It seems timely to consider a movie where a deadly disease infects a quiet, rural community and undermines their way of life in less than 48 hours. Both versions of The Crazies can be read as the worst-case scenario we all had in mind when COVID-19 started taking over the world, they are just tuned differently to their times. Both movies are about government mistrust, the fragility of public health, and the frightening takeover of the military-industrial complex, but they have very different attitudes about those themes.
The original Crazies was George A. Romero’s fourth film. After experimenting with conventional romance in There’s Always Vanilla, and a swing at feminist commentary with Season of the Witch, Romero went back the apocalypse and small-town terror. Political commentary in Night of the Living Dead was incidental, if Romero’s own commentary on the matter is to be believed, but there is no mistaking the fact that the director had something explicitly political to say with The Crazies, and it was not with a passive voice.
“…there is no mistaking the fact that [Romero] had something explicitly political to say with The Crazies, and it was not with a passive voice.”
It was 1973, and the Vietnam War was coming to an end while the Watergate scandal was slowly but surely winding up. Between political upheaval at home and abroad, and a stagnant economy that was going to get worse before it got better, America was at a crossroads, and its people were being inundated by a multitude of societal and cultural pressures. In his 1975 address to Congress, President Gerald Ford said that “the state of the union is not good,” but the truth was it had not been good for a while.
The Crazies spares no time as we start with chaos descending on the otherwise quiet hamlet of Evans City, Pennsylvania. As volunteer firefighters David and Clank respond to a burning farmhouse, David’s fiancée Judy reports to her own place of work. Judy’s the nurse for the town’s physician, Dr. Brookmyre, and his office is being overrun by military men setting up an outpost. Infantrymen in clean suits and gas masks are receiving antibiotics as they prepare to declare martial law, round up Evans City’s citizens, and quarantine the town to prevent the widespread outbreak of a bioweapon whimsically codenamed “Trixie.”
What you notice though is that this military unit is not the proverbial tip of the spear. Major Ryder is constantly on the phone yelling for more resources on a quicker timetable, while his commanding officer, Colonel Peckem, has the appearance of a man that has been a part of too many operations like this and is just going through the motions. Dr. Watts, one of the scientists responsible for the creation of “Trixie”, is a non-stop fount of complaints about security precautions and being too important to be holed up in a small town trying to stop an outbreak of his disease.
In Romero’s mind, the U.S. Government is at once an insidious force capable of creating dangerous plagues with no immediate cure, but it’s also rife with incompetence. Not only does the government lose a plane loaded with “Trixie”, they’re also unable to subdue a small town with a cohesive containment plan while being undermanned, under-resourced, and undermined by townspeople unwilling to take the government at its word. The Crazies is not an authoritarian nightmare because there’s almost literally no authority.
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“Mistrust of people never goes away, and neither does mistrust of the government.”
To sell the point further that The Crazies is a microcosm of a world gone mad, Romero sprinkles imagery and references to real-life, from the self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức to the Kent State Massacre. David, a Vietnam veteran and Green Barret, remarks at one point how the ramshackle round up of the citizens of Evans City was not dissimilar to his experiences in the war. What failed in Vietnam can just as easily fail State-side, so Romero’s again commenting on the U.S. government as a lumbering beast unable to adapt, and with only a limited number of tools.
What’s perhaps most interesting about The Crazies, as referenced by Vincent Mollica in an article on Cinematheque, is that there’s no visual cue that tells the viewers who is affected by “Trixie” and who is not. There’s no physical change, we’re never told a specific set of symptoms, and the symptoms we do see could just as well be described as aberrant reactions to the stress and trauma of current events in the movie. Are these people diseased, or is “Trixie” an elaborate psy-op meant to test how much chaos a town can take before it breaks? Is “Trixie” really a trick?
That’s the biggest change to Breck Eisner’s remake of The Crazies, there’s no doubt that the people of the now Iowa-set small town are being affected by something biological, but Eisner and the screenwriters still shrewdly invest a sense of ambiguity. There are some characters that force you to wonder, have they been infected by “Trixie” or is there merely a mindless animal in every man waiting for the right set of circumstances to be unchained?
Mistrust of people never goes away, and neither does mistrust of the government. The Crazies remake was released just five years after the utter disaster of FEMA’s response to Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf of Mexico, less than two years after the financial collapse and the start of the Great Recession, and at the same time there was a contentious debate about healthcare reform. Many politicians trafficked in false rumors that the eventual law called the Affordable Care Act would set up government “death panels”, where committees would choose who gets healthcare and who doesn’t.
“The government goons of Romero’s film had a human face, but Eisner’s army is so mechanized they might as well be robots.”
It’s hard to separate the idea of “death panels” as you watch the townspeople of Ogden Marsh rounded up, sent to an encampment at the local high school, get their vital signs measured, and are then separated if those vital signs are “abnormal”. We see military men in camouflage and gas masks patrolling a large fenced-off area where the townspeople are corralled like cattle with no explanation and no spokesperson with a smiling face offering pleasantries and reassurances. The government goons of Romero’s film had a human face, but Eisner’s army is so mechanized they might as well be robots.
These scenes are all the worst visions of the conspiracy mindset in the Obama era. In 2015, military training exercises codenamed Jade Helm 15 were falsely cast in some online communities as the pending initiation of martial law in Texas; anyone that didn’t accept the control of the Federal government would be sent to detention in re-education camps, and those camps looked a lot like the quarantine zones created in The Crazies. Eisner created a utilitarian worst-case scenario.
Despite all these real-world influences, the story at the heart of The Crazies is the same, the protective man, in this case the town’s sheriff, is trying to get his pregnant partner to safety as they watch their idyllic small town torn apart by an apathetic government force, internal frictions, and a disease so subtle that its indistinguishable from the symptoms of stress and trauma until it’s too late. Eisner borrows liberally from that other Romero horror movie with “Trixie” basically turning people into zombies with motor skills, but he still forces you to wonder what separates the infected from the infuriated until its almost too late.
The true pandemic in The Crazies (2010) is trust, not just suspicion of outsiders, but suspicions about your neighbours. While some residents of Ogden Marsh fight back, others start chasing down the infected like it’s the first day of hunting season. In one scene, Sheriff Dutton, who’s been cleared of infection, plots to sneak back into town to rescue his wife Judy, who set off alarms because she has a fever that’s more likely connected to her pregnancy than the disease. He shares this with another resident who says that the best course is to follow the army’s instructions. He’s okay leaving his wife behind, which Dutton finds almost as upsetting as the possibility that his own wife’s been infected.
“The true pandemic in The Crazies (2010) is trust, not just suspicion of outsiders, but suspicions about your neighbours.”
While Romero focuses on the way systems can so easily fall apart despite the best intentions of the people who come together to face the crisis at the beginning of the movie, disaster always seems inevitable for Eisner. From the moment Dutton is forced to shoot an infected farmer armed with a rifle on the busy baseball field, any sense of social cohesion is lost. Even Dutton notes that there’s a feeling that something’s been violated, his was a town of good honest folk whose biggest crime was hunting out of season. It’s the American nightmare, the ruin of idyllic rural life and expulsion from paradise; Ogden Marsh tastes “Trixie” and it ruins them.
There’s a lot going on in The Crazies remake, but in came at the tail end of the horror remake boom in Hollywood so it’s perhaps been falsely overlooked. It’s understandable because it was co-written by Scott Kosar who co-authored the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, and shot by Maxime Alexandre who worked on The Hills Have Eyes in 2005. It also co-stars Danielle Panabaker, the Scream Queen of remakes with roles in Friday the 13th and Piranha 3DD. If there was a formula for staffing the cast and crew of horror remakes, The Crazies found it, but it overlooks how seriously everyone took the job of making a modern version of the original.
But Romero’s Crazies was also an overlooked gem in its own time, and it preceded a tremendous series of work for any filmmaker, and some of Romero’s most successful and creatively assured films. We’re talking about Martin, Dawn of the Dead, Creepshow, and Day of the Dead, which are not just cult classics, but seminal film works that would inspire horrors for decades to come. Romero found a recipe for what worked in his films, and he provided a warning that seems to have been heeded. In our real-world pandemic, though governments may flounder occasionally, communities everywhere remain intact.
What did you think of Brock Eisner’s The Crazies? How do you feel it stacks up against George A Romero’s The Crazies? Share your thoughts with us over to Twitter, Reddit, or in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook, and get more horror delivered straight to your inbox by joining the Neighbourhood Watch Newsletter.