Editor’s Notes: The Evil Dead is now out on Blu-ray and DVD.
Back in 2011, Ghost House Pictures’ announcement that they would be releasing a remake of their 80’s cult horror hit The Evil Dead brought on a rain of criticism, mostly from the movies’ loyal cult following. Audience fears were generally allayed by the announcement that Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell and Rob Tappert, all three co-producers of the original, would be co-producing and “deeply” involved with the remake. After that, a series of red-band trailers went viral and caused many a late-night TV viewer to have nightmares – in fact, the week before it opened it was impossible to avoid hearing about how The Evil Dead would ‘change the face of horror forever’. Successful test screenings and months of hype from both the horror media and Bruce Campbell resulted in a first-place finish with $25 million its opening week.
There are also Deadites who resemble Japanese water ghosts with dark, stringy hair trailing across their features – these are just a few of the many visual cues the director’s stolen wholesale from movies he professes to admire while failing to recontextualize them into anything interesting, unique, or fresh.
But ultimately ‘twas word of mouth that slew Evil Dead’s box office reign. Mixed-to-positive reviews mirror the audience’s reaction; it won a C+ Cinemascore, lost forty-five percent of its audience by the third day of its opening weekend and sunk down the top five the following week, playing to entirely empty theatres by its third and leaving most locations by its fourth, leaving theatres with a $50 million take. It did similar business overseas grossing just over $40 million all total. The movie’s a qualified success, but is it a game changer? Does it live down or up to its early hype?
Let’s just say that Fede Alvarez’ Evil Dead has earned its semi-wan public reputation. Improving only vaguely on its roots, overloaded with gobs of foreshadowing and written with all of the mastery of a Bazooka Joe comic, Alvarez’ idea of originality is to take the skeleton of the original movie and glue on every single horror trope imaginable onto its desiccated body. Yes, there’s a dog. There are also Deadites who resemble Japanese water ghosts with dark, stringy hair trailing across their features – these are just a few of the many visual cues the director’s stolen wholesale from movies he professes to admire while failing to recontextualize them into anything interesting, unique, or fresh. Of course, there are also hundreds of visual and verbal callbacks to the original Evil Dead trilogy, some of which are applied so inappropriately to the situations and themes at hand that the audience is forced to snicker. Please note that these come at such a frequent pace that the producer’s self-stated intent of making Evil Dead for “A new generation” is entirely lost in a flood of nostalgia.
After a ten minute opening scene that features a random family who inform us of the film’s new ground rules for Deadites (hint: you can burn ‘em real good), spoil the movie’s climax and then have the grace to never appearing onscreen again, we’re swept to the monitored detox of Michigan University student Mia (a somewhat overrated Jane Levy), a heroin addict who survived an earlier overdose and has recently relapsed. Her brother, David (Shiloh Fernandez, delivering the worst performance in a horror film so far this year) has fled the family nest for Chicago and life with his girlfriend, Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore, bug-eyed, sweaty and sleepwalking through her severely edited role), but he’s vowed to Mia that this time he won’t run away from his obligation to her and will see her through the physical trauma of her detox. Rounding out the group are Eric (a joyfully cartoonish Lou Taylor Pucci) and Olivia (a somewhat underrated Jessica Lucas), old friends of David and Mia’s who have repeatedly supported Mia through her addiction and relapse. The fivesome (plus Grandpa, David and Mia’s dog) stage Mia’s drying out in the family’s decrepit summer cabin, which shows signs of having been broken into very recently.
We receive an infodump about David and Mia’s mother, whose tragic recent death influenced Mia’s path toward junkiehood and whose spiral toward insanity hastened David’s decision to abandon the family and his friends. Then Grandpa and Mia sniff out something nasty in the cellar. What Eric and David find inside are the corpses of hundreds of cats suspended from the ceiling…and a book wrapped in both a garbage bag and barbed wire. While you’re wondering how none of the other humans in the room could smell the flesh of hundreds of rotting cats decomposing away under their feet, the group decides to stay put instead of conducting Mia’s detox in cleanliness and safety elsewhere. Eric, meanwhile, has become fascinated by the bag-wrapped book and – even after uncovering its gruesome appearance, even though there are thousands of warnings in it scribbled in plain English - he decides to make a rubbing of an obscured piece of text. Once he recites the words he’s revealed out loud, the party begins.
The above three decisions and so, so many more exemplify the stupidity of these characters, who collectively display only slightly more wit than a bag of hammers. The script makes their dunderheaded choices appreciably worse by overcomplicating every simple plot twist the original took, adding unnecessary moral equivalencies and story which only manage to shine a light on the script’s many weaknesses, most of them opened by Alvarez need to differentiate his mythology from Raimi’s. Have fun playing ‘spot the Diablo Cody dialogue rewrite’ as I did; her work and Alvarez’ do not gel together neatly at all.
You can say many, many things about the quality Raimi’s original screenplay and movie (both have rotted gracefully into camp but remain worth watching due to the force of Raimi’s originality and Ellen Sandweiss’ brave performance), but he was smart enough to keep Ash a sympathetic character and amplify the doom of the rest of them by way of accident and circumstance; those five kids had no idea that the tape recording they’ve played aloud as a prank will unleash hell upon earth - they are screwed over by happenstance. That both amplifies the tragedy of the story and wins the characters sympathy. Here, Eric deserves everything he gets, and seems to take forever to die.
Performances are scattershot. The best is delivered by Jane Levy, whose Mia has a desperate, raw air about her once things get rolling - but in the earliest portions of the film her nasal, atonal delivery of Alvarez’ stilted and thrice-rewritten dialogue is apt to make a viewer cringe. Pucci’s antic, nervy performance hits closest to the Raimi wheelhouse, and he all but straps Fernandez to his back and crab-walks him through the film while managing to serve as both a Greek chorus and an audience surrogate. The less said about Blackmore the better; her part was far larger in the original draft of the script, and on its way to screen her role’s been edited down to nothing. Her sole big scene is wrecked thoroughly by her dead-eyed reaction shots and overly-stoic behavior. Jessica Lucas’ gives a memorable performance as a Deadite, but is quickly disposed of at the earliest possible point and is never seen again - and cannot improve upon the aforementioned awkward dialogue.
It’s Fernandez who gives the worst performance, remaining generally stone-faced and dead-eyed for the majority of the movie, generating negative chemistry with everyone but Levy. In fact, Levy and Fernandez seem so close that one waits for the revelation that Mia and David are secretly lovers to burst forth; their interaction is positively incestuous, and between their interaction and the writing one is left wondering if Alvarez has ever met a pair of siblings in his entire life, let alone shared bunk beds with one. It’s Fernandez who seems to have been warped in from the original movie’s Tennessee set; his rankly amateurish performance harkens back to Bruce Campbell’s star turn too solidly. Campbell has a force of presence and personality that Fernandez could never hope to achieve, however –and Fernandez is a black hole of charisma. That we’re forced to spend nearly an entire movie with David is an insult to the eardrums.
The direction flounders in a similar way. Alvarez’ inexperience becomes so frustrating at times that one starts wishing Raimi had managed to coax Chan Wook-Park, his first pick, into taking the project. Alvarez knows how to light a set, but now how to frame a shot; he can set a mood but not edit the movie in a coherent or interesting way – his idea of building a story and ratcheting up tension is to play a game of one-upmanship with Raimi’s masterlist of shots. Why swoop your camera along the surface of a river when you can take it on a three hundred and sixty degree loop-de-loop through the sky? Why establish a two-shot when you can film your actors at some oblique angle, then cut around them in a distracting way that causes the viewer to lose track of the dialogue? He has forgotten that Raimi’s off-kilter style were used to build tension and establish a demonic presence – Alvarez does it because Raimi did it, and does it to such a distracting degree that it’s hard to follow the gore trail. Add on a crashing score with crushingly obvious audio samples of Sandwiess and Campbell to the mix and you end up with a mess.
The SFX does its job for the most part; though there is allegedly no CGI in the film, many effects were sweetened or smoothed with post conversion, and when they show up they’re quite obvious in their nature. Yet even with those tweaks present there are some hilarious gaffes, and since they’re apparently part of a ‘serious’ horror picture we can presume they’re not a homage to the original’s camp: keep an eye out for an obvious dummy set alight and a forearm that’s clearly too wide to have been sawed from its host body. Gallons of stage blood sloshes its way across the screen, but that’s to be expected in a Raimi remake, and it’s thrown at the audience in such predictably large blobs that they become emotionally detached from the violence at hand - and most of that violence just plain isn’t scary.
The script makes their dunderheaded choices appreciably worse by overcomplicating every simple plot twist the original took, adding unnecessary moral equivalencies and story which only manage to shine a light on the script’s many weaknesses…
And let me assure you: this movie isn’t scary. Even though it’s gore-soaked and even though it TRIES to scare, most of serious attempts at frightening the audience are either couched in jumpscares you can see coming from miles away or achieved through moments that force the audience to laugh. Only two scenes manage to engender actual dread in the audience: the brutal vine rape of Mia, which takes twice as long as the same scene in the original and is creepy in that you can feel the director salivating, and an event that occurs in the last fifteen minutes, which qualifies as fairly rousing if you manage to shut your brain off for long enough. Much of the rest of the movie is ruined due to the characters’ aforementioned lack of sympathetic connection with the audience. We are asked to care about an event that happened long ago and involves a dead woman we never meet, randomly worry for and then not care about a suffering but brittle and short-tempered woman, Eric’s stupidity and sarcastic audience surrogacy and David’s wishy-washy inability to do anything of worth. That the movie thinks David’s earlier self-preservation is a cardinal sin worthy of bloodshed says everything you need to know about the director’s worldview, and why his idea of horror is the antithesis of fright.
In the end, Alvarez has created an Evil Dead that ultimately pleases no one; too close to Raimi’s grindhouse to appeal to mainstream horror fans, and following Raimi’s visual tricks too closely to please Evil Dead devotees, it plants itself straight in the middle of the road and tries to distract with gore. Only its ultraviolence distinguishes it, and in this it’s monomaniacal and poorly shot. This Evil Dead is a perfect example of what happens when you hype a movie to heaven and back, then can’t provide the goods.
As for the DVD’s specs, let’s just get that bit of negativity out of the way first: it’s a typical skimpy Sony DVD release. There is one combo pack, consisting of a Blu-Ultraviolet digital copy, but no DVD/Blu combo. There is no “unrated” cut, nor are we ever likely to see one according to Alvarez, so there is no bonus footage hidden within the movie itself.
The extras are divvied up unevenly, with three native to both releases and two bonus features plus the commentary on the Blu-ray. The fact that the commentary is a Blu-ray exclusive is completely outrageous – that it’s general dull to boot makes it downright insulting – you shouldn’t bother with it unless you’re a fan of Levy, who is the only cast member to show any life through its duration.
The rest of the featurettes are all documentaries: the first, Making Life Difficult, follows on the trials and tribulations the actors went through to film the movie. This is a blatant attempt at both trying to make the horror within the movie feel more real to the audience and to connect the film to the miserable, arduous and dangerous shoot of the first movie. Unfortunately for Sony, we’re all well aware that this Evil Dead was shot on the Renaissance Pictures backlot in New Zealand – no matter how cold the actors were, they had heated trailers to run to, doctors at their beck and call, and a nice, large indoor studio to pick up interiors within – not to mention a $10,000 dollar budget. The suffering, in short, seems awfully hollow for everyone but Levy, who was psychologically traumatized and suffered an ear infection so severe that she went partially deaf for days due to the blood rain effects used in the film.
This is a fact worth mentioning because it colors more than one featurette on this disc. The press leading up to the movie fetishized her pain and emotional trauma as a badge of honor and not a hallmark of faulty production, and the constant overemphasis on her misery actually manages to undermine Levy’s performance by insinuating she’s not performing at all, but reacting with genuine pain, discomfort, and anguish to the situation.
This theme continues along in Being Mia, a video diary focusing entirely on Jane Levy; again, if you’re not a fan, you won’t enjoy seeing what her day to day life on the set looks like.
The third, Directing the Dead focuses on Alvarez’ “vision” for the reboot and is endless in explaining his creative process and “unique vision” for the film. It is dull unless you’re interested in Alvarez.
The two Blu exclusives are the best features available– the first explains the thought process behind the rebooting of Necronomicon (something they were forced to do after Tom Sullivan denied them permission to use his design) in Unleashing the Evil Force. The best of these four, Evil Dead: the Reboot focuses on Bruce Campbell and Rob Tappert’s experience creating the movie and gives behind-the-scenes footage of wardrobe tests, dubbing processes, and various rehearsals. That the best extras are all on the Blu-ray, and including them on the Blu-ray only is an obvious attempt at manipulation.
The lack of variety is monotonous. A more expansive doc on the film’s SFX would have given at least some variety to the proceedings. Completely missing are deleted scenes, including alternate takes like the “we’re gonna get you” song which littered those effecting commercials, the obviously-filmed alternate ending reportedly seen by test audiences, and the scene of David using a chainsaw which was all over those red-band ads. What about the many convention appearances Levy, Campbell and Alvarez made? Even several of the many inventive trailers and TV commercials would have been wonderful to have. The entire package is a placeholder that screams ‘we’re releasing a special edition later’.
Unless you’re a completist or an enormous fan who isn’t satisfied with an ITunes buy, Evil Dead is generally a dud on DVD, and an example of corporate greed on Blu-ray. It’s therefore advisable to wait until the extended cut’s released sometime in the future.
Fede Alvarez’ take on Evil Dead is the very definition of mediocrity, an unmemorable, juvenile, poorly-scripted laugh fest. It’s just as gory as its predecessor, and throws some meat onto the original’s skeleton, but it doesn’t matter how intricate your plot is when it barely makes sense. Factoring in the lack of bonus features and Sony’s notion that a cast commentary is a Blu-worthy feature, and you have a mess on your hands. If you really love the movie, buy it digitally, OnDemand, or wait for Netflix.