The Crazies (2009) opens with the first game of the baseball season in the small town of Ogden Marsh. Teenagers are out on the field playing, and the sheriff is standing with his deputy, making jokes about the pitcher's speeding tickets. It's a scene that doesn't seem to be in any hurry at all, we get a feel for the town and the good natured sheriff right away. Even when a man comes marching toward the game from across the field, with a shotgun in his hands, it still feels under control. "You're drunk," the sheriff tells him. He knows the man, and thinks he understands the situation. "Just put the gun down."
The man is not drunk. This is the beginning of the end.
The Crazies is a remake of a George Romero movie, and one of the few remakes that surpasses its source material. It is stylish without being showy. Where most horror movies looking to be edgy would open with harsh, threatening music, The Crazies follows in the footsteps of another great remake, Dawn of the Dead, and opens with the sad slow voice of Johnny Cash. The camera work spends as much time on the quiet beauty of the small town as it does on the destruction and mayhem to come.
The plot follows a pretty obvious formula, but with more compassion than you might expect. In the beginning, it's an outbreak-zombie movie in a small town, and yet it understands that "small town" doesn't mean redneck. There's no condescending "simpler way of life" feel, either. This is simply where and how the characters live. When things start going wrong, when people start turning into monsters, they are not just monsters. People from their lives mourn them. The survivors who are forced to shoot them in self-defence struggle with guilt over killing someone they knew.
When the military squads show up in gas masks to quarantine the town, they manhandle everyone. This is the new villain. But even they don't stay faceless and monstrous. It isn't long before we're shown a soldier without his mask, terrified because his superiors told him he would die without it, told him there was no hope of saving these people.
The relationships between the main characters aren't complicated. The Sheriff is married to the doctor, and they're expecting a child. The deputy is a bit of a wild card, but has a loyalty to the badge. There's not a lot you can say about any of them, but they're believable and appealing.
There are some tense, inventive set-pieces that keep us from ever getting too comfortable, especially a scene that takes place in a car wash, and a horrifyingly slow murder rampage in a make-shift hospital ward. But it's the emotional intelligence that makes this movie feel like more than the sum of its scares. The Crazies feels measured and intelligent. This is a completely formulaic movie that refuses to over-simplify.