Sunday, March 14, 2010

"Crazy" Weekend

Saturday night I caught a showing of L.A. Law's Corbin Bernsen's Dead Air on Showtime. It's about terrorists setting off a number of coordinated biological explosions at sporting events in key cities across America, transforming the people who inhale the deadly fumes into enraged, bloodthirsty killers. Bernsen's former costars Susan Ruttan and Larry Drake pop in for small but amusing roles.

Made on an extremely conservative budget, it has some tense moments and reunites Patricia Tallman and Bill Moseley, who played Barbara and Johnny in the 1990 remake of George Romero's classic Night of the Living Dead (which director Tom Savini hates but I think is great). Moseley plays a confrontational talk radio host and Tallman is his producer, struggling to stay on the air in a Los Angeles high-rise as mayhem ensues in the streets below. I thought it'd be good preparation for Sunday's viewing of The Crazies, coincidentally a remake of another Romero film from 1973.

Before the screening was a trailer for yet another remake, Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street, which opened with a title informing us that it was "from producer Michael Bay." Normally that proclamation would make any sane person scream in horror (and not the pleasurable kind), but the Texas Chainsaw remake he produced wasn't too bad, so who knows?

It looks like the new film gives you a bit more backstory about how Freddy Kreuger came to be, but the glimpse you get of Jackie Earle Haley post-barbecue looks like he's still wearing his Watchmen Rorschach mask. Another problem I foresee is that the original Elm Street is a relatively recent film and part of the "home video generation," by which I mean it's always been easy to see since its release in 1984 and even young horror lovers know it well as opposed to being obscure or more than 30 years old. And some movies just don't need remaking—the original is just fine. Remember last year's Friday the 13th? I'm certainly not implying that the 1980 version was a classic by any standard, but the remake was unnecessary and ridiculous.

Which brings us to The Crazies. After the epoch-making Night of the Living Dead, Romero tried to break out in other directions (There's Always Vanilla—a romantic comedy?!?) but soon returned to horror. The Crazies retained the zombie idea (of sorts—the killers weren't dead but just driven insane by biological contamination) and he enlarged the sheriff's posse from Night into a full-on military assault.

The Crazies was barely released and was hard to find for years, apart from occasional television airings and on videocassette from one of the smaller distributors back in the '80s. I don't recall being particularly taken by it, except for the memory of a scene in which a sweet little old lady gets up from her rocking chair and stabs a soldier in the neck with a knitting needle. Someone seems to have been been influenced by it—Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later is a direct descendant in that the antagonists are victims of a biological mutation rather than undead, flesh-eating zombies. Finally, The Crazies re-emerged during the DVD revolution, with Anchor Bay releasing it in 1998 and Blue Underground providing a remastered version in 2003, but it has still never reached the heights of popularity that Night or Dawn of the Dead have achieved.

The remake, directed by Michael Eisner's son, Breck, was warmly received by the filmgoing community and got a pretty good 72% (better than Shutter Island!) on Rotten Tomatoes. It boasts a good cast headed by Timothy Olyphant (Go) as David Dutton, the sheriff of a tiny Iowa town, and Radha Mitchell (Finding Neverland) as his wife, Judy, who is also the town's doctor.

The film begins promisingly enough as a high school baseball game is interrupted by a shotgun-toting local who refuses to obey David's orders to put the gun down, forcing him to shoot the man dead in front of a stadium of horrified fans. Soon, concerned townsfolk are bringing their loved ones to Judy for examination, complaining that "they just aren't acting like themselves." One patient traps and incinerates his wife and young son in their home. More acts of violence ensue and a gang of redneck hunters discover the body of a soldier in the river, prompting David and his deputy, Russell Clark (Joe Anderson) to search for more clues. They discover a large airplane submerged in the water and are puzzled that it hasn't been reported and that no authorities have appeared to recover the wreckage.

David gradually begins to realize that the water supply has been contaminated by whatever the downed plane was carrying, and before you can say "government cover-up" the military arrives to shut the town down. Testing the citizens, they shove people with high body temperatures into quarantine and send the uncontaminated to a kind of concentration camp of their own. Judy is pregnant, and therefore has a naturally higher body temperature, so she is shipped off to the crazy ward. David escapes to rescue her, joined by Russell, who has also managed to slip through the military dragnet.

The first hour of the film, while nothing new, is exciting and well-paced. But after David and Russell retrieve Judy and their young friend, Becca (Danielle Panabaker), it loses its way. Initially offering dramatic promise as the protagonists find themselves trapped between the shoot-to-kill soldiers and the nutzoid townsfolk, there's simply not enough of either and the narrative goes slack. Then the filmmakers seem to wake up and realize the deficiency, so they start throwing in scenes that are neither suspenseful or surprising, with the unfortunate effect that the film has decided to start over again and correct its mistakes. The Crazies are also inconsistent—some are verbal and coherent (except that they want to stab you) and others are standard-issue, bloody-eyed shriekers.

The film becomes unintentionally humorous, too. While David is searching the barn for intruders, he can hear Judy faintly calling his name from inside their house, but he can't hear the huge all-terrain vehicles and schoolbuses driving up at the same time. When the escapees drive into one of those gas station car washes to hide from a military helicopter passing menacingly overhead, they are attacked by ravening townsfolk—and one of them appears to be cleaning the windows! And when Becca is lynched with a hose by the fiends at the car wash and the guys quickly bring her down, Doctor Judy merely weeps over her body and doesn't even attempt CPR, even though she'd only been hanging for about a minute!

Efficiency experts may also want to note that the policemen here practice Just In Time shooting. What I mean is that it's nail-biting and and suspenseful when the killer is slo-o-o-owly approaching his victim and suddenly has his head ventilated by a well-placed bullet, but when this occurs three or four times in the same film, the effect becomes absurd. After Russell sacrifices himself for David and Judy (naturally), they continue on their desperate effort to escape...and it just goes on...and on...and on. Shots of incinerated bodies and pop-up Crazies cannot restart the thrills once they've stalled. And the ending is laughably ludicrous.

I think it's time to put the zombies down for a while. They're getting crabby.

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