Director Breck Eisner, son of Disney's ex-C.E.O. Michael, did not approach remaking George Romero's The Crazies thinking to update that film's top-down political cartoon of the bureaucracy at the heart of the American military. That angle isn't so much dismissed as incorporated more inconspicuously into Eisner's meat-and-potatoes remake, easily the most accomplished bit of contextless, big-budget pre-apocalyptic doomsaying since Zack Snyder's 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead.
The Crazies breaks no new ground and offers no startling new insights about how the military operates save for the obvious "one hand doesn't know what the other is doing let alone what the brains giving it orders is thinking." Instead, Eisner does what even Romero couldn't and serves up a taut thriller that never slackens long enough to lose its hold on the viewer. Formula-based horror hasn't looked this good doing nothing but the basics in a while.
Before the killing starts, Eisner and screenwriter Scott Kosar and Ray Wright begin with a restless tour of Stephen King's blue-collar America, eager to show just how serious they are about making their zombie epidemic relentlessly frightening. While Eisner & Co. start their film with a shot of a burning house to prove its kinship to Romero's original, their story really begins like King's stories often do with a musical quotation, specifically a Johnny Cash cover of "We'll Meet Again." From there, we meet Sheriff David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant), a small-town cop with his thumbs permanently hitched into his jeans' belt loops, and his deputy Russell (Joe Anderson). Both men are still normal at this point, only transforming into action heroes once the village people are exposed to a mysterious chemical introduced to the town's water supply after an airliner crashes into a nearby stream.
That'll change soon enough as Eisner directs us through the first act quickly and efficiently like some kind of German car engineer. We see the town, the local high school sports hero, Dutton's wife (Radha Mitchell), the first victims, the town's coroner (twice) and even the mayor all in a flash. The transition from quiet Everytown, U.S.A. to abandoned streets littered with flaming cars and furtive bands of "crazies," a cross between Romero's zombies and the pod people of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, cannot come quickly enough.
Impatient as they may be, the filmmakers never lose sight of what's important, namely keeping Dutton's rag-tag group of survivors sympathetic and perpetually in peril. That's quite a feat considering how familiar and non-threatening recent depictions of Ragnarok have become (2012, I'm looking at you and I wish I wasn't). There's a bracing dedication to micro-level detail in Eisner's skillful direction that makes him an expert craftsman then an artiste. He knows when to let the frame choke his ragged heroes and when to let them breath and, more importantly, the kind of obstacles he needs to put in their way to keep the story not only consistently tense but involving.
At any moment, the rote nature of the film's story could've ruined the film's delicate atmosphere, but that never happens—not when everywhere in the town, from barns to car washes, is retooled as a site for the next confrontation. There's no safe place and no place safe here, making the final shot of—spoilers!—Dutton and his wife standing in awe of a blooming mushroom cloud an awesome reminder of the paranoiac shock a competent fantasy can instill.