In 1973, when George A. Romero directed the original version of The Crazies, about a small town whose residents go nuts after their water supply is infected by a biological toxin, none of the movie's Vietnam allegories could overcome the obvious similarities to Romero's flesh-eating ghoul classic Night of the Living Dead.
The new version of The Crazies, which has been made with infinitely more style and panache than the original, feels even more derivative - the latest in a long line of apocalyptic horror pictures about viruses that turn people into zombies, lunatics or some combination of both. In this case, however, familiarity does not breed contempt.
Directed with great style and unusual restraint by Breck Eisner (who previously made the action dud Sahara but also directed a highly effective episode of the NBC anthology series Fear Itself), The Crazies has the feel of a Stephen King novel - and, in fact, often recalls his latest, Under the Dome, about a town that goes nuts after an invisible dome cuts it off from the rest of the world.
In The Crazies, a small Iowa town is sequestered by the military after the locals start acting in a bizarre way. At first, they're just a little spacey; soon, they're stabbing each other and blasting away with shotguns. Initially, the sheriff (Timothy Olyphant), his pregnant doctor wife (Radha Mitchell) and the easygoing deputy (Joe Anderson) try to maintain peace and order. But once soldiers wearing gas masks swoop in and, without asking questions, start shooting everyone in sight, the protagonists enter full-on survival mode, and The Crazies becomes a game of every man for himself.
Yes, you've seen this movie before. But Eisner makes up for the lack of originality with some terrific setpieces, such as a harrowing sequence in which the heroes are trapped inside an automated car wash. In another scene, people suspected of being infected are strapped to gurneys inside a tent when a crazy wielding a pitchfork wanders in and starts poking. And poking.
Olyphant, an actor capable of playing stoic heroes as well as sneering villains, anchors the movie with a believable sense of desperation, and the brief film doesn't waste a second on anything that doesn't bear directly on the crisis at hand. The result is a terrific little B-movie in which the deaths of characters carry a real sting, the gore is used sparingly but to disturbing effect and the editing has been paced at a speed that allows you to follow the action transpiring onscreen. Given the current state of the horror genre, these qualities are not to be taken for granted. You may not remember The Crazies in a month, but you'll have a grand time watching it.
(*** out of ****)