28 February 2010

Can the government be trusted? In "The Crazies," the answer is "no"

In the case of this year's remake of George Romero's 1973 film "The Crazies," the message is simple: the government wasn't trustworthy then, and it isn't trustworthy now.
Both films focus on the after-affects of the accidental release of a government chemical weapon on a small American town. The weapon, designed to destabilize large population groups, does exactly what it is designed to do, and soon, chaos ensues. A military quarantine is called, and soon, troops in bio suits are randomly killing infected (and in 2010's remake) non-infected civilians in an effort to keep order. One of the story's central themes is distrust of the government, but the new remake takes that and adds a different twist through the use of characters and situations we've seen more recent "social collapse" films, like "28 Days Later" and "I Am Legend." The results of this experiment are mixed.
One of "The Crazies" strongest assets is its story line. It's perhaps not a stretch to imagine that the government WOULD order a quarantine/culling to ensure the maintenance of the prevailing social order. The original tapped into this fear by focusing almost exclusively on the heavy-handedness of the military response, as evidenced in a scene where soldiers in bio suits turn flamethrowers on infected civilians (known as "Crazies") to a stirring score of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." Part of what made the original so disturbing was the reversal of every day logic and situations, like a scene where a normal-looking elderly woman attacks a soldier using her sewing needles. It was effective because it was the everyday turned upside down.
Unfortunately, the remake is a bit heavy-handed in its own attempts to scare us. The infected civilians in the remake eventually morph not into normal-looking insane people (which made the original version more disturbing) but into blood-spattered zombies. By the end of the film, one of the last infected people we see almost has what looks like green skin and scales. So are these people the living dead? Or just crazy? We're never quite sure. This inconsistency, combined with cheap "quiet/loud, jump out of a quiet corner" scenes, comes off as an over-the-top attempt to disturb the viewers. It doesn't quite work as a thriller, but it has too much of a story to be the B-rate horror it aspires to.
I couldn't help but notice several cultural differences as well. In the original version, written during Vietnam, all of the soldiers are portrayed as faceless killing machines. In the updated version, there is a scene when one of the soldiers is captured by uninfected survivors, and revealed to be a whimpering, double-chinned teenager under all of the bio gear. He promises not to tell about the survivors if he is let go, and, in the end, keeps his word. It's perhaps emblematic of the nuanced anti-war sentiments that developed in the wake of Vietnam. Unlike then, people today from all political spectrums seem to agree (or at least pay lip service) to the idea of supporting the troops even if they are against the war.
The remake, much like the original, attempts to tap into the anger people have (for different reasons) against the United States government. One scene in the remake seems to speak directly to this theory. A government official is captured after the uninfected survivors cause his car to crash. He acts haughty, and asks the sheriff, "What do you want? An apology?" It unsubtly speaks directly towards the anger people have against the government hubris that lead to the film's catastrophic consequences (and the real-life government's bailouts and spending in the midst of dire job forecasts). Government, in both films, is the main hindrance to a truly humanistic response. An example: the sheriff figures out that the water supply of the town is tainted with the chemical, and the mayor (who seemed to be chosen based on how he would look as "an infected") stares up at him from his swimming pool (subtle) and says he can't shut the water off on a hunch. The sheriff ends up doing it anyway, but by that point, it is too late.
After some (spoiler alert) really impressive nuclear special effects, the film ends with the two main characters walking towards Cedar Rapids, which, unknown to them, has been selected for the same kind of quarantine they just escaped from.
While I enjoyed the remake of "The Crazies," I think the original was superior, even if its production values were far less, because it relied on the story more. It was a simple fable about how easy it is to disrupt the fabric of every day living, and how the impersonal bureaucracy we think we can turn to for help can sometimes turn out to be worse than the problems we are running from. Ruling structures, these films remind us, will do what benefits the status quo, and if everyone benefits, great. If not, there is plenty of fuel in the flamethrower tank to wipe away any discontent. It is a valid warning now just as it was then.

No comments: