Review: 'Evil Dead'
A Franchise Reanimates Itself
As any “Evil Dead” fan will tell you, when plans for a remake were announced we all shuddered and screamed, “NO!” But as the project eventually shaped up our anger started to subside and our interest grew about this new “Evil Dead” (opening April 5 throughout San Diego).
I have very special memories of “The Evil Dead,” Sam Raimi’s delightful 1981 gorefest that starred Bruce Campbell as Ash, the man who takes on the evil demon unleashed by the Book of the Dead. I loved the film. It took a wild, over the top approach to gore and horror, a star that allowed himself to be abused beyond belief and let us enjoy every second of it, and it displayed a truly inspiring sense of DIY filmmaking. As a film student in college there was no way to watch this film and not feel like running out and making a movie of my own. Raimi was an inspiration to young filmmakers because he was so ingenious about making his films – from getting them financed from local businessmen to getting them made and showing them in aisle ways at grocery stores. He made us all think we could succeed too.
At Comic-Con, when Raimi was asked the inevitable, “What advice do you have for young filmmakers?” He gave the most practical answer: Go out every week and write, shoot, edit and show a film. Then listen to feedback and the next week do it again. Keep doing that and you will be a filmmaker. And he was right.
Raimi’s “The Evil Dead” was also the film that signaled my marriage would fail. I went to see it at a midnight show with my then husband who also wanted to be a filmmaker and 15 minutes in he asked to leave. A half hour in and he offered me $20 to leave. I should have paid heed to that and left him then and there. So “The Evil Dead” is now my litmus test for people. If you don’t like it, well chances are we won’t get along.
I say all this as an introduction into why I met the new “Evil Dead” with initial hesitation. My worries began to fade when I heard the director Fede Alvarez talk about how he would use all practical effects and no CGI (well almost no CGI). Okay, that was a good sign. Next, he said there would be no Ash, in fact there would be something of a gender swap and the main character would be female. Nice. Then I saw the first trailer and thought there might be hope. And this past weekend I went to WonderCon and saw the panel with Alvarez, Bruce Campbell (star now serving as producer), and the cast. It was impossible not to leave the panel excited about the film.
At the panel, Alvarez revealed that the film, which did not qualify as either a remake or a sequel, could just be something that happens in the same cabin 30 years later.
“I think,” Alvarez said to the crowd of 4000 in The Arena at the Anaheim Convention Center, “my dream is to make first a sequel to this film while Sam [Raimi] is making ‘Army of Darkness 2,’ and then the two tie together into one final film where we connect the character from this film to Sam’s films, that would be the dream film for me to watch.”
Awesome! It was what fans of the Evil Dead Trilogy wanted to hear. The trailer, with added scenes for WonderCon, and a cut scene, brought cheers from the crowd.
Campbell responded by pointing out that audiences that had seen the film “interpreted the carnage and mayhem as exuberant. Rather than like torture porn, which makes you want to go back to your room and kill yourself. At the end of the ‘Evil Dead’ screenings we’ve been having , people are talking, they are jibber jabbing because there’s a lot of nervous energy. You watch a torture porn movie and they are all dead at the end of the movie. This isn’t like that.”
And that’s it precisely. Raimi is kind of like the John Waters of horror. Both push the envelope to deliver a kind of joyous sense of bad taste.
Alvarez seemed to understand that: “We decided not to give ourselves any rules, it was all about having no rules. There was nothing that was going to be too much. Nothing was going to be too outrageous. Nothing was going to be too bloody. It had to be completely over the top and nothing you’d seen before because when I see the original film that was the experience I got out of it when I watched the original ‘Evil Dead.’ When I thought the scene was over it was just beginning, right? That was the whole idea in the original film I think that’s what we’re trying to do in this film. When you think it’s just not gonna get any worse, it’s just beginning. So that was kind of the spirit of the original that we wanted to bring back.”
When I finally got to see the whole film earlier this week, I have to say Alvarez delivered on most of what he promised. The film reveled in a joyous sense of gore and all rendered with practical effects. At the panel, actress Jane Levy described being buried alive –with a plastic bag over her head and an oxygen tube tucked behind her ear – and having Alvarez shovel the dirt that finally covered her face. She was genuinely scared.
To which Alvarez proudly said: “I wanna see real stuff, I don’t want to see people faking it. I wanna see people really scared, they weren’t faking it. The camera sees that, that’s the whole point.”
This new “Evil Dead” puts Levy’s character Mia at the iconic cabin in the woods where she’s trying to kick a drug habit by going cold turkey. That’s the excuse to have her friends and brother keep her there and not being willing to leave, even after they discover a bloody floor and a roomful of dead animals. As in the first film, someone reads the forbidden words from the Book of the Dead and unleashes something evil in the forest.
The script by Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues (Diablo Cody supposedly worked on it as well) is the weakest link in the film. It takes too long to get going, makes the characters a little dumber than we’d really like, and doesn’t play off the original as cleverly as one would hope. But it does pay homage to the original in nice ways, it does keep us guessing about exactly who will be the Ash-like character (guessing if you haven’t read too much about the film), and it does keep ramping the horror up. But credit for the film’s wild spirit goes mostly to Alvarez. He doesn’t mess around. This isn’t some jokey “Scream” film. It may reference Raimi’s films with a nod to the chainsaw and a hand (oh I mean arm) cutting scene but it has none of the hip self-reflexive winking that made “Scream” ultimately so unbearable. There’s occasional humor but not a flurry of silly one-liners. This is an old-fashioned splatterfest and it’s amazing it didn’t get an NC-17 (the R rating is probably a result of having a real studio backing the film and not being an indie). Kudos to the make up and visual effects team too for a job well done. They along with Alvarez know how to ramp up the discomfort factor with various bodily fluids and knowing our fear of things like a needle jabbed into one's face or a machete sliding over flesh. Ew!
So is the new “Evil Dead” everything I wanted? Not exactly. I miss Raimi's charm. There is something very genuine and endearing in the first "The Evil Dead," especially in the stop motion animation and a sort of Three Stooges approach to gore.
Is the new "Evil Dead" fun and entertaining? Most definitely. And if you are really, really patient, there’s even an appearance by the Chin himself.
And Alvarez succeeds in doing what he said was his goal at WonderCon: “The whole challenge for me was to make a film for two audiences at the same time, the fans of the original and the new audience that had never heard about the original film so it was very important for us to make the film for both of them.”
This should definitely hook a new audience that might not know about Raimi’s pre-“Spider-Man” days and it will please his longtime cult followers. At the panel, Campbell reminded us of what those early days must have been like when he was asked about the experience of producing the new film.
“Personally,” Campbell said, “I enjoyed the fact that we could make this movie all the way through without stopping five, six times over a four year period; I enjoyed that with the special effects you can’t see the green garden hose that is spewing the blood out; I like that we hired actors who had something called experience; I am pleased that none of the equipment froze and no actors were injured that badly during the movie; and that the film might actually be coming out and get promoted enough that you might actually see it when it first comes out and not fifteen years later.”
“Evil Dead” (rated R for strong bloody violence and gore, some sexual content and language) finally serves up some good horror for fans who have grown tired of the excesses of torture porn and the restraint of the atmospheric thrillers. “Evil Dead” is a good old-fashioned gorefest that maintains a sense of fun, tension, and the all important “ew” factor. It’s also fun to watch this film with an audience that reacts with glee to the familiar horror tropes of going into the dark basement or unwrapping the Book of the Dead. It reminds you that what makes horror movies so much fun is seeing them with a crowd of fellow horror fans. It’s also nice to see the “Evil Dead” franchise reanimate itself and provide us with what we really want: hope for “Army of Darkness 2” and the return of Bruce Campbell as Ash. When my friends and I came out of the press screening for "Evil Dead," we were greeted by a large standee for Raimi's latest film "Oz: The Great and Powerful." That was a sad sight because all those things that had inspired me in his "The Evil Dead" -- the DIY spirit, the passion, the charm -- were no where to be found in "Oz." I'm hoping that an "Army of Darkness 2" might bring some of that back.
I'm seeing the film again tonight so I might add some additional thoughts later. And I need to double check if that's Sam Raimi's car (which had made a cameo in all of Sam's film including appearing under a covered wagon in "The Quick and the Dead") that Mia sits on in an early scene. It must be but I'm so bad with car makes and models.
Addendum: Okay, saw the film again. Yes it is Raimi's car that we first find Levy's character sitting on. Yes there was more CGI than I remembered. It did bother me that the Book of the Dead in the new film had none of the creepy personality of the original one. My favoite line is still, "I feel better now" (when you see the film you'll understand why). I do wish Ted Raimi made a cameo, maybe as the hillbilly type in the pre-credit sequence or as some old hag, and I do wish in the final showdown the line "Yo she-bitch, let's go" or "come get some" had been used.
And speaking of lines from "Army of Darkness," you can catch the film next Thursday, April 11 at the Whistle Stop's Shot by Shot film series at 7:30pm. Free t-shirt if you can answer the trivia.
Companion viewing: “The Evil Dead,” Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn,” “Army of Darkness,” "Cabin in the Woods"