The Crazies (Blu-ray)
Studio: Anchor Bay Entertainment
Film Length: 101 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: VC-1
Audio: DD 5.1; PCM 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH; Spanish
Disc Format: 1 50GB + 1 DVD (digital copy)
Theatrical Release Date: Feb. 26, 2010
Blu-ray Release Date: June 29, 2010
The Crazies is a remake of a 1973 George A. Romero film, and it was surprisingly well received by both critics and audiences. Despite working with 100 times Romero’s budget ($20 million vs. $200,000), director Breck Eisner still had to work cheaply by modern Hollywood standards, but he made every dollar count and delivered one of the best thrillers of recent years.
In the heartland of America sits the small farming community of Ogden Marsh. It’s the kind of town where everyone knows everyone else, and the local sheriff, David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant), attends the high school’s first baseball game of the season just because he enjoys it. The school’s principal (Larry Cedar) tells the worker manning the refreshment stand, “The sheriff doesn’t pay for coffee.” A friendly place.
But everything changes when a local farmer, Rory Hamill (Mike Hickman), wanders onto the field wielding a shotgun. Sheriff Dutton and his deputy, Russell (Joe Anderson), do their best to subdue the situation, but it ends tragically.
The sheriff’s wife, Judy (Radha Mitchell), is the town’s doctor, and she and her receptionist, Becca (Danielle Panabaker), are getting odd reports. A local woman, Deardra Farnum (Christie Lynn Smith), brings in her husband Bill (Brett Rickaby), because he’s “not right”. Dr. Judy can’t find anything wrong, but Bill seems distant. The doctor wants to send him for a CAT scan. She never gets the chance.
Unbeknownst to the inhabitants of Ogden Marsh, they are being observed by orbiting spy satellites. One morning, Sheriff Dutton discovers that his office phones no longer work, his cell phone can’t get a signal, his internet service is down, and no traffic is moving in or out of Ogden Marsh. “We’re in trouble”, he tells Deputy Russell. It’s only the beginning.
At the most literal level, The Crazies is about biological warfare. In the original 1973 version by George A. Romero, the story was told from two points of view: that of the town’s inhabitants and that of the military called in to deal with the incident. The script for the remake originally submitted to Breck Eisner took the same approach, but Eisner envisioned something different. He had the script rewritten to tell the story solely from the town’s point of view. The result is a tautly crafted paranoia machine, as the core group of characters – the sheriff and his wife, Deputy Russell and Becca – gradually realize that they can’t trust anyone, not the people they’ve known all their lives, and certainly not the troops and medical personnel in Hazmat suits who suddenly appear in vast numbers with heavy armament. Indeed, as time goes on and the disease afflicting the town continues to spread, they can’t even trust each other.
The Crazies borrows liberally from motifs and visual strategies familiar from slasher and zombie films, but it is doesn’t belong to either genre. The film’s assailants are neither indestructible super-killers nor mindless deadly hordes. They’re either sick people acting on primal rage caused by a rabies-like disease, or they’re soldiers following orders designed to help contain the deadly outbreak. I leave it to the individual viewer to decide which is more terrifying when one is being pursued: raw aggression or professional detachment.
Like all well-made scary films, The Crazies is anchored by superior performances. Timothy Olyphant was the director’s first choice for Sheriff Dutton, on the strength of his diverse body of work in Deadwood, Die Hard with a Vengeance and Go. (I would add Damages to that list.) A lesser actor would have made the sheriff an action hero, but Olyphant makes him a man who holds things together simply because there’s no other option, and he always lets you see the desperate edge just below the surface. As Judy Dutton, Radha Mitchell brings her previous experience with the horror genre in Pitch Black (and, according to Olyphant in the special features, an ear-piercing scream), but she also has a wealth of dramatic experience in films like High Art, Melinda and Melinda and Man on Fire. Together Mitchell and Olyphant manage to convey a genuine sense of the Duttons’ married history, far beyond anything in the dialogue or in the short span of time covered by the film’s action. That sense becomes crucial to the story’s credibility.
Joe Anderson was one of the best things in Across the Universe, and his Deputy Russell is probably the most complicated portrayal in the film, for reasons that can’t be spelled out here. Danielle Panabaker’s Becca is a more conventional character, but she’s one of those actors who makes the conventional interesting. (She was Kevin Costner’s enigmatic daughter in Mr. Brooks.)
Be sure to let the credits roll. Part way through, there’s a news broadcast that, appropriately enough for a paranoid thriller, completely falsifies the events you’ve just seen.
The “Visual Effects in Motion” feature discussed below also provides insight into the photographic design of The Crazies, because it shows how the raw footage was color-corrected for the final film – and the difference is dramatic. The entire frame was substantially darkened and given a brownish cast. Among other things, this demonstrates the remarkable degree of control that is now possible thanks to the digital intermediate process.
This color scheme gives The Crazies an unusual look. In the film’s many dark scenes, detail is excellent, but the blacks are not entirely black, nor are they shades of gray. There is almost always a brownish tinge that often registers at an almost subliminal level. As a result, The Crazies doesn’t look like most horror or science fiction films, which usually go for deep blacks and cool blues. The film’s palette favors warmer colors, probably for thematic continuity with the fields and farmlands surrounding Ogden Marsh. There are few, if any, bright colors. Even the redness of blood is understated.
However, this is the visual style of the film, and the Blu-ray transfer itself is above reproach. It provides the world of Ogden Marsh in a detailed, noise-free transfer with no artifacting (at least, none that I saw) or evidence of post-release digital tampering. Director Eisner went to great lengths to find locations where he could shoot the film in open vistas that looked like the authentic Midwest (he ultimately chose Iowa and Georgia). The Blu-ray fully conveys the sense of scale and of the characters’ exposure once the landscape turns dangerous.
The PCM 5.1 track is spectacular. In early scenes, it gives you the surrounding countryside in all of nature’s beauty – for example, in a scene where Sheriff Dutton and Judy are talking on their front porch with birds chirping around them. Later, as one frightful event follows upon another, the track immerses you in the action. Particularly impressive sequences involve a huge combine harvester in a barn and a harrowing trip through a car wash. Bass extension is deep and powerful. The score by Mark Isham, a favorite of mine among film composers, is one of those unobtrusive orchestrations that you can’t recall afterwards, because it’s melded so effectively with the action on screen.
Commentary by Directory Breck Eisner. Eisner speaks continually and enthusiastically, covering all aspects of the film from the original script through redrafting and development, casting and the production process. He’s particularly interesting when he points out numerous sequences that were redesigned on the fly to conserve the film’s tight budget and, in most cases, ended up better as a result.
Behind the Scenes with Director Breck Eisner (10:35). The title is somewhat misleading, because numerous people are interviewed, including Timothy Olyphant and producer Rob Cowan. This is a standard “making of” featurette, but it’s a good one.
Paranormal Pandemics (9:41). A discussion of how the disease afflicting the crazies was conceptualized for its effects on both appearance and behavior.
The George A. Romero Template (9:56). A tribute to Romero and his achievements by various admirers, including writer-director Don Coscarelli (Phantasm and Beastmaster).
Make-Up Mastermind Rob Hall in Action (11:27). Rob Hall demonstrates the painstaking process by which one of the lead “crazies” is made up for a scene in which he is suffering from an advanced stage of the disease.
The Crazies Motion Comic Episodes 1 & 2 (14:40; 12:44). This series from Starz Digital Media develops backstories of various minor characters in the film. In tone and theme, the motion comics are markedly different from the main feature, and I didn’t find them compelling, but your mileage may vary. Two additional episodes are available on iTunes and Amazon Video.
Visual Effects in Motion (3:42). Through a series of dissolves, we are presented with the raw footage, color-corrected versions, CG plates and final composites of key scenes in the film.
Storyboards: Building a Scene. A series of storyboards for key sequences.
Behind the Scenes Photo Gallery. A better-than-average collection, with most of the principal participants represented.
Trailers. The film’s teaser trailer and two theatrical trailers are included as separate extras, along with a trailer for the motion comic series. At startup, the disc plays trailers for Brooklyn’s Finest, the Starz series Spartacus: Blood and Sand and Overture Films/Anchor Bay on Blu-ray; these can be skipped with the top menu button and are separately available from the features menu. Also available from the features menu are trailers for Pandorum, Law Abiding Citizen and Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Easter Eggs. I wouldn’t have known to look for these if they hadn’t been mentioned in the PR materials, but if you look, they’re easy enough to find on the Features menu.
While listening to special feature participants discuss how Romero changed horror films by introducing social and political themes, and how Eisner wanted to follow his lead in The Crazies, I couldn’t help remembering the two guys sitting behind me when I saw the film theatrically. They didn’t seem all that receptive to social and political themes, because they were too intent on anticipating the next kill (whether of an innocent, a soldier or a crazy) and squealing with delight when it arrived. They were adults, but they sounded like kids playing a video game. As the credits rolled, they turned to each other to evaluate the film. They agreed that it was “OK”, but not great; the deaths weren’t graphic enough.
Afterward, I found myself wondering how well the subversively provocative content that Romero introduced into the horror genre can survive now that his shock approach has been mainstreamed into the culture. In a world where studio specialty divisions routinely deliver graphic bloodshed as pure sensation, does the audience even notice when these experiences come with ideas attached? (Please note that I am not advancing the tired old argument about audiences becoming “desensitized” to violence. If a real stabbing had occurred in front of these two guys in the theater, I’m sure they’d have fainted dead away.)
I don’t have a good answer, but I can say this much: Although The Crazies fully earns its R rating, this isn’t a film for people looking for splatter, gore and sadism. If that’s your interest, there’s a wide assortment of “torture porn” available. The Crazies works best on a psychological level in which wide open spaces suddenly feel claustrophobic and the sensation that everyone is out to get you turns out not to be a delusion, because they really are.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub