I’m a crazy, he’s a crazy… wouldn’t you like to be a crazy, too?
My guess is that a very small percentage of people who helped the box office receipts for The Crazies reach a respectable $40 million earlier this year had any idea that it was actually a remake. Yet sandwiched between his two influential classics, Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, George A. Romero made a different kind of zombie movie in 1973, also called The Crazies.
With a limited release, this version was a box office failure and, while now considered a cult classic by some, it still manages to escape the widespread affection of the director’s other works. With the home video release of the remake a couple months ago, there’s never been a better time to discover the original.
In a farmhouse in Evans City, Pennsylvania, two children are frightened when their father weaves a destructive path through their house. Running upstairs to their mother, they find her bloodied and dead in bed. The father then proceeds to burn down the house. After-the-fact reports say that he “just went crazy”. Indeed. You see, Farmer Mitchell was one of the first townspeople to contract a “highly contagious virus” that we later learn, as we often do in this kind of movie, was developed as a biological weapon. It has a cute name, though: Trixie.
After this horrifying opening, the original The Crazies is largely focused on the military response and its attempt to quarantine the town to prevent Trixie from spreading. In fact, the main characters are an Army major, a Colonel and a research scientist. Their presence is felt early and often and provides an overall race-against-time structure as a jet loaded with a nuclear warhead files towards the town. The remake takes a different approach and is focused more on the residents of the town (here, Ogden Marsh, Iowa) themselves, particularly Sherriff David Dutten (Timothy Olyphant) and his pregnant wife/nurse, Judy (Radha Mitchell). (In the original, David is a volunteer fireman and Judy is unwed.)
Coming out of the 60’s, and knowing George A. Romero, it’s not surprising that the 1973 version would be heavy on anti-establishment themes. You could even go as far to say that it’s the faceless soldiers, clad in white body suits and gas masks, shooting innocent people, who are the real bad guys in The Crazies. It’s not the virus itself and it’s certainly not its innocent victims. But nearly 30 years later, the remake isn’t too interested in that angle. Here, the virus turns its victims into monsters who are defnitely the bad guys from which our heroes try to escape.
That doesn’t mean that the original doesn’t have its share of early-70’s gore. There’s a terrific scene where a pair of knitting needles become deadly weapons in the hands of an elderly infected woman. But, to prove my earlier point, it is a soldier who suffers her wrath, not one of the townspeople. And there are a lot of wonderful, subtle touches if you watch closely. One that sticks with me is the image of a woman standing in a field, diligently sweeping the ground with her broom. It’s in the background; blink and you might miss it, but catch it and it’s a brilliant touch.
There’s no such subtlety in the remake, which is full of all-out horror, suspense and gore. It’s something you might expect from a director like Breck Eisner (Sahara), hot on the heels of other recent horror remakes. But it’s all done very, very well. The memorable scenes are the big set pieces: David in the coroner’s office, scrambling to escape a runaway bone saw; Judy in a vacant lab, unable to escape a runaway farmer with his pitchfork; and our band of heroes in a car wash, frantic to scrub away a pack of crazies. I envision many fans groaning at the idea of such scenes in a horror movie, but let me tell you, they work! They held me on the edge of my seat, even for my second viewing.
One thing I like about the original is that although Trixie turns its victims into a form of zombie, they look mostly normal. This adds a level of The Thing-like paranoia to the events. Who exactly is infected; you can’t really tell by looking? Both versions feature characters that eventually succumb, and their transitions add an emotional depth because we’ve become attached to them. The remake eventually takes its crazies one step further: as the virus advances, their nose bleeds and other vessels in their bodies seem to explode from inside. This is just another facet of its focus on the horrific aspects of the story.
Although their stories are no different, their styles couldn’t be more different. (Think Alfred Hitchcock vs. Quentin Tarantino.) I liked them both, the remake as a solid addition to the “modern” age of horror films, and the original as an effective snapshot of historical paranoia. I can’t really recommend one over the other, although for pure entertainment value, my preference is the remake. It does a better job of depicting a growing sense of dread. However, I feel like the original should be required viewing for anyone who claims to be a horror fan.