A zombie movie without any proper zombies, George Romero’s 1973 film The Crazies uses victims driven insane by governmental chemical-warfare experiments in place of reanimated corpses, but otherwise looks like the missing link between Night Of The Living Dead and Dawn Of The Dead. It’s not as strong as either of those classics, but the way Romero pits insane everymen against a merciless military force while using images inspired by then-recent nightmares such as the Kent State shootings makes it a fascinating collection of early-’70s anxieties. Breck Eisner’s remake briefly threatens to do the same for 2010. In a chilling echo of the public acts of violence that have become the stuff of everyday news, it opens with a shotgun-toting madman walking onto the outfield of a baseball game and turning a bucolic small-town scene into a place of blood and horror.
If only the film had dared to keep running in that direction. Instead, it settles into a professional groove as an Iowa sheriff (Timothy Olyphant) and his doctor wife (Radha Mitchell) watch their neighbors go nuts while dozens of masked soldiers send their town into a violent lockdown. Whatever contemporary resonance it might have had, even with the paranoid wingnut crowd, gets lost in a procession of competent—and sometimes slightly better than competent—shocks. Eisner’s last film, 2005’s Sahara, suggested he didn’t have the chops to make a full-scale blockbuster, but he clearly has an eye for eerie compositions and some intriguing ideas about how to create scares. Yet for every inventively staged scene—most notably a nightmarish trip through a car wash—The Crazies throws in a couple of the fake-out shocks and cheap jolts that have plagued modern horror movies for decades. Another problem: The crazies themselves could be a lot more terrifying. Without the rotting ickiness of proper zombies, they just seem like methed-out Iowans looking for a fix. That’s scary, but not scary enough.