I've seen this movie twice and then one partial time by now and each time I'm struck by how disturbing and isolating the film feels. But I knew I needed to review it when first the Houston Chronicle and then even NPR offered reviews that felt to be missing something key to why the film is an effective post-modern horror flick.
The basic premise remains from the 1973 George Romero original: a small town's people begin losing their minds due to the government's whoopsy! of dispersing a chemical via accidental plane crash that incites horrible violent tendencies in folks. Now, I must admit I have not seen the original, but that feels unnecessary given the claims as to why this remake is not as good as the original. But first, the breakdown.
In this version the local sheriff David (Timothy Olyphant in a convincingly understated performance) and his wife Judy, the local doctor (Radha Mitchell, less memorable here than her determined mother in Silent Hill and not quite believable as the town doctor), are challenged to respond when people of the town begin engaging in seriously evil behavior. A father burns down his house with his wife and child locked inside. Then when put in jail, he begins to alter physically so that I would have refused to occupy the same building, let alone try to touch him when he appears to have died, as the loyal deputy (Joe Anderson) does, nearly losing his arm.
In this and other scenes Anderson seems to have slipped on set from another movie, such is the nuanced quality of his performance. Since the government's rhabdoviridae prototype virus appears to exacerbate existing elements of violence within each afflicted subject's character, and the onset of tendencies can be subtle, its exciting that we are given so much screen time with Anderson's deputy as a possible infected subject. What this means is that, if one is not cynical about the probability of the deputy being infected, you are given a wonderfully creepy and insidious performance of a normally controlled and honorable man teetering on the brink. Could you ditch your best friend and longtime partner if you suspected him of becoming ill and therefore violent? When would you know it was too late? Can one hold onto oneself despite chemical interference? It may help highlight his performance that no one else is given this arc, so he can establish its parameters, but he does so to such wonderful effect, you don't really need anyone else.
But enough about the sole great performance! As expected things spiral out of control, people become more and more violent, who is and who isn't infected by the plane's chemicals is anyone's guess, and our named folks are on the run for their lives. The government comes in, makes a mess of things, and...
WARNING, SPOILERS BELOW!
...then decides the best move is to use a device that appears thermobaric, or nuclear - but couldn't really be unless the government wanted to then justify Hiroshima style fatalities and cancer rates in nearby towns/cities - to wipe the "problem" off the face of the earth.
The aforementioned reviewers' problems with the film seem to be due to its deviation from Romero's hallowed original - which apparently had a lot to say about the 1970's moment. For example, NPR says:
"Romero was particularly adept in this regard, and his 1973 small-town epidemic thriller, The Crazies, touched on biological warfare, the bureaucratic ineptitude of government in crisis situations, and the breakdown of social rules in a widespread panic. ...instead of putting us in the middle of the authorities' disaster-management effort — a potential gold mine of material for post-Sept. 11 and post-Katrina America — Eisner hands us a faceless, two-dimensional occupying force. And rather than attempting to get inside the mentality of a town put on lockdown, he assumes a few mobs breaking through fences will suffice."
Additionally, we are living in the media-infused post-Rwanda world of neighbors hacking their neighbors to death for no good reason, or at least not one that anyone who accesses the audio files or witness testimony online can understand. And if you ask the doomsday preppers, The Monsters Arrived on Maple Street a long, long time ago, so everyone's the enemy! The age of profound confusion that the neighbor down the street was actually a psycho and you never suspected - "He was such a nice, quite man!" - has passed.
In our current moment, we don't need the 70's model of movie panic with well clarified motives. We know that motives are often insufficient or absent altogether, and wouldn't help you reconcile yourself to the events you witnessed if you had them blinking in neon ten feet high. This feeling comes through in the film's attention to moments when a character's lack of control is at once expected but still alarmingly unpredictable. For example, the character's reasons could be as simple as poor Deputy Russell who's mental slippage is so perceptible as to even be frightening to him! "I'm not right, am I?", he asks of the Sheriff, and we sympathize with him not only because he is one of the main characters, but because in this day and age, one frequently feels "I must be Crazy because I do not understand the world!"
Instead of believing we can see and know all the stages of government discussion and neighborly impulses, we feel isolated from the government's processes (yay, Patriot Act!) that make everyone a villain or criminal - just ask the TSA! - but do not make clear why. And the 2010 film does a good job of steeping the viewer in that feeling of confusion, unease, isolation, disruption, and ultimate (but not constant) hopelessness. For example, there is a scene when David and Judy are stopping by their house to get supplies before getting out of town, and Judy begins taking her towels off the line in the yard. As David stops her, she declares despondently, "This is our home. This is where we were going to raise our children." Later, when trying to soothe her that its going to be ok, Judy snaps, shouting at him, "It is not going to be Ok, nothing is going to be Ok!!"(Slight paraphrasing here) The effect of those lines is to connect with the Current general societal feeling of disruption beyond one's control or comprehension. The post-modern moment is one of perpetual dislocation and honey, this film taps into that big time!
Secondly, the reviewers ignore what the film IS doing for our current moment and time, accusing it of having nothing to say (I'm softening the possible ferocity of my attack of the Houston reviewer who actually says Romero had a lot to critique but that Eisner had nothing on his mind when making the movie - ouch!). In a scene where a fellow towns person advises the sheriff to get out of town because, "Its not worth the hassle.", the Sheriff admonishes him, "By hassle are you referring to Judy, my wife is not worth the hassle? I'm going back into town and leave you to think about why I can't leave my wife and you can leave yours." (slight paraphrasing) In this thrown off scene, instead of script-writing attempting a cheap/cheesy joke, we are given a peek into the return of the Me-Decade in our reality TV land where one can openly complain about your spouse, go to therapy with your spouse, or swap them out with another one for the home TV viewing population's entertainment! In this moment it is ok to declare your wife a disposable commodity you would prefer not to retrieve.
Additionally, in the scene of a government van observing towns-folk after contamination, we are not seeing a film that assumes the government forgot about the plane crash. The film gives us multiple shots of the town and individual people from the perspective of a spy plane or spy satellite with often unintelligible government chatter over the image - the decisions that affect people but which they are not privy to the discussion of. In Eisner's use of perspective and observation of effects by government, we are seeing the history of government experimentation on its citizenry. We are also seeing the calculated nature of bureaucratic decision making by government, where "the few" can be sacrificed for "the many" - at least as perceived by filmmakers in their movies: The Rock (1996), Under Siege (1992), Outbreak (1995), etc.... It is then easy to believe the government would write off the town altogether and move on to the next possibly affected locale.
All of this is to say that a film must be considered in its own context, and considering the popular cultural field as well. If you do, then this film has a lot more going on. I am not saying its brilliant or perfect in any way - I wanted to strangle both Judy and David when they inexplicably decided to split up right near the end - the only reason being so they would each have to evade/fight crazies alone!! However, a less fetishized take on the original and a careful attention paid to the newer one, brings a whole lot more nuance to light.