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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell are driven Crazies.
About a year or two ago, Turner Classic Movies ran 1973's The Crazies late one Friday night. As a fan of its director, George A. Romero, I was eager to see one of his lesser-known works. Unfortunately, I couldn't get through the film. Maybe I was just expecting something different, but it seemed as though very little was happening, and so I shut it off before it was over. This is why I was more than a little skeptical about the new remake of The Crazies. It somehow seemed like an odd choice to be resurrected. And since the horror genre's current modus operandi is to simply "reboot" older films, there seemed to be plenty of reason to believe that this picture was simply a case of Hollywood scraping the bottom of the barrel.

It gives me great pleasure to inform you that I was completely wrong. The Crazies is terrific.

The story is set in Ogden Marsh, a small farming community. David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant) is the town sheriff, and his wife Judy (Radha Mitchell) is the local doctor. It's a peaceful place where everybody knows everybody else and very little drama ever occurs. That's why the residents are so alarmed when the town drunk shows up at a little league game with a shotgun in his hands. Sheriff Dutton takes him out in self-defense, but he's not the only one acting a little strange. Several of the locals begin looking a little sickly, and suddenly they have murderous tempers.

Dutton and his deputy, Russell (Joe Anderson), then make a startling discovery: there is something (which I will not reveal) in the town's water supply. The government clearly knows it too, as they send in the military to contain the spread of the virus that's turning people into neo-zombies. This involves herding the residents of Ogden Marsh into containment camps and executing those who are believed to be infected. When Judy is suspected of contamination and separated from Dutton, he and Russell plot to escape, rescue her, and make their way far enough out of town to be safe. Their journey is one of consistent peril, not just from their now-mutated friends, but also from the gas-masked soldiers sent in to hunt down anyone who might have swallowed that water.

On the surface, The Crazies seems like a variation on the zombie picture, with ordinary people suddenly being transformed into brain-dead, bloodthirsty ghouls. And on that level, the movie certainly succeeds. Director Breck Eisner (atoning nicely for his previous film, the disastrous Sahara) effectively inserts the infected into shots where neither we nor the main characters expect them to pop up. This leads to several undeniably effective "gotcha" moments. Eisner also gives us plenty of the requisite blood and gore. The viciousness of the attacks is enough to make the infected seem legitimately threatening. Nowhere is this more evident than in a show-stopping sequence set inside a car wash. As Dutton and the others are locked inside a car amid whirling machinery, their attackers are trying desperately to get inside the vehicle. This is the best scene from a movie so far in 2010.

As good as the zombie-like stuff is, the really scary thing in The Crazies is the idea that the government would go to such extremes to contain an outbreak. With one exception, we never get to know any of the soldiers who are carrying out orders, and that's to the story's advantage. Dutton isn't fighting a known entity; he's fighting an entire government that is clearly in full panic mode, to the point of being willing to decimate its own citizens. It's that sense of panic - the idea that a hideous virus has grown so out of control that it comes down to this - that truly sent chills up my spine.

The Crazies was produced by Participant Media, a company created by e-Bay founder Jeff Skoll to make movies that address socially relevant themes. While the film never browbeats you with any kind of message, it doubtlessly raises issues to think about, both in terms of the effects of environmental contamination as well as the potential for overreaction should any epidemic ever hit.

The acting is quite solid, with Olyphant and Mitchell turning in effective performances in a genre where performance is often lost. Admittedly, there are moments in the story that stretch credibility, especially toward the end. (Movie characters are, of course, far more resilient than real people, as they are able to walk away from things that would kill mere mortals.) Then again, who expects complete realism from a horror movie? The question is: Does it scare you? The Crazies, for me, was creepy and it made me squirm with discomfort. That doesn't happen too often. How nice it is to go to a horror movie and actually be made to feel on edge. This is a good one.

( out of four)

The Crazies is rated R for bloody violence and language. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.

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