In the annals of horror history, few films are as universally adored as Evil Dead (1981). A ragged, breathless, almost plotless adrenalin surge of a movie, it is about as pure a horror movie as you can get.
The set-up is that which launched a thousand imitators. Five college kids go to an abandoned cabin and, through playing a tape recorder of a vocal translation of the fabled Necronomicon, unleash an evil in the woods that possesses and kills them, one-by-one.
As simplistic as this is, the film really stands on pure energy and imagination. In particular, the frenetic and innovative camerawork of teenage director Sam Raimi. In time, he would become one of the biggest names in Hollywood, but the invention and will to entertain are already firmly in place in this, his first calling card.
A splattery roller-coaster of a film, Evil Dead belies its minuscule budget to deliver high-octane thrills and a genuinely creepy atmosphere. Shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm, the Blu-Ray transfer does little to clear up the murky grain of the movie but in this case, that is not a problem. Indeed, the roughness of the look only adds to the underground, punk rock grime of it all.
At turns chilling, action-packed and even nasty (the notorious tree-rape scene), Evil Dead is a deserved 80s horror classic.
Raimi and his producing partner Rob Tapert would next attempt an action/comedy/caper flick called Crimewave. The ill-fated film was mired in studio interference and a young filmmaker operating beyond his means. Disheartened, they returned to the well with the 1987 release of Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn.
A bigger budget, more experienced cast and crew and a more deft Raimi at the helm saw that rarest of beasts emerged – a sequel that actually improved on the first. Evil Dead II is effectively a remake of the first, but this time with a critical difference – comedy.
Raimi, Tapert and star Bruce Campbell had grown up making Three Stooges-style slapstick comedy short films and the cold-blooded horror of Evil Dead was purely a financial decision as to what sort of film was ruling the drive-in theatres of the time. The second time out, though, they were able to let their comic sensibilities shine.
The big evolution was in Campbell. His character, Ash, was the only returning one from the original, now positioned securely front-and-centre. The film shifts to rest securely on Campbell’s shoulders and he rises to meet the challenge with a scenery-chewing performance that jumps off the screen. It is a massive work of physicality, commitment and surely more suffering than any other character in film history (witness a scene where his hand is possessed by evil, resulting in him beating himself up, complete with forward flip onto a wooden floor). It is the kind of performance than in a just world would have catapulted Campbell to A-list stardom.
Alas, it was not to be. A failed TV series (The Adventures of Brisco County Jr) and a near-miss in being The Phantom on that character’s big screen debut would be as close as Campbell would come to breaking out of cultdom, aside from a latter-day supporting role on TV series Burn Notice.
Evil Dead II remains his crowning glory, however. Not the brightest of characters, Ash remains thoroughly sympathetic throughout as he alternates between battling darkness and shouting desperately into the night for a break, any kind of break.
The third Evil Dead film, Army of Darkness, would eventually follow in 1992.
In the lead up, the horror press were slavering at the idea of a big-budget Evil Dead film. Initially titled, The Medieval Dead, it was touted as a horror epic to end all horror epics.
Instead, and in retrospect predictably, Army of Darkness was a comedy. Not a horror like Evil Dead or even a horror/comedy like Evil Dead II, but a pure, slapstick-and-pratfalls comedy. This did not go down well. The hardcore fans were disappointed and the movie flopped badly.
Time, however, would be kind to Army of Darkness. Campbell’s Ash character had now been amped up into a full-blown windbag, full of boasting and unearnt confidence. With this change came endless quotable lines mostly made out of the fact that the modern Ash now found himself trapped in 1300AD yet still fighting the Deadites.
Armed with his chainsaw and shotgun (his ‘boomstick’ as he describes it to the medieval folk or ‘primitive screwheads’) and of course his trusty Oldsmobile (actually Raimi’s own car), Ash is forced to fulfill his destiny as the hero of prophecy, saving two warring clans from destruction at the hands of the evil dead.
As a comedy, Army of Darkness has hits and misses. Some inspired moments (Ash’s cockiness leads him to not remember magic words very well with disastrous results) are mixed with Stooges-type silliness (complete with ‘boink’ sound effects) that feel crushingly unfunny.
Despite a decent budget – which production ended up going over by nearly double – the film also over-stretches. In the pre-CGI age, creating a convincing army of undead is beyond the realms of practicality and a lot of clearly static skeletons are knocked over in ‘battle’. While the handmade aesthetic of the previous Evil Dead films gave them an eerie, otherworldly feel, here it just feels cheap.
For fans – the ending here is the director’s cut “downer” ending, rather than the studio-enforced, happier, “supermarket” ending. It may be debatable which is actually superior, but the darker conclusion may be tonally off-kilter with the rest of the film, but it is consistent with the bumbling, self-destructive nature of the Ash character.
Once again, though, it is the mix of Raimi’s energy and Campbell’s charisma that save the day and Army of Darkness, while undoubtedly the weakest of the trilogy, is still an enjoyable watch.
Raimi would then go on to make the star-studded action/western The Quick and the Dead (1995) before the more mature efforts of A Simple Plan (1998) and The Gift (2000) would lead to the global blockbuster Spiderman (2002). With Tapert, he would also find success on the small screen as a producer with Hercules, Spartacus, Legend of the Seeker and Xena shooting in New Zealand (the latter starring Tapert’s future wife, Lucy Lawless) and the formation of Ghost House Pictures, producing films such as the US remake of The Grudge (2005) and 30 Days of Night (2007).
Throughout this time, rumours kept circulating of a possible Evil Dead 4. But the schedules of the key players remained packed and, as Campbell in particular aged, it looked increasingly unlikely to ever happen.
But with the dawn of the 21st century came a rash of horror remakes and a different option appeared – a remake with an entirely new cast and director. Fede Alvarez had come to attention with his special FX short film about giant robots attacking Montevideo Panic Attack! and got the nod to helm a new take on Evil Dead in 2012.
Shooting in Woodhill Forest outside of Auckland in New Zealand, Alvarez approached the set-up with a clever twist: the characters this time would be at the remote cabin to help one of their number, Mia (Jane Levy) to go cold turkey from her drug addiction. Naturally, as Mia is the first one to encounter the Deadites, the conceit allows the other characters to not believe her…until things really get crazy.
As a remake, Evil Dead (2013) is a definite success. Alvarez has his own style, but it is as high-energy as Raimi’s, giving the film a familiar-yet-fresh feel. If anything, the nods to the original actually serve to hold back the remake and it is at its best when it is adding fresh mythology to the mix.
The gore is amped up and the FX are nothing short of brilliant, but gone is the eerie atmosphere of the original. The remake may be shocking, violent and high-octane, but it is never creepy or scary. The horror is much more physical and biological – culminating in a literal rain of blood that is the only real tongue-in-cheek moment.
Levy proves herself at least as game as Campbell and indeed her acting is probably superior. The supporting cast is weak, however, and one wonders if first-timer Alvarez, for whom English is a second language, was unable to get the best out of his young charges.
As a modern take on Evil Dead, the remake is an excellent piece of work held back from true high regard simply because of its lack of originality. This is naturally a problem with any remake, but when the ‘five kids in a cabin’ set-up of Evil Dead became the de facto standard template for horror movies in the past three decades, it became an insurmountable problem by 2013.
At time of writing, no further films were planned, but instead a TV series on Starz has been greenlit. The Evil Dead march on…
Evil Dead has seen numerous releases of various formats over the years, but this package really is the best of them. As well as including the four films – all hugely entertaining – the discs are packed with extras with all sorts of behind-the-scenes details and footage.
The focus on the extras is definitely the original film, and justifiably so. The story behind Evil Dead has become almost as mythic as the film itself.
A group of friends in Michigan decide to make a horror movie and set about doing it the hard way – with no external help at all. They make a test mini-feature on 8mm called Within the Woods and take that around local businessmen, looking for investment. Eventually, from various merchants and dentists, they scrape together enough cash to get to work on their masterpiece and so would begin an incredibly gruelling shoot.
As retold in a variety of pieces – most are also present on previous releases, especially the Anchor Bay trilogy package – the remote shoot would test friendships, health and sanity. Campbell laughingly retells how none of the cast would talk to he or any of the other producers for a long time afterwards. Sleeping on floors, freezing temperatures, toxic smoke machines, unbearable fake blood and FX…the shoot ran way over time and took everyone to breaking point.
The release would be initially muted, until a screening at the Cannes Film Festival resulted in a glowing Stephen King pullquote (“the most ferociously original horror movie in years”) and a purchase by UK distributor Palace Pictures. Palace would launch the film in theatres in Britain simultaneously with a release on the burgeoning new home video format, resulting in major waves.
Then, the film found itself banned as part of the infamous conservative video nasty clampdown in Britain, but that only served to increase its infamy and it began to find an audience in America, too, eager to see what all the fuss was about.
One extra included is a feature-length documentary on Tom Sullivan, the lead special FX man on Evil Dead. His story is one of practicality and clever workarounds as he stretched a micro-budget into some iconic visuals. The stop-motion climax is explained in all its painstaking, multi-month detail and his illustrations for the Necronomicon are now the subject of a thousand tattoos worldwide.
Sullivan’s own story would take a dark turn as depression and the death of his wife ultimately would drive him from the set of Evil Dead II, but now he is an affectionately-viewed fixture of the horror convention circuit.
A behind-the-scenes of the special FX of Evil Dead II is excellent viewing. It is a showcase of the first time the legendary Kurtzman/Nicotero/Berger trio worked together, prior to the formation of their KNB studio. The effects are a wild mix of superb sculpture and magician-level sleight of hand and seeing them laid out is compulsive viewing, even if special FX are not normally of interest.
Army of Darkness is completely passed over in terms of extra material, but the remake is packaged with all the same extras from its own previous Blu-Ray release. These are a director’s commentary, plus a neat series of featurettes on various aspects, including some shots from Jane Levy’s video diary of a typically tough day of filming. (“You just missed my temper tantrum. I just hate the blood rain, it makes me into a…child.”)
On top of that, the whole collection comes packaged in a replica of the Necronomicon itself (although the discs are just in paper envelopes within) and there is also a scaled-down version of the Kundarian spine-dagger from the film, which makes for a pretty damn cool extra!
The Evil Dead Anthology is available on Blu-Ray/DVD from Madman.