Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell are a couple in a town battling for survival. (Saeed Adyani / Overture…)
Who wouldn't want the best for a movie with such a deliciously reactionary name like "The Crazies"? It first belonged to zombiemeister George A. Romero's 1973 indie provocation, centered on a small town's mental and physical disintegration following a mysterious water contamination. It now marks the latest in jacked-up horror remakes ("Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "Halloween," "The Hills Have Eyes") that replace iconoclastic chills with paint-by-numbers shocks.
Things start promisingly spooky enough in director Breck Eisner's version, when inhabitants of Iowa farming community Ogden Marsh begin shifting from folksy to frowny, and finally homicidal. Just when perceptive Sheriff David (reliable screen-holder Timothy Olyphant) and his pregnant doctor wife, Judy (Radha Mitchell, serious as a heart attack), are beginning to grasp the nature of this town-wide change -- which stems from a secret plane crash releasing a deadly man-made toxin -- they're violently swept up in a crude military containment operation.
It soon becomes clear that any citizen -- corrupted or not -- is expendable. After escaping government clutches, they're joined by David's deputy (Joe Anderson) and Judy's medical assistant Becca (Danielle Panabaker) in becoming fugitives in their own backyard, no longer trusting of once-recognizable neighbors or their own supposed protectors.
As epidemic scenarios go, "The Crazies" has solid underpinnings for going in any direction: bloody social commentary or nasty good time. But if Romero's chaos-fueled original, pockmarked with troops-versus-civilian shootouts and bureaucratic bickering, was intended to mirror a fractured society's uneasy pulse (think: Vietnam), Eisner's loud, squishy and jokey redo simply reflects other movies, including westerns, disaster flicks and zombie creep-outs. (Eisner and writers Scott Kosar and Ray Wright play up the infected-as-undead element a lot more than Romero ever did, oddly enough.)
Not that there's shame in favoring fright tactics and gory set pieces over sledgehammer points about rampant militarism. But why keep the sledgehammer? Nearly every scare in "The Crazies" is telegraphed, whether by suddenly too-tight photography or shrieky crescendos of sound. After a while, you'll just stop counting the arms of friends or foes jerking into frame, and cover your ears waiting for the expected sonic exclamation point. The movie's attitude toward carnage, meanwhile, is the most schizoid, asking us to toggle between emotional loss (when a beloved character dies), over-the-top giggles (take that, mindless killer!) and -- in an ill-advised Holocaust allusion -- moral outrage. Whichever the reaction, though, "The Crazies" only ever amounts to genre-regimented madness.