There was an outcry from horror fans when the remake of The Crazies was announced.  Despite the original film’s flawed nature, anything with the name “George Romero” on it tends to be considered hallowed ground by genre enthusiasts.  It didn’t help that the film was being done by a director (Breck Eisner) not known for horror and used zombie-style makeup for the advanced phases of its titular infected agressors.  Even the more open-minded horrorphiles were left wondering if it would be just another Hollywood smash-and-grab of a vintage concept.

Thankfully, the 2010 version of The Crazies is a lot better than it first seemed.  It makes a few mistakes along the way but it also represents a leaner, more focused version of the original film’s concept.  Better yet, it hits the required suspense beats in an effective and often inspired fashion.

Scott Kosar and Ray Wright’s script retains several key plot elements and heartland setting of the original film but delivers them in a more streamlined style.  David (Timothy Olyphant) is the sheriff of a small town in Iowa who finds himself on the wrong side of public opinion after he is forced to shoot a blank-eyed, shotgun-toting citizen who threatened a kids’ baseball game.  Meanwhile, his doctor wife Judy (Radha Mitchell) is shocked when a man she examined for health problems goes insane and torches his family’s home.

With the help of his deputy, Russell (Joe Anderson), David discovers that a military plane crashed into a nearby lake that feeds into the town’s water supply.  Unfortunately, their realization that a biological weapon in the plane has contaminated the town coincides with the arrival of the military, who begin herding the townspeople into an internment camp and shooting dissenters.  David, Judy and Russell team up with another escapee and try to escape the chaos as the military and the infected townspeople close in from either side.

The best thing about the remake of The Crazies is its no-nonsense attitude: while it shows respect and admiration for its source material, it also pares it down to a manageable plotline.  The protagonists register more strongly because they are the main focus and serve as our eyes and ears into the film’s world.  The film jettisons the military subplots that cluttered the original film, limiting to their face time to the occasional broad stroke (a scared and uninformed foot soldier, a bureaucrat who remains unapologetic even with a gun aimed at him) that sells the military’s dehumanized menace better than a barrage of scenes could.  The filmmakers understand many viewers are apprehensive about the government’s ability to handle such situations in a post-Katrina/9-11 America and effectively play on that fear.

It also helps that The Crazies is populated with strong actors who engage the audience without overdoing it.  Olyphant makes a strong leading man, thoughtful but ready to fight.  Mitchell is a worthy co-lead, delivering emotion without devolving into hysterics and handling her part of the action nicely.  However, the best performance might come from Anderson as the deputy: what could have been another comic relief/second-banana role becomes quite emotionally affecting as the situation takes its toll on the character and Anderson calibrates his mental/emotional shifts with subtlety and style.

The Crazies also boasts inspired direction by Breck Eisner.  The script’s jittery tone is punctuated by a string of setpieces that turn everyday places – a car wash, a baby’s nursery, a truck stop – into arenas for horrific showdowns and Eisner digs into each of these beats with gusto.  The results play well, especially a truly squirm-inducing moment in the town’s morgue involving a bonesaw.  He has the occasional stylistic lapse (a jump scare every so often, some unnecessary shaky-cam and flash-cutting near the end) but overall shows a greater knack for suspense and atmosphere than you would expect from a first-time horror director.

In fact, this remake really doesn’t run into trouble until the last 10 minutes.  At this point, the plot begins to run out of steam and stretches for a final setpiece that strains credibility.  However, the actors continue to deliver nicely to the end credits and the parting shot has a satiric bite that aligns itself with Romero’s film.  Flaws and all, the 2010 redux of The Crazies is one of the best entries in the modern horror-remake cycle.