Among the many early George Romero films tapped so far for remake, “The Crazies” was perhaps the ripest candidate, since the 1973 original had a great premise somewhat underserved by the film itself. While not a slam dunk, this revamp by helmer Breck Eisner (of the enjoyable but underperforming “Sahara”) emerges an above-average genre piece that’s equal parts horror-meller and doomsday action thriller. B.O. prospects look healthy if unspectacular, with strong ancillary biz to follow.

Monsters of one sort or another may be a horror norm, but there’s always been something more deeply frightening about the notion of seemingly ordinary folk suddenly manifesting lunacy. The striking core idea in Romero and Paul McCollough’s ’73 screenplay was to turn a small town into a petri dish experiment in infectious insanity, contaminated water turning citizens into homicidal maniacs who still looked like the folks next door.

That version suffered from a low budget, choppy editing, some amateurish perfs and overemphasis on arguments between military personnel sent to contain the epidemic at any cost. Eisner and his scenarists (Scott Kosar, Ray Wright) make changes mostly for the better, ramping up the horror factor via tighter focus on the imperiled locals and the requisite hike in gory violence. Still, purists may argue it’s counterproductive to make the infected unsound in body as well as mind, their faces grotesquely marred and veined in the terminal stage.

The first sign that something is wrong in placid Ogden Marsh, Iowa, arrives when Sheriff David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant) is forced to gun down a neighbor who grimly marches into the high school baseball team’s season opener with a rifle. Soon afterward, Dutton and Deputy Russell Clank (Joe Anderson) discover a large plane recently crashed in a nearby lake — though rather strangely, it wasn’t reported missing — and deduce its suspicious chemical payload polluted the water supply.

More eruptions of irrational, lethal behavior follow as the military swoops in to quarantine the population, separating David and pregnant town-doctor wife Judy (Radha Mitchell). It’s unclear at first whether this heavily armed force has invaded to save the locals or exterminate them, thereby preventing the contagion’s wider spread.

More tense than truly shocking or scary, the pic does manage some good setpieces, notably in the ward, at a funeral parlor and during a most unpleasant ride through a car wash. (Strangely, the filmmakers drop the original’s most memorable bit, in which a sweet-faced granny gets up from her rocking chair to stab an Army grunt with knitting needles. Sharp eyes, however, may recognize that pic’s cult thesp Lynn Lowry in a hymn-singing, bicycle-riding cameo.)

There are some plausibility lapses in behavior — among the sane, that is — that succumb to routine horror convention. The script could have supplied a bit more human interest, too, as only Anderson’s increasingly trigger-happy, unstable deputy makes a distinct impression. Other leads are certainly competent, but character writing is on the bland side. Still, this retooled “Crazies” delivers the essential suspense goods with overall skill and a modicum of intelligence.

Pacing is generally tight, sense of place sharp (though location shooting was split between rural Iowa and Georgia), tech and design elements well tuned.

The Crazies

  • Production: An Overture Films release presented with Participation Media in association with Imagenation of an Aguilar/Georgaris production. Produced by Michael Aguilar, Dean Georgaris, Rob Cowan. Executive producers, George A. Romero, Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King. Directed by Breck Eisner. Screenplay, Scott Kosar, Ray Wright.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Maxime Alexandre; editor, Billy Fox; music, Mark Isham; production designer, Andrew Menzies; art director, Greg Berry; set decorator, Cindy La Jeunesse; costume designer, George L. Little; sound (DTS/SDDS/Dolby Digital), Steve Maslow, Gregg Landaker; supervising sound editors/designers, Laurent Kossayan, Jeremy Peirson; visual effects supervisor, Ron Thornton; visual effects, Zoic Studios BC, XY&Z Visual Effects, Comen VFX, Amalgamated Pixels; prosthetic makeup effects, Robert Hall; stunt coordinator, E.J. Foerster; associate producer, Alexander W. Kogan Jr.; assistant director, Mark Cotone; second unit director, Foerster; second unit camera, Duane Manwiller; casting, John Papsidera. Reviewed at San Francisco, Feb. 24, 2010. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 101 MIN.
  • With: Sheriff David Dutton - Timothy Olyphant Dr. Judy Dutton - Radha Mitchell Russell Clank - Joe Anderson Becca Darling - Danielle Panabaker With: Christie Lynn Smith, Brett Rickaby, Preston Bailey, John Aylward, Joe Reegan, Glenn Morshower, Larry Cedar, Gregory Sporleder, Mike Hickman, Lisa K. Wyatt, Justin Welborn, Lynn Lowry.