Travis Zariwny’s Cabin Fever is a scene-for-scene remake of Eli Roth’s 2002 horror film, using the same script by Roth and Randy Pearlstein, yet there’s a subtle flatness to the new version that dishonorably distinguishes it from its predecessor. For all its derivations, most notably from The Last House on the Left and The Evil Dead, Roth’s Cabin Fever has a rude, feral energy. Savage gore, broad, occasionally tone-deaf comedy, and sporadic bursts of surprisingly intense beauty all comingled with confident unease. Zariwny predictably scrubs all the edges and eccentricities down, however, fashioning another impersonally polished cash grab.
If nothing else, a contrast between the new and old versions of the film can offer an illustration of how differing filmmakers and contexts can fluidly inform and affect identical material. In both productions, the narrative pivots on the resentment brewing between the locals of a rural woodland community and a group of privileged, callow college students inevitably in town to party, as physicalized by a flesh-eating disease. Roth owned the unpleasantness of this clichéd opposition, embracing an exploitation film’s potential for reveling in guttural class warfare, while Zariwny detachedly regards the material as shtick to be waded through with quotation marks.
The rednecks in the original Cabin Fever, with their references to a “nigger” that a gun was meant for, felt as if they had actually climbed out of the recesses of America’s id. By contrast, the villains of Zariwny’s remake are figuratively toothless cartoon bumpkins, obviously played by slumming, costumed actors, who’re less convincing and scary than even the deliberately comedic hillbillies of The Cabin in the Woods. Roth’s college students emitted a memorably sleazy sense of self-regard and sexual hunger, while their contemporary brethren suggest blandly scrubbed and outfitted action figures who’ve been popped out of a 1980s-era horror-movie playset.
This leaves the audience with the plot and its set pieces, which Zariwny also bungles. The leg-shaving scene, a memorable gross-out gag in the original, is awkwardly prolonged in the remake so as to pointlessly, unimaginatively ratchet up the gore. The revelation of the flesh-eating virus’s source, a queasy moment in Roth’s film, is reduced here to a generic action-movie beat; each scene segues artlessly and unexcitingly into another, as if Zariwny were checking off each item on his list of obligations to Roth.
There was a sense in the first Cabin Fever of a young genre fan trying to prove himself, attempting to simultaneously honor and top his favorite films. Roth didn’t clear the fence of his ambitions, but he had moxie and passion, informing his project with anarchic zeal. Zariwny’s remake is a dull waxwork appropriation of a film that was, itself, already an appropriation.