‘Evil Dead’, (Review by Laura Mee, Cinema and Television History (CATH) Research Centre, De Montfort University)

Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) is both a beloved classic of horror cinema and a shining example of the spirit of independent filmmaking. Produced on a budget of $375,000, largely funded by Detroit doctors and businessmen whom Raimi, producer Robert Tapert and star Bruce Campbell convinced to invest, and filmed over a notoriously arduous four year shoot, The Evil Dead was a labour of love for Raimi and his cohorts – a film made by horror fans for horror fans.  Full of intertextual references to the genre, a bizarre b-movie mix of light comedy with extreme gore and violence, and an experimental feel evident in the impressive camerawork, The Evil Dead was a truly original film which reflected the low budget, creative tendencies of the genre at the time.

The film found its true audience on video,[1] the arrival of the technology in the early Eighties enabling viewers access to marginal or underground films which they wouldn’t ordinarily get to see, and in the UK at least its reputation was cemented by its place at the forefront of the video nasty furore (Mary Whitehouse labelled it “the number one nasty”) and its subsequent banning. Two increasingly comic sequels (Evil Dead II, 1987 and Army of Darkness, 1992), an adored genre icon in Campbell’s Ash, video games, multiple comic book series, and even an off-Broadway musical ensured a cult status and ever-growing devoted fanbase for the franchise.

Capture

Writer / Director Fede Alvarez has much to prove with Evil Dead, then – not only a remake of a classic cult horror film, but also his first full-length English language feature, and the first cautionary tale of five friends venturing to a remote cabin in the woods since, well, The Cabin in the Woods. Promotion for the film reverentially describes it as “a new vision from the producers of the horror classic”, wisely asserting its individuality while simultaneously observing the hallowed status of Raimi’s original film and highlighting the involvement of Raimi, Tapert and Campbell, on board as producers and responsible for bringing in Alvarez. Early teaser trailers, eventually followed with a full-length, ultra gory redband version which showcased the films’ impressive special effects, and a relentless marketing campaign ensured that anticipation for the remake’s release ran high.

And rightly so. Alvarez delivers a frenetic, violent, blood-soaked 91 minutes which should both appease many fans of the franchise and appeal to the contemporary horror audience, managing to capture much of the spirit of the original film – albeit in a very modern way – while carving its own, slightly darker niche and eschewing a few trite genre clichés. Evil Dead does not send five friends to the middle of nowhere to drink, get high and fuck; instead it brings together protagonist Mia (Jane Levy), her semi-estranged brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), his girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), and the siblings’ friends Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) and Olivia (Jessica Lucas), who hole up in an isolated childhood holiday home to help Mia overcome her drug addiction. The group finds a mysterious skin-bound book in a basement full of dead cats (which might, under normal circumstances, be reason for them to pack up their cars and head home) and inadvertently unleashes the evil that resides within it, a demonic force hell-bent on claiming five souls. Mia is undoubtedly, ultimately our Final Girl, but spends much of the middle act locked in the basement, suitably creepy as the first, and worst, possessed – an interesting decision which means her character is as much an equivalent of Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) as an attempted (and perhaps unwise) replacement of Ash. The ‘cold-turkey’ element provides a genuine reason for the group to not make a hasty exit once things start to turn sour and Mia’s metaphorical demons become literalised – her behaviour and appearance can, for a while a least, be ascribed to her mental state and sickness as she weans herself free of addiction – but also adds a certain kinetic energy to an otherwise slow start, allowing the hysterical screams, panic and vomit to feature before all hell eventually breaks loose.

Capture

The ensuing carnage will both alienate audiences without a strong stomach, and thrill those hoping that the bloody trailer showed only a glimpse of what was to come. Much has been made of the remake’s gory credentials – but, lest we forget, it is not remotely unprecedented. The ‘body horror’ of the early 1980s addressed fears of the body or a lack of control over it, and featured themes of corporeal transformation and degeneration, or violation by disease or foreign organisms (often read as allegorical manifestations of the rising fear of AIDS at the time). This is evident throughout Raimi’s The Evil Dead in the impressive stop-motion special effects portraying the body in metamorphosis through demonic possession – most notably in the spectacularly executed final scenes of disintegration – skin melts, bodies collapse, chests burst and tear, and bones crumble to dust. Here, Alvarez’s remake pushes the boundaries almost as far as is possible, through much-championed physical effects (and what the director claims is a complete lack of CGI, although given what is on display, that’s often somewhat hard to believe). Skin is burned, sliced, punctured, slashed, and hacked off. Limbs are severed, bones are crushed, and blood is spewed, splashed and, in a tremendous final act, rained down. Little is left unseen, or takes place off-camera. This is a visceral, raw, and wince-inducing portrayal of the human body literally being taken to pieces – and the fact that much of the pain and suffering is entirely self-inflicted makes it just that little bit nastier. Linda Badley (1995: 7) argued that body horror, including Raimi’s film, “became an agonistic ‘body language’ for a culture that perceived itself as grotesquely embodied and in transformation”, representing a crisis of identity in the self and society. If we are to consider Evil Dead in an analogous way, then Mia and her friends represent less a crisis of transformation and more total self-destruction, a Millennial narcissism which is never more apparent than in the demonic ‘Abomination Mia’ who rises from the dirt to claim the soul of her human counterpart – whom she dismissively refers to as a “pathetic junkie”.

Capture

Despite its overall ‘unpleasantness’, Alvarez’s film does manage a slight sense of campy humour in places, at least echoing the tone of Raimi’s film (itself not as funny as people seem to recall, its light physical comedy and occasional near-one-liner no doubt retrospectively enhanced by its outré sequels). It is easy to see how the comic credentials of David building a DIY defibrillator, or lines like “why does my face hurt?” (from a character attacked by a nail gun) might be lost on an audience still reeling from the exclamation “your little sister’s being raped in hell”, or a murdered family pet. Yet for the most part there is a fine balance which means that the (admittedly very sparse) humour never undermines the characters’ suffering, and the script never resorts to the snide sarcasm one might expect from a supposed ‘comedy-horror’ in the wake of something like Cabin in the Woods. Evil Dead strives to largely play it straight, but includes enough comic nods to its roots for fans to spot. There are also knowing references in the camera work (including Raimi’s famed ‘shakey-cam’), Easter eggs in the form of the clock that hangs on the original’s cabin wall and the Oldsmobile Delta that features in nearly every film Raimi has a hand in, not to mention a couple of late cameos.

Capture

There is some weak characterisation – notably in the two women other than Mia – and it is a shame that Fernandez’s insipid David gets as much screen time as he does, but solid performances from both Pucci and Levy balance things out. Some awkward dialogue, especially in the early scenes, wears slightly as well. Yet both of these factors are largely forgivable and not entirely uncommon, either for the genre, or Evil Dead’s source. These are minor complaints for an otherwise excellent film which marks both a high point in recent horror, and, alongside last year’s outstanding Maniac, a new setting of the bar for horror remakes – original, creative and managing to strike a balance between knowing what to draw from a beloved original and what to develop or shun. Evil Dead might not be, as its poster claims, “the most terrifying film you will ever experience”, but it is brutal, relentless, and a lot of fun – exactly what fans of the original should have been hoping for.

Capture


[1] Indeed, comparing the $26m the remake took at the US box office on its opening weekend to the $6.1m (inflation adjusted) that Raimi’s film amassed in its entire theatrical run is entirely illogical, given not only The Evil Dead’s immense popularity on video, but also the fact that Raimi’s film screened in less than 150 cinemas, not the 3000 plus screens that featured Alvarez’s film.

ABOUT

Laura Mee is a PhD candidate in the Cinema and Television History Research Centre, De Montfort University Leicester, where she is researching the contemporary horror remake. Her work has appeared in the international journal Horror Studies (2013), and she is co-editor (with Johnny Walker) of the forthcoming Rethinking Cinema and Television History: Critical Perspectives and Contemporary Approaches. Laura is also the co-founder of the postgraduate film and television studies blog In Motion.