Halloween’s a great time of year, not just because of house parties, fancy dress and Trick or Treat; you get some great horror films on television, gems you probably won’t see on the small screen for another twelve months.
I have plenty of favourite horror films, and could spend ages explaining why I keep coming back to them, giving myself all kinds of messed up nightmares. Up there in my list, bordering on obsession, is Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead trilogy. I’m going to go through each film and why, if you have never seen them, you owe it to yourself to give them a go: they are riotous, utterly bonkers, ridiculously good fun! Also, I’m giving Fede Alvarez’s remake, which I deliberately avoided at the cinema, a go. I am putting my love for all things Campbell aside to find out if the remake deserves a place on my DVD shelf, or whether the disc will end up being a fancy coaster for my coffee.
The Evil Dead (1981)
If you were to sum up The Evil Dead to someone who had never seen the film before, it sounds like it’s on a mission to tick off every horror cliché: Two guys, three girls go for a break in a remote cabin, where demons lurk in the nearby woods, summoned by an incantation from a book bound in human skin, the Book of the Dead. Most horror films struggle to have one original set piece; The Evil Dead has dozens of them. Raimi’s big break is a love letter to schlock horror, particularly the drive-in films of the seventies, titles such as Dennis Donnelly’s The Toolbox Murders and Abel Ferrara’s The Driller Killer, where the critics, as well as taste and decency, turned a blind eye.
The Evil Dead is original for so many reasons. First off, especially at the time of its release, it was unusual to see a male protagonist in a horror film. Shaun of the Dead’s director, Edgar Wright, perfectly summed up Raimi’s film when he said, “Most horror films are about people getting picked off; The Evil Dead is about someone being picked on.” Bruce Campbell’s Ash spends most of the film’s ninety minutes finding out what it’s like to be a human Tom from Tom and Jerry, as well as being drenched in blood and God only knows what else. If this was any other horror film then Ash would be your typical Jock character, where you would count down the minutes, hoping he gets killed off. Instead, Bruce Campbell more-or-less plays himself in The Evil Dead; Ash is the comedian in class, the loveable geek.
Very few horror films concentrate on character arcs as well as scares, and The Evil Dead is no exception. Yet where most horror films lose any suspension of disbelief due to the cheesy acting going on onscreen, this allows The Evil Dead to get away with its splatter and occasionally ropey special effects. Richard Demanincor’s performance as Scott is a hoot; when things kick off in the cabin, Scott seems incapable of opening his mouth without shouting.
Ash does get some character development, even if it’s not quite Sigourney Weaver in Aliens. Early on, Ash gives his girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker – who does a brilliant job of swapping from Girl Next Door, to being genuinely unnerving when she is possessed) a necklace. This scene very nearly crosses the line into laugh out loud corny, but Campbell’s performance, pretending to be asleep as Linda opens her present, stops this. For the first half of the film, Ash is virtually useless. So long as Linda is alright, Ash is happy to let Scott do all the work. While Linda is alive, Ash still has a strong grip on his sanity, everyone and everything else going crazy around him. It is not until Linda becomes one of the Evil Dead, that Ash has to become the tough guy. The early scene with Ash giving Linda the necklace is mirrored when he ends up burying her, Ash wondering if Linda is looking at him while he digs the grave. Any guy who has just had to chop up his girlfriend would probably lose their marbles, and Sam Raimi has a lot of fun with the film when Ash goes mad, bringing me onto another reason why The Evil Dead is often imitated, but never bettered: the visuals and sound design, which are mouth-hanging-wide-open inventive.
Within the first ten minutes of The Evil Dead, one thing is clear: these kids won’t make it out alive! The film opens from the viewpoint of the demonic entity in the woods (much more ominous than the opening helicopter shots in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining), manically swooping round a lake before careering into the side of Ash’s car. This is then followed by one of the most uncomfortable and agonising build ups ever seen in a horror film: A long tracking shot hovers over the car, following it up to the cabin. There is no sound except for a swing relentlessly banging against a wall, while the music starts off quiet, getting louder and louder. When Scott finds the key to the front door and opens it, the swing, the music, all other sounds stop. As the teenagers cross the threshold into the cabin, you’re thinking one thing; “You’re all dead.”
There is very little to say about the tracking shots in The Evil Dead that can’t be found in numerous reviews. What I will say is that plenty of horror films use POV shots, the viewer now voyeur. Raimi goes one step further; you end up being possessed, just like the characters. Normally in a slasher film you have the POV shot of the killer watching from outside, then a shot inside the house, normally involving a woman taking her clothes off, followed by the killer appearing from off-camera. Raimi gives us no respite, there is no cut away from the POV shot of the demon outside to when it attacks, smashing through a window; the viewer is The Evil Dead.
With low budget horror films, especially in the seventies and eighties, the main problem was sound design. Loud bangs, designed to make you jump, sound like they came from across the street, while an actor’s dialogue, however redundant, is reduced to barely audible muttering. Raimi knows his horror and is well aware that it’s not just make-up and buckets of gore that frightens people; sound plays a key role in scaring the living hell out of an audience.
When Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) is chased through the woods by a POV shot of the demon, not only do you have trees falling down, the view obscured by fog, this is accompanied by an unnerving and effective use of sound. Raimi recorded voices moaning and chanting, then slowed the recording right down during editing. The first time you watch this scene you will be thinking, “Run, damn it! RUN!” No one would blame you if you yelled at your TV.
Raimi is also aware of the impact silence can have in a film. When Shelly (Theresa Tilly) is literally attacked by a POV shot, you have this excruciating build up as Scott searches the cabin for her, all of it in silence. You know the jolt is coming, and Raimi teases us with plenty of moments where the possessed Shelly could jump out, but doesn’t, dragging out this scene until Shelly finally appears, but at the one moment you least expect it.
Like the schlock horror that Raimi pays homage to, you do watch the film wondering if its director is one-hundred-percent sane, as it juxtaposes wince-inducing gore with hysterical laughs. Moments after being buried, a possessed Linda crawls out of the ground, clawing chunks out of Ash’s leg. This is followed by Ash smacking the demonic Linda round the head, Punch and Judy-style, with a piece of timber. Most of the violence is so cartoonish, exaggerated, and downright disgusting, you can’t help but laugh at what Bruce Campbell is forced to go through.
Here in the UK, The Evil Dead was banned as one of the “video nasties". Before the media uproar, film censors were still concentrating on cinema releases, the irony being that a film could have three minutes cut from its running time on the big screen, but on video it would be untouched. When the British media found out, it was all over the front pages of newspapers such as the Daily Mail, with headlines such as, “Rape of our children’s minds” and “Ban video sadism now.”
The Evil Dead was literally seen as evil, and, for a long time in the UK, the only way to see it would be to go round a friend’s house, who had managed to get hold of a third generation copy. Watching the film today, it seems ridiculous that it was at the centre of such a venomous press campaign, and that Sam Raimi had to defend himself in Leeds Crown Court. The film’s violence does not take itself seriously like other banned films such as Tony Maylam’s The Burning, or is as misogynistic as James Kenelm Clarke’s Exposé, but the media did have one strong argument: the tree rape scene.
During filming, Raimi told Ellen Sandweiss that the scene would be subtle, with fog used to obscure what is happening. When Sandweiss went to the premiere (with her parents!), she was more than a little surprised to discover the scene included a shot of her legs open and a vine going somewhere that vines are not supposed to go. Without sounding like a Daily Mail reader, this scene is what stops the film getting five stars from me. I appreciate that with The Evil Dead, Raimi was trying to create a waking nightmare, something unrelenting, frightening, and pretends there is no such word as logic, much like Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. You could still have had the rape scene, but leave it to the viewer’s imagination rather than that vine being added in post-production. The whole scene feels at odds with the rest of The Evil Dead, like it’s been thrown in from a different film. All the other violence is over-the-top and cannot be taken seriously, while this scene is uncomfortable to watch. It’s interesting that, while the majority of scenes from The Evil Dead are re-shot in Evil Dead 2, the tree rape scene is not one of them. Perhaps when Sam Raimi was on trial in Leeds, he realised he had gone too far.
When The Evil Dead was originally released on video, it had Stephen King’s quote in massive front across the cover, “One of the most ferociously original horror movies ever made,” no doubt, at the time, helping the video become the most stolen in America. With their $350,000 budget, Sam Raimi and his team created some of the most well-crafted scares in the horror genre, as well as plenty of gloriously twisted laughs. Many horror films are given praise when released in the cinema and are quickly forgotten, while The Evil Dead has a devoted fan base that keeps growing with every new generation that discovers it on DVD or late-night TV. The film deserves its reputation; few directors could make a film with the same frenetic energy that Raimi had when he made The Evil Dead.
Perhaps that’s the only other criticism with The Evil Dead, the inevitable imitators it spawned: the Hostels, the Saws, the straight-to-DVD horror films. Less talented directors have watched The Evil Dead and thought, “I can do that!” and you merely end up with bucket-loads of blood on the screen. If you had never seen a horror film before, you would think the genre had creative ideas to spare. Sadly, audiences would much rather pay to see the same thing (sometimes the fourth or fifth sequel) over and over. This is why The Evil Dead is, no arguments, one of the finest horror films you will ever see, and why Raimi and Campbell are cult heroes to so many.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987)
Here’s a scary thought: Evil Dead 2 almost never happened. If Sam Raimi had his way, it’s unlikely the film would ever have been made. What changed his mind? A film called Crimewave and some interfering studio execs. While The Evil Dead had made Raimi and Campbell celebrated names in the eighties (infamous here in the UK), they never planned on being “The Guys Who Made Evil Dead.” Raimi and Campbell had other projects, but Columbia Pictures, who released Crimewave, had other ideas. In interviews, Raimi has freely admitted that the final cut of Crimewave is nothing like what he originally conceived, with only a handful of scenes surviving being tampered with during editing. The film sank without trace, leaving a massive question mark over Raimi and Campbell’s careers. There was only one option, one last ditch effort: Evil Dead 2.
Unbelievably, at the time, Raimi struggled to get funding for a sequel to The Evil Dead. He even went to Coca-Cola, who were interested in branching out into the film business, but was shown the door. Luckily, help came from one of The Evil Dead’s biggest fans. In an interview for Twilight Zone Magazine, Stephen King raved about Raimi’s debut, helping to resurrect the film on video after it got swept under the rug at the cinema. Speaking to Dino De Laurentiis, King managed to convince the film producer to fetch his wallet and fund Evil Dead 2.
You would think, when watching Evil Dead 2, that Raimi knew all along how he would follow up his feature-length debut, but far from it. As Bruce Campbell once pointed out, “The tricky thing about sequels that were never planned: they were never planned.” At the end of The Evil Dead, everyone dies. In the closing scene, Ash is attacked by the film’s frenzied POV shot. Spinning round, he screams and the credits roll to the soundtrack of some lively swing music, Looney Tunes style, as if to say, “That’s all folks!” There’s no ambiguity here: Ash has been killed off.
Raimi gets around this by his “To hell with it” attitude; he pretends the events of the first film never happened. Originally Raimi wanted to do a prologue using footage from the original film, but, with The Evil Dead having been sold to numerous territories, it was a legal nightmare to try and get the rights. Instead, Raimi filmed the prologue from scratch, making changes along the way. For anyone who has seen the first film, it is a game of Spot the Difference, Evil Dead 2 only featuring Ash and Linda (played this time by Denise Bixler), with no mention of Cheryl, Scott or Shelly.
The biggest difference between the two films is Bruce Campbell’s portrayal of Ash. Throughout the majority of The Evil Dead, Ash is spineless and no help whatsoever, only stepping up when he has no choice and, even then, he looks uncomfortable playing the hero. The Ash in Evil Dead 2 is Humphrey Bogart with a chainsaw (he doesn’t call Annie – Sarah Berry – by her name; he calls her ‘kid’). Character development in the first film was way down Raimi’s list, with never-seen-before scares and abattoir amounts of blood and ickyness being the main ingredients. Evil Dead 2 sticks to the same “If it ain’t broke” formula, but Ash does not start off as a badass, he becomes one, his body and his sanity pushed to its limits, Bruce Campbell getting to really flex his acting muscles. Ash is wide eyed, jumpy, one facial tick after another. Raimi gives us plenty of close ups of Campbell and you are in no doubt that this is a man being pushed to the brink.
Campbell also gets to show off just how good a physical actor he is in one of the funniest scenes there has ever been in a film: Ash’s possessed hand. Ash is repeatedly punched in the face, has an entire set of plates smashed over him, and even does a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree flip, head over heels, all accompanied by sound effects for the possessed hand that make it sound strangely adorable. Raimi’s view has always been that the protagonist should suffer (he’s true to his word: Peter Parker – Tobey Maguire – is beaten up in all sorts of creative ways in the Spider-Man films, while Drag Me To Hell’s Christine – Alison Lohman – a woman who does not like things going near her mouth, has all kinds of horrific stuff pass her lips) and Ash really does go through hell, even forced to slice off his own hand.
When Bruce Campbell finally becomes the Ash that fans associate with the Evil Dead films, Raimi has great fun teasing the viewer before his tough as nails hero is revealed. Ash and Annie go inside the tool shed. What follows is a succession of brief glimpses of shackles and all sorts of sharp-looking garden tools; the first time you watch Evil Dead 2, you have no idea what’s going on here. When the camera pulls back to reveal Ash with a chainsaw strapped to the stump that used to be his hand, holding a sawn-off shotgun, and wild eyed (and for no apparent reason) utters that immortal one-liner, you know those pesky demons are in a whole load of trouble; messy trouble.
The Evil Dead was unique for having a male protagonist in a horror film. In Evil Dead 2, you have a supporting female role who, unusually in an eighties horror film, is not constantly screaming and falling over. Sarah Berry’s Annie has no problem with standing side-by-side with Ash while they hunt for demons, or going crazy with an axe; she’s far more useful than the male supporting cast, who are basically there to be bumped up off in gloriously over-the-top fashion.
Dan Hicks deserves a mention as Jake, king of the hillbillies. Whether by accident, or you are watching one of the most underrated performances in the history of film, all Hicks has to do is appear on screen and you start laughing. Jake is a larger-than-life, walking, talking stereotype, political correctness be damned. Whether it’s the scowls he gives Ash or the words that come out of his mouth, Hicks gets you laughing each and every time.
There are purists out there who prefer The Evil Dead over its sequel/reboot because the first film is firmly in the horror genre, whereas Evil Dead 2 turns the shtick dial as far as it can go. While The Evil Dead is a far more intense watch, Evil Dead 2 still has its fair share of scares. James Wan may have brought long periods of silence followed by a jolt back into fashion with The Conjuring, but it was Sam Raimi who did it first. Evil Dead 2 has plenty of these moments and they work each and every time. When Ash goes into the fruit cellar to collect the pages of the Book of the Dead, knowing that the possessed Henrietta (Sam’s brother, Ted Raimi) is lurking somewhere, the scene is virtually silent, the camera right up in Bruce Campbell’s face. Raimi drags this scene out for a solid few minutes and at no point does it drag. All you are doing is waiting for Henrietta to leap out, Raimi waiting for the last possible moment to reveal his monster.
One of the many things that make Evil Dead 2 so much fun to watch is that you get the sense that Raimi felt he could get away with anything. Before the cameras even started rolling, the film had been sold overseas and was already in profit, so Raimi had nothing to lose. More than likely, this is why the film goes overboard with the stop motion animation, including the possessed Linda dancing the ballet while pulling her head clean from her shoulders. What starts out as comical slowly becomes one of Evil Dead 2’s most unsettling scenes when, one by one, the contents of the cabin all laugh at Ash (including a moose’s head), Campbell eventually staring right into the camera and joining them in their crazed laughter.
Sam Raimi couldn’t make a follow up to The Evil Dead without having something to offend the Daily Mail and the Mary Whitehouses of this world, more than likely what was going through his mind when he came up with the eyeball landing in Bobby Joe’s (Kassie Wesley) mouth. The first time you watch this scene you can’t help but let out a groan, immediately followed with an “I can’t believe they did that!” laugh.
With Evil Dead 2, Raimi did what so many directors fail to do with a sequel; make it as good as well as being, at times, better than the original. Raimi throws everything at the wall and, somehow, manages to make it all stick. Whenever I fancy watching Ash’s exploits, Evil Dead 2 is the one I usually pick. The Evil Dead was unique in creating a hellish nightmare that never lets up, but Evil Dead 2 is a minute-by-minute thrill ride, equal parts grisly and hilarious. I am a stickler for finding fault with a film, but Raimi’s sequel is faultless. Not many films are this fast paced and consistently entertaining throughout, but Raimi, Campbell and co. manage it as if it’s all in a day’s work.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Army of Darkness (Evil Dead 3) (1992)
The third Evil Dead film is a strange beast; instead of being the third entry in the trilogy, it feels more like a separate adventure starring Bruce Campbell’s Ash. One of the many reasons for this is that Universal Pictures wanted a stand-alone film, hence them rejecting Raimi’s original title, ‘The Medieval Dead’ and going for Army of Darkness instead (it was only once released on video, and subsequent re-releases, that Evil Dead 3 was tacked on).
There are two versions of Army of Darkness; the original ninety-five minute cut, which was released outside of the US and concludes with Ash time travelling to an apocalyptic future, and the eighty-minute cut, shown solely in the US, which has the re-shot, happier ending with Ash back at the S-Mart. For this review, I am concentrating on Raimi’s original cut, but will be comparing the two edits.
Once again, just as in Evil Dead 2, Army of Darkness begins with a prologue. Whereas Evil Dead 2’s recap took up a good twenty minutes of the film, Raimi wanted to get the show started as quick as possible, Army of Darkness’s catch up lasting barely five minutes. While Raimi managed to get the footage he needed from Evil Dead 2, he barely used any of it, as it did not match the pace he wanted for his third film’s prologue, so instead shot great chunks of it again (Annie getting no mention here), including Ash being sucked into the portal. Sandwiched in the backstory is a new scene showing Ash working at the S-Mart, a normal guy living a normal life, nothing like the one-liner spewing, insanely cool hero in Evil Dead 2. There is also a cameo from Bridget Fonda, once again another actress playing Ash’s girlfriend, Linda.
For me, Army of Darkness feels so different to Raimi’s previous films because of how Ash has changed since Evil Dead 2. Gone is Ash, the grizzled war hero of the first sequel, replaced by a protagonist who is a coward, a liar and a loser all wrapped into one. The worst luck the characters in Army of Darkness could have had was having Ash as their hero as, through his own ignorance, he ends up being responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people. Ash is a horrible person (especially to Embeth Daviditz – who went on to star in a very different film, Schindler’s List – in their first scene together, firing all kinds of insults her way), but he is the only one handy with a chainsaw and a sawn-off shotgun; the ‘primates’, as he calls them, are stuck with him.
Fans of The Evil Dead, who watched Army of Darkness at the cinema, must have been scratching their heads wondering where all the gooey gore had gone; apart from a geyser of blood early on, there is scarcely a drop to be seen. This is due to Universal wanting to avoid an NC-17 or R rating at the cinema. While Raimi obliged with toning down the gore during the film’s production, Universal were still not happy with the cut he submitted. For US audiences, Universal chopped off nearly fifteen minutes of footage, including what violence Raimi thought he could get away with.
Gone as well are the drawn out, tense as hell scenes where you’re waiting in silence for something to lunge at Ash, which made the previous Evil Dead films so damn scary. In fact, Army of Darkness isn’t frightening, not even a little bit. The POV shot makes a welcome return when Ash searches through the woods, surrounded by fog, but this feels more like a nod to the previous films, that ferociousness, the urge to yell at the screen, is absent.
With virtually everything that fans love about the Evil Dead films having been chucked in the bin, why does Army of Darkness put a smile on your face every time you watch it? Raimi ups the cheese, the laughs, and the sheer insanity of the Evil Dead films with his second sequel. Having a stop-motion skeleton army, in tribute to Ray Harryhausen, also helps.
Army of Darkness has easily the most hysterical laughs in the Evil Dead trilogy. It is certainly the most quotable, Campbell having a ball with his dialogue (“Yo, she-bitch, let’s go!”). This is probably why you still end up rooting for Ash, as he is the total opposite of your squeaky clean Hollywood hero. While the scares may be absent from Army of Darkness, it makes up for this with virtually minute-after-minute of barking mad slapstick humour, Ash once again being made to suffer in numerous creative ways. The graveyard scene, where Ash discovers the Book of the Dead, is guaranteed to produce plenty of laughs. Not knowing which of the three copies to take, Ash tries all of them, each book having its own method of torture. Ash is sucked down a hole, gets attacked by a book with teeth (who else but Sam Raimi controlling the puppet), and, in the Evil Dead trilogy’s most blatant reference to The Three Stooges, is repeatedly slapped across the face by skeletal hands shooting up through the ground. Another comic highlight sees Ash being tormented by several mini versions of himself. A fork is stabbed in his rear, his face gets glued to a burning hot stove, before finally being tied up, Gulliver’s Travels-style. Die-hard fans of The Evil Dead will always whine about Army of Darkness not having the trademark shocks of the previous films, but you have to be one miserable as sin human being if you don’t have a ball watching Evil Dead number three.
You can tell where the majority of Raimi’s budget went: in the skeleton army and the, admittedly overlong, fight scene at the end of the film. Evil Deads one and two had a handful of scenes involving stop-motion animation, here Raimi goes completely nuts, clearly having watched Jason and the Argonauts countless times and thought, “What else can we make the skeletons do?” This is probably why he made Army of Darkness in the first place. Combined with puppets, prosthetics, and Monty Python-esque, over-the-top British accents, you can excuse Evil Dead 3 for all of its faults because it is clear that Evil Ash’s army are a labour of love for Sam Raimi.
While the battle scene at the castle is spectacular, with explosions, humans getting slaughtered, and a gigantic army of skeletons, you do stop and think; “This has gone on for a while” (it’s even longer in the original cut). The whole film is one long excuse for this scene, but Raimi didn’t have to make it quite so obvious. It’s hard not to like watching skeletons getting blown to bits, set on fire or punched in the face, but what would have stopped this sequence feeling so drawn out is if Ash had not decided to do his best Rambo impression. There are no one-liners, he has stopped being a moron; instead Ash just kills things. Imagine Schwarzenegger’s Commando, but with the baddies from Jason and the Argonauts instead of disposable henchmen. This is me being harsh, I know, but considering one of the very first credits in the film is ‘Bruce Campbell vs. Army of Darkness,’ for nearly half-an-hour Bruce Campbell isn’t Bruce Campbell.
Most of the changes that Universal made to Raimi’s film are blink-and-you’ll-miss-them (although Universal did, wisely, cut the love scene between Campbell and Davidtz, which is far too serious and lovey-dovey for an Evil Dead film), with the exception of the endings. Personally, I like both of them, but Raimi’s original makes more sense. The Ash of Army of Darkness does not deserve a happy ending, plus the main reason for watching the Evil Dead films is to see Ash have every kind of ordeal thrown his way. Arriving in the far off, distant future is Ash’s comeuppance, plus it is bleakly funny. Disagreeing with the film’s producer, Dino De Laurentiis, Universal wanted a more upbeat ending for US audiences. It is certainly the more side-splitting of the two endings, with Ash, now back at the S-Mart, going one more round with a Deadite in a fight involving a trampoline, a shopping trolley, and a ridiculous amount of shotgun ammo. Universal’s edit does jar slightly as one minute Campbell kisses Davidtz goodbye and rides off into the sunset, the next he’s back in his own time, living happily ever after. Universal don’t so much wrap things up nicely as cover the film in super glue and sticky tape and hope it works.
Army of Darkness has a lot of faults that, if it were any other film, with any other director, would ruin it. However, this is not Men in Black II, Batman and Robin or The Matrix Revolutions – this sequel works. You really do spend so much of this film laughing and you cannot help but have a great time watching it. Unlike so many sequels, Army of Darkness does not ruin the good name of its predecessors. It may not be timeless like The Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2, but it is just as ingenious and entertaining.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Evil Dead (2013)
At this year’s Cardiff Film and Comic Con, A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Robert Englund was hosting a Q and A, in which he was asked about the recent spate of horror remakes. Englund was puzzled by why studio execs felt the need to put out the same film again, especially when the original films are so readily available on digital television, Blu-Ray and DVD – you can even watch entire films on YouTube. A whole new generation is falling in love with the classics of the horror genre, and they can still hold their own against the CGI-heavy blockbusters of today, so why should audiences pay to watch another version of a film with better lighting and effects?
When it was officially announced that The Evil Dead was going to get a remake, I really was angry every time I stopped and thought about it. The fans don’t want a remake, they want Evil Dead 4. Having Raimi, Campbell and Tapert on board as producers did not comfort me all that much; these days you can get a producer credit for standing around on set and looking pensive. Watching the trailer did not exactly make me want to be first in line to buy a cinema ticket either. On first impressions, the trailer made the remake look like The Evil Dead for fans of torture porn, a run-of-the-mill horror with none of The Evil Dead trilogy’s laughs; because of this I stayed away.
There is good news and bad news with the remake. The bad news is that it does not come close to the greatness of Raimi’s trilogy; the good news is it’s still pretty damn entertaining and in no way has Fede Alvarez tarnished the good name of The Evil Dead. The trailer for Evil Dead called it a “re-imagining”, Bruce Campbell calls it a new film, and he’s right. Alvarez, who shot to prominence with his effects crammed, low budget YouTube short, Panic Attack, made the wise decision that if Bruce Campbell won’t be starring, then there’s no point having an Ash character in the new version. No one needs to see another actor play Ash; the only person who can play Bruce Campbell is Bruce Campbell. Instead Alvarez, who wrote the script, gives us a brand new story and new characters. It’s Evil Dead: The Next Generation.
Raimi’s films thought that character development was the least of everyone’s worries. For Alvarez’s entry in the franchise, a couple of the characters are fleshed out, going through changes as the film ramps up the pace. It’s not Michael Corleone in The Godfather, but this is a massive (and welcome) change. Unlike the teenagers in The Evil Dead, all of them good friends, looking like the gang from Scooby Doo, this latest Evil Dead has an all too noticeable tension between its characters: something is definitely wrong here. Mia (Jane Levy) is a recovering drug addict, driven to addiction by watching her mother die in a psychiatric hospital. Her brother, David (Shiloh Fernandez), ran away, refusing to help, wanting to remember his mother the way she was. Mia vowed to get clean once before, but could not handle the withdrawal. Nearly dying from an overdose, Mia’s friends bring her to the cabin; her last chance. In a twist, which Alvarez exploits later on, if Mia goes back on her promise to get clean, out of tough love, her friends have decided to stop her from going home. For much of the film the focus is on David, at first refusing to admit what is happening and panicking like hell. Realising that there is a chance he can save his sister’s soul, David stops being that person who finds the easy way out, who runs away from his problems, and brings the fight to the demons.
You can see why, when the original actress cast as Mia dropped out, Levy was so keen to play the role. Like Ash in The Evil Dead, she is a one-off in the horror genre; a drug addict, a demon and an ass kicker. Levy gives it everything she’s got and is one of the many reasons why you can’t take your eyes off the film (even during its blood-spattered moments), whether it’s her pale-faced, shivering rants as she struggles to come off her drug addiction, grinning and cackling wildly when she is possessed, or going hell-for-leather with a chainsaw during Evil Dead’s Grand Guignol showdown.
While Evil Dead’s leads are much more developed than those in Raimi’s films, Alvarez does not pay quite so much attention to the scares. There are none of the heart-skipping-a-beat jolts that litter The Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2, Alvarez instead attempting to scare viewers by having his characters struggling to get away from a possessed human with a knife or a nail gun. Alvarez certainly knows how to mount the tension, a scene involving bookworm teacher Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) backing away from David, the camera slowly panning left to reveal one of the evil dead stood in the doorway, is skilfully handled, you just wish there were more of the long-stretches of silence with a character hunting one of the demons, the loud bang happening at the very last moment. There are instances like this in the film, but Alvarez chooses to accompany these with a score, which undermines the scene, making it feel like a set piece from every other horror film.
What Evil Dead does get absolutely right is recreating The Evil Dead’s brutal, nightmarish atmosphere, thanks primarily to some truly yucky special effects. The easy answer would have been to throw as much CGI as possible at the film, Alvarez going for make-up and prosthetics instead. In several interviews, Alvarez has said “It’s an Evil Dead movie; nothing’s too much,” and he was not joking. In Raimi’s original there is a close up of a blender slicing up its red contents, a droll hint at what the film’s final scenes are going to resemble. In Evil Dead 2013, Alvarez shows us a nail gun, a syringe, and an electric meat slicer – all of which end up being used in very nasty ways. Bodies are carved up, sliced up, stabbed – and that’s not the half of it! What stops Evil Dead from becoming just another torture porn film is that the violence is over the top, more Kill Bill than Hostel.
Evil Dead goes out of its way to try and shock you, to recreate the same reaction Raimi’s original received over thirty years ago. While the rise of the torture porn sub-genre has meant that it is increasingly difficult to shock an audience, there is one scene that is guaranteed to alarm people, and that is the return of the tree rape scene. Alvarez’s recreation may not be as graphic, but you are unlikely not to squirm whilst watching it. A giant slug like creature straight out of a David Cronenberg film slithering up Mia’s leg is uncomfortable enough, but Alvarez could have cut away instead of showing it slide up her dress.
Despite Evil Dead’s terribly serious trailer, there are some laughs to be had, even if it’s not the zany humour we’re used to in Raimi’s films. The comedy here is of the pitch black variety; you can’t help but chuckle when Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), her severed arm hanging by a tiny strip of flesh, is talking to David, their conversation interrupted when her limb finally falls off. There is also the odd one-liner, most of them delivered by Eric, and while Pucci does a good job (he gets the best line in the film: “Dying wouldn’t be so bad right now, I just don’t want to become the devil’s bitch”), you do miss Bruce Campbell and his deadpan quips. Yes it’s the twenty-first century, camp’s out and stone-faced serious is in, especially if you are Batman or Superman, but Alvarez could have got away with more visual gags and sharp puns without wrecking the suspense.
It’s not much of a compliment to say that Evil Dead is one of the better remakes out there. While the film is nowhere near as creative as the 1981 original, it is more than a shot-for-shot rehash, with plenty of its own ideas. It swaps frights for edge-of-your-seat tension, and it could have done with taking itself a little less seriously, but fans of the Evil Dead trilogy, and those who think “Groovy” is just another word, will both be happy with Alvarez’s latest addition to the franchise.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Alvarez’s reboot took plenty of money at the box office (nearly $95 million worldwide), proving that there are plenty of people who still want another Evil Dead film. Just recently Alvarez announced on Twitter that Sam Raimi, last seen directing Oz: The Great and Powerful, will be directing Army of Darkness 2, rumoured to be released in 2016. In interviews, Bruce Campbell has said that he would be willing to reprise his role of Ash if it was confirmed that Raimi was on board. There are also plenty of rumours flying around the internet that, due to the success of Alvarez’s film, it will get the go ahead for a sequel, possibly crossing with Raimi’s trilogy, but this is fans wishing and hoping, nothing has been officially announced. It would certainly be good to see Ash back again, especially an older Ash who has to stop and catch his breath every time he runs away from the Deadites.
The Evil Dead trilogy is in many ways the very definition of cult, with horror fans talking to each other, asking, “Have you seen The Evil Dead?”, its reputation based on word-of-mouth, videos and DVDs passed from one person to another. Army of Darkness nose-dived back in 1992, only making a profit through video and DVD re-releases, eventually being accepted by the Evil Dead fans. Now, hopefully, with the success of 2013’s Evil Dead and the promise of an Army of Darkness sequel in the next few years, Raimi’s franchise may, at long last, get the critical as well as commercial success it deserves. Hail to the king, indeed!