The Crazies is one of zombie king George Romero’s lesser-known masterpieces. While not technically a zombie flick, The Crazies revolves around a government experiment that seeps into the water supply of a small town and turns the residents... well, crazy. Devolving to their base animal instincts, the town destroys itself. We spoke to director Breck Eisner on how he went about remaking a cult classic, and getting the blessing on the film from the king himself.
FEARnet: How did you get involved with The Crazies?
Breck Eisner: Michael Aguilar and Dean Goergaris - two of the producers - had a deal at Paramount. They had optioned the rights to The Crazies directly from Romero, and had a draft written by Scott Kosar. I was approached at that point. The thing that really drew me was the fact that they optioned the story directly from Romero, which meant he was going to be an executive producer, and he supported the idea of remaking this movie. That appealed to me. I liked the script, although I had a somewhat divergent take on it, so I hired another writer, Ray Wright, to do a rewrite. I really enjoyed the original movie and felt it was ripe for a reinvention.
What changed from that first draft of the script to what we will see on screen?
The first draft followed the structure of the original film a little more closely. The original and the first draft both had this bifurcated view: the movie was half from the point of view of the military and half from the point of view of the townspeople. I felt that by putting any of the movie in the military’s point of view, it turned the movie more towards action and less towards horror. I worked with the writers and we excised the military’s point of view and focused on the point of view of the hero and the townsfolk. I think it makes the movie scarier, and makes it a darker, more mysterious journey.
How involved was Romero?
His involvement was primarily at the beginning, before I was there. Making the deal, coming up with the basic concept, stuff like that. Once I was there, his view was that I should make the movie and do my own thing. When it was done, we set up a screening and showed him the movie. I called him up after, and he had positive things to say about the movie - he was quite excited about it. That was a nerve-wracking call for me, though! As I dialed the number, I kept thinking to myself, “Do I call him Mr. Romero? George? What do I say?”
So I take it you are a Romero fan?
Yeah, I am. It was both exciting and terrifying to remake one of his movies.
How was it to tackle one of Romero’s lesser-known films?
That definitely made it easier. The Crazies, while lesser-known, is definitely known to true cinephiles and horror fans. But it’s one that doesn’t have the same exposure as his other films. It also suffered from a very low budget. It impacted the scale of the movie. In a movie where the military is supposed to quarantine an entire town have a massive show of force, some budget is required to execute that, as well as execute the horror set pieces. The limited budget of the original - I think he had like $20,000 to make it - was something that we were able to overcome. Ours was a modest budget by Hollywood standards, but still far more than Romero had for the original.
Romero’s films are always laden with social commentary. Did you really push the message in The Crazies or did you let it simmer under the surface?
For me, remaking one of Romero’s films, it is crucial to have the social commentary. It’s in the DNA of his early works. But what is also crucial is getting an audience. You can have a great social commentary in a movie, but if it is so overt, it won’t be an enjoyable experience and your audience simply won’t watch the movie. It’s a careful line to balance on. First and foremost, the movie is entertainment - I hope. It’s scary, it’s thrilling, it’s horrific, it’s dynamic. But in the experience you aren’t thinking about the social commentary, but hopefully it is imprinted in your mind.
Do you consider The Crazies to be a zombie film?
It’s definitely not a zombie film. That’s one of the things I like about it. Obviously, when you say “Romero,” you associate his name with zombies. When you see the TV ads, it feels like a zombie movie, if only due to the pure power of montage. But zombies are - in theory - undead human beings who are decaying. They all have a collective conscious. They all want to eat brains or infect, and they all act as one. The concept of the infected in The Crazies is that they all maintain some sense of their deep psyche. They all act differently, and they may act out based on their own deep-seated desires. That is what keeps it distinctly different from zombies.
There was a sort of “shuffling” quality to The Crazies in the original. It feels a little dated today, but it didn’t in 1973. The challenge of watching a horror movie made in the 1970s or something is you have to try to watch it with the eyes of the audience of the day. What really emboldened my thought on remaking The Crazies - the audience is totally different today. It’s a movie that still exists under the shadow of war - Vietnam for the original, Iraq for the current audience. You have to make a movie that is true to the original but also true to the audience.
Do you prefer your zombies fast or slow?
It totally depends on the movie. If it’s Shaun of the Dead - I love that movie - I like them rambling, because it suits the movie. If it’s 28 Days Later, and the zombies are a real threat, I like them fast and aggressive. More than anything though, I like it when someone comes up with something new.
So you will pretty much take your zombies however you can get them.
I do like my zombies. As long as the movie is good, the characters are good, and something unique is happening, I’ll never get tired of zombies.
You have a number of genre credits to your name. Was that by accident or by design?
Design. I love the horror genre. Sci-fi, horror, and action are what I go to see when I go to the movies. Things like The Omen, The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, John Carpenter’s The Thing. The Shining is one of my all-time favorite movies. Back then, people didn’t say, “It’s a horror movie - let’s make it scary.” They said, “It’s a horror movie. Who are the characters? What is the story? What are the relationships? Let’s build all that, and let’s make it really fucking scary. I tried to do that with The Crazies. We spent time developing the relationships and developing the town and the world, then we turn it on its side and let it destruct all around these characters.
There are people out there who can do better kills than I can. for me, The Crazies was not about trying to out-do all the kills. I did want creative ones and I wanted to do them well, but I wanted to do a story that people were really vested in, characters they are vested in, then watching the terror and horror that unfolds when it is all broken apart. For me, that’s the kind of horror I really like.