February 26, 2010

This Week's Classic Cinema Obsession: THE CRAZIES (George Romero, 1973)

I don't normally like remakes, but in the case of George Romero's 1973 cult movie, THE CRAZIES, I'm all for it.

Why? Because the '73 version of THE CRAZIES is not a good movie. I wouldn't call it a bad movie, exactly, but it's one of those movies with a great premise done in by a bad script and bad acting (and, it must be said, the most annoying soundtrack ever -- 90 minutes of military snare drum over EVERY SCENE is enough to make the ears bleed). It has its moments, but ultimately it's a failure. It's the perfect, "If only..." or "What might have been..." movie, so that makes it the perfect candidate for a remake.

I think it was John Huston who said only bad movies should be remade and I'm in total agreement. The best kind of bad movie for a remake is the kind with a strong premise that for whatever reason the movie doesn't live up to. This is the very description of 1973's THE CRAZIES.

The movie has that typical Romero bullshit "social commentary." This time it's a Vietnam/Nixon/Kent State parable about how the government and military are violent liars and incompetent buffoons who love nothing more than to kill innocent civilians in order to cover their butts so they can achieve their eeeeeevil goals of world domination. Or some ridiculous crap like that. With Romero there's always some ham-handed "America is evil" bullshit stuck into perfectly good horror movies. But the stupid, muddled "message" isn't what sinks the picture.

The problem with THE CRAZIES is three-fold.

First, all the characters are idiots or assholes, making it so there's no one to root for. The soldiers on the ground act like semi-retarded thugs; their commanding officers do a lot of yelling into phones and not much else; the civilian protagonists (a Vietnam vet named David and his pregnant girlfriend, Judy, along with another vet friend of David's whom I simply call, "The Meathead," and a father with his daughter, who is crazysauce) are selfish assholes who are trying to escape the military perimeter around the town. Why are they selfish assholes? Because even once they realize that they've been exposed to a deadly virus that turns people into crazy homicidal maniacs, they still continue on with their plan of escaping without a moment's thought what the consequences might be. Hey assholes! If you leave the perimeter, you risk infecting the rest of the country! Ever think of that?

I pretty much hated everybody in the movie, except for Colonel Peckem, the leader of the operation to quarantine the town, who was the only character to remain somewhat rational and non-evil. Unfortunately, Col. Peckem doesn't do much in the film except get into unintentionally hilarious shouting matches with a unintentionally hilarious hammy scientist (played by a portly, bearded actor who is giving his best community theater Orson Welles impression, and yes, it is as bad as you can imagine).

So the first problem of the film is that the characters were all underdeveloped caricatures and down-right unlikable. In fact, the gas-mask wearing soldiers aren't even very menacing as villains because they are the worst, most ineffectual soldiers I've ever seen in a non-comedy movie. They just ran around (without cover or any kind of military tactics) trying to shoot people and then, because of their stupidity, ending up getting shot themselves. Worst soldiers ever, basically.

The second problem of the film is that there's not enough Crazy. What moments of craziness we get are good (the best parts of the film). But there's not enough of them. There's too much time spent with the military and government brass yelling at each other and not enough time with creepy crazy grandmas and murderous children. This is really the key point for me, because even with the unlikable protagonists and the stupid soldiers, the movie could still work if it had enough horror stuff from "the crazies."

It almost does work, because the crazies have their moments (my favorites being the grandma with her knitting needle and the opening scene with the little kids and their crazy father smashing up the house). And Romero knows that what makes the crazies terrifying is not just their propensity for violence. There's a creepy and sick scene with the father and daughter who are on the run with David, Judy, and The Meathead that is as horrifying as any of the violent scenes (and ridiculously exploitative, which is what you want in an exploitation flick).

But these moments seem few and far between as we're treated to endless minutes of people yelling into phones and pounding their fists in frustration, or endless minutes of David and Meathead unrealistically fighting off dozens of ground soldiers and a military chopper.

If your movie is called "The Crazies" and it's a horror/terror film about how people are turning crazy from a military virus, then there needs to be more of the "crazies" and less of the stupid white dudes yelling and sweating in some war room in Washington D.C.

The third problem of the film is that the script is weak and does nothing to explore the interesting ideas of the film. I mean, the premise of THE CRAZIES is fascinating and terrifying.

The United States government and the military -- because of their own reckless (and, of course, eeeeevil) actions -- has accidentally released a chemical weapon onto the populace of a small Pennsylvania town. The chemical is a bio-weapon that turns people batshit crazy (and also, homicidal). The military must then swoop into the small town, seal it off, occupy it, and then kill a bunch of innocent civilians to stop the spread of the virus. And then they've got to try to cover it up so the rest of the country doesn't find out the truth. All while we watch a small band of townsfolk try to evade the troops and escape to freedom.

Now, I don't *agree* with the basic premise -- that the government is evil/incompetent and the military just can't wait to kill civilians -- but at least the set-up is intriguing in that it provides the potential for an ambiguous and thought-provoking set of conflicts: civilian vs. military, small town vs. federal government, individual rights vs. the common good. Each side has its good points and each side, in its attempt to do what it thinks right, can take its cause too far.

In other words, the military might be killing a bunch of civilians, but they're doing it so that the rest of us don't turn into raving lunatics. And the infected people trying to flee the military perimeter might be risking spread of the virus, but, hey, they didn't cause this whole mess and they don't want to be captured by the government, they just want to be free. Do you see how this can lead to some interesting and difficult conflicts in the story? And how it can lead the audience to have conflicting thoughts on which side they want to see "win"?

Unfortunately, the script doesn't explore any of these conflicts. It lays them out there, but it doesn't do anything with them, until finally, at the end, the only thing the movie seems to be saying is "Government/Military = BAD, Rebels/Protesters = GOOD, Everybody = FUCKED." It's a wasted opportunity.

In fact, this third criticism is related to the first criticism about the characters. If the characters (especially the protagonists) were more rounded, if they acted in reasonably rational/normal ways in the beginning (i.e. asking questions, telling each other important information, not going off half-cocked and making things worse), then it would have made the thematic elements of the story more effective. But the characters act like jerks and idiots even before the crazy virus takes hold and so in the end, instead of being conflicted over whether I wanted to see David and Judy escape or be captured, I was hoping they would just be captured and then the Washington D.C. brass could just drop a nuke on the whole town and rid us of all the idiots, crazies, and jerks, civilian and military alike.

But even with all these problems, THE CRAZIES is still pretty watchable and occasionally creepy. Imagine what could happen with a better script, more believable and sympathetic characters, and more creepy crazy?

I haven't seen the new version of THE CRAZIES (Breck Eisner, 2010), but if it manages to solve some of these problems without losing the essential premise of the story, it could make for a very effective film. This review by Ty Burr of the Boston Globe has me excited.

One thing I'm concerned about with regards to the remake, however, is the way it might handle "the crazies" themselves. I thought one of the best parts of the Romero version was in its handling of the crazies as being more than just violent and homicidal maniacs.

Some crazies might kill you, but some might just creep you out because of their total lack of rational thought. Sure, crazies trying to kill you is very scary indeed. But it's also pretty scary to see once-normal human beings acting like drugged up, freaked out, crazy-bananas wackadoos who have lost all control of their minds. It's terrifying because they've lost all sense of what normal, rational human behavior entails. It's scary because it suggests that there are worse things than death: Losing your mind is shown to be more horrifying than losing your life.

I hope that the remake doesn't sacrifice this element of psychological terror in order to just show lots of gore and violence. I mean, I'm all for lots of gore and violence, but I hope they keep the psychological scares as well.

A cult film, but not a true classic, George Romero's THE CRAZIES is the perfect film to be remade. It has a strong idea as its premise, but Romero's execution turned out to be lacking, and hopefully the remake can do the idea justice. I was intrigued by the original but not satisfied by it and that's why it's my classic cinema obsession of the week.

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