Contemporary horror is a cesspool. Its entrants are neither scary nor entertaining nor remotely organized. So here’s something weird: “The Crazies” is all of those things. Yeah, it’s derivative and, yeah, the second half is too reliant upon jack-in-the-box spooks, but let’s not get too greedy here. This is a cohesive, plot-driven, well acted horror film. A pitchfork through the chest has never been such a pleasant surprise.

“The Crazies”

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A remake of George Romero’s 1973 film of the same name, “The Crazies” takes place in Ogden Marsh, Iowa, where David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant, “Live Free or Die Hard”) is the town sheriff and his wife Judy (Radha Mitchell, “Silent Hill”) is the town doctor and that crazy man on the high school baseball field with the shotgun is — uh oh. Residents of the peaceful little town begin behaving strangely and violently, and David has to protect his pregnant wife and stately sheriff mustache from their growing lunacy.

The film works the farmers-gone-psycho angle best in the beginning, when neither David nor Judy has a clue what the hell is going on with their neighbors. Olyphant and Mitchell, veterans of the crappy horror circuit, have mastered confusion and determination, the two necessary faces for actors working in the genre. Joining them on their Corn Nuts survival quest is David’s deputy Russell, played with an admirably uncertain state of sanity and a genuine hick accent by England’s Joe Anderson (“Amelia”). The trio sets itself apart from standard horror protagonists: they’re not young or hip or sexy or hedonistic, and the audience’s rooting interest in their endurance is strengthened because of it.

But after a rough encounter with a big steaming plate of plot device, both the characters and the audience have a little too much information to work with and the film makes an unfortunate switch from unease and tension to good old shock value. Our ragtag group of plucky survivors makes its way through a series of gory set pieces in such a resolute state that it’s hard to fear for their survival even when it’s not hard to jump at the surprises.

And the jumps are great. “The Crazies” deliberately avoids the cheeseball dream sequences and instead uses dramatic irony to full effect. The pitchfork through the chest doesn’t come out of nowhere; you see it scraping along the floor, moving from body to body, and there’s nothing the characters or the audience can do about it. Waiting for the killer blow is far more intense and makes a better film than simply jamming a knife into someone’s head from off-screen just because no one was expecting it.

Even those who haven’t felt forced to scour the international market for good horror probably remember 2002’s “28 Days Later.” Like “The Crazies,” “28 Days Later” focuses on a small group of survivors trying to make sense of the chaos around them and struggling to retain a semblance of humanity in a frothing sea of zombie inhumanity. The film was lauded for its examination of what it means, exactly, to be human in the first place. But audiences just looking for zombie scares might have been bored by its deliberate pace.

Filmmaker Kevin Smith has an anecdote that’s now a YouTube mainstay about his pitch meeting for a Superman movie with wacky Hollywood producer Jon Peters. Smith’s script was good, Peters told him, but it needed more action beats, one every ten pages or so. Superman needs to fight some polar bears here. He needs a gay robot sidekick here. And he has to fight a giant spider in the third act. “The Crazies” is a gutted version of “28 Days Later” with a truckload of leftover Jon Peters Action Beats. It’s the perfect film for anyone who doesn’t want morality sauce getting on his zombie platter.

“The Crazies” is a treat for American horror fans. Though it might be formulaic, redundant and rehashed, it’s still a far greater effort to compose a real film — not just a sequence of teens getting murdered — than most of the garbage that floats through modern horror cinema.

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