting out certainly seems unlikely. While many wouldn’t expect this to happen in the United States, government cover-ups are not without precedent. Residents of Pripyat, the worker village near the Chernobyl nuclear accident, were told by the Soviet Union that everything was fine immediately following the meltdown. That is, until the evacuation order came 36 hours later. Even right here at home, the U.S. government did not acknowledge the existence of Project MK Ultra until the 90’s.
The most morbid twist in The Crazies comes when Judy discovers the residents deemed “not infected” were exterminated anyway. Due to the “Trixie” virus becoming airborne, the military decided not to take any chances of it spreading. Replace this scenario with Ebola. If you’re a citizen of Ogden Marsh, you are horrified to say the least. If you’re a citizen of anywhere else in the United States, you might find yourself relieved such steps are being taken to ensure your safety. Yes, it’s sickening to imagine, but is it really out of the realm of possibility?
There is No Escape
One of the most common horror tropes throughout the genre’s history is the character’s terrible decision making. Does “let’s split up” sound familiar? The killer is downstairs, so logically the victim runs upstairs. Yada yada yada. The characters of The Crazies don’t have the luxury of making stupid decisions. David, Judy, and Russell make all the correct, intelligent moves to try to stop the epidemic and escape. Unfortunately for them, it doesn’t matter. For example:
- David and Russell attempt to contact outside help, but find the internet, phone lines, and cell services have all been blocked
- They needed a car to escape to neighboring Cedar Rapids, but the military booted every vehicle in town.
- David remembers he has an old police cruiser in his garage, but the helicopter flyovers eventually find and destroy it.
- Despite escaping Ogden Marsh’s total extermination via nuclear weapon, military satellites find David and Judy approaching Cedar Rapids, and initiate another quarantine
Simply put, there is no escape. The lack of bad decision making douses the film with a bucket of hopelessness that audiences can connect to. There is no “well I wouldn’t have done that” moment. You would have done everything the characters themselves did, and it still wouldn’t have worked.
There you have it! Do you buy into the more-realistic approach The Crazies used, or do you enjoy full fledged zombie mayhem more? Let us know over on Twitter, in the official NOFS Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club. Thanks for reading 🙂