(This review originally appeared at Reel Film News on April 4, 2013.)
If you read nothing else of this review, know this: if you go see Evil Dead, you must stay all the way past the credits. There’s, shall we say… a little treat.
Now, onto the fun.
Gorehounds, rejoice! For those of you who like your entrails, severed limbs, and blood effects hard and heavy, in copious amounts akin to what Peter Jackson did in Dead Alive, but you don’t want to sit through a “torture porn” flick, you have a new movie to champion: Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead, an update/remake of Sam Raimi’s cult classic, The Evil Dead. And for those of you who want a thoroughly uncomfortable, extremely disgusting, yet surprisingly fun movie to watch in theaters this weekend, you can’t go wrong with this movie. Make no mistake – this new incarnation of Evil Dead is a particularly nasty bit of business that the Catholic News Service will probably classify as “O – morally offensive,” and how the filmmakers were able to release this with an MPAA-sanctioned R-rating is even beyond me. But it’s getting released today in theaters nationwide, and there are some technical achievements that definitely need to be discussed, as well as the similarities and differences between the original and remake. Let’s get to it, shall we?
In 1981, director Sam Raimi let The Evil Dead loose upon horror audiences. It was a low-budget film with a simple premise – five college friends (2 males, 3 females) go to a cabin in the woods to have a small vacation, only to awaken a dark force in the forest, which proceeds to terrorize the cabin’s inhabitants, using possession as its main method of attack. One person is left to fight the evil spirit possessing his friends, and the film turns into a violent, bloody, gory mess, with lots of dismemberments, maimings, and mutilations. The film spawned two sequels – Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness, which followed the further exploits of the film’s hero, Ash Williams (actor and cult hero Bruce Campbell’s career-defining role). And now, as remakes are all the rage, The Evil Dead has been remade for a modern audience – the type of audience that has been subjected to the likes of heavily violent fare like the Saw series, Rob Zombie’s pair of Halloween films and the Firefly Family series (House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects), and Eli Roth’s Hostel series. In other words, director Fede Alvarez has a huge metaphorical mountain to climb in order to either run with the pack, or get ahead of it and do something different. Which does he wind up doing? The latter.
Alvarez has taken Raimi’s original and given it a more emotional story in an effort to make the characters mean more than just being machete fodder for the killin’. The gender separation is still there – we’re still dealing with same gender ratio, but two of the kids are siblings, with David (Shiloh Fernandez) helping his sister Mia (Jane Levy) kick heroin for what they hope will be the last time. Longtime friends Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) and Olivia (Jessica Lucas), along with David’s girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) have all tagged along to lend moral and medical support, but it’s only a short time from when she goes from relatively normal to being caught in the grip of the worst case of the theatrical DT’s since Mark Renton in Trainspotting. And from there, it’s not much longer before someone finds a book with mystic incantations and inquisitively recites one, even though urgently-scrawled notes in the book say, “DON’T SAY IT! DON’T WRITE IT! DON’T HEAR IT!” and “LEAVE THIS BOOK ALONE!” This was the only thing that annoyed me about Evil Dead – the smartest one of the bunch, high school teacher Eric, winds up reciting the incantation that starts this movie spinning out of control.
And when I say “out of control,” you’ve gotta believe me – this movie DOES NOT STOP. One of the things that the original had going for it was that you had at least some moments to breathe in between the scares and gore. With this version, everything goes to bloody hell once the first possession starts, and Alvarez maintains a steady tone of unease and creepiness until the first credit starts rolling up the screen. While a lot of that tone has to do with the amounts of over-the-top gore and violence, it also has to do with the dark in which this film seems to live. We see nothing in the shadows, even as we anticipate the next attack or the next spook. Hearts will be racing, feet will be pounding on theater floors, and hands will fly to faces as Alvarez, cinematographer Aaron Morton, and editor Bryan Shaw crank the tension levels up to 50 out of a possible 10.
Much is going to be made of the near-100% use of practical effects in this movie versus CGI, and the fuss is very rightly kicked up – the realism which the filmmakers bring to the screen pays off in fat dividends, as we are grossed out to our breaking points. Truthfully, I have never gagged or thrown up during a horror movie; I’m still proud to say that I’ve never done the latter, but I definitely gagged at one point during Evil Dead due to an extremely gruesome scene involving a fallen Jeep. My guess is that it was the culmination of the nonstop gore that Alvarez uses to get under the audience’s skin that pushed me to my gagging point, so consider that a “Mission: Accomplished,” Mister Alvarez. Good horror should get under one’s skin and disturb; while human-on-human violence is certainly disturbing, it’s freakier to me when it’s the supernatural, where anything can happen.
The original Evil Dead is one of the few horror movies that genuinely scares me and freaks me out well after the last credit appears on the screen. Personally, I believe that this film takes place in the same universe as the original, with the rusted-out Oldsmobile Delta 88 making an ominous appearance early in the movie, but that’s just me. Alvarez’s remake can sit proudly alongside the original, adding in modern-day cinematic sensibilities while keeping the root story intact. It will definitely make you queasy and gross you out, as that seems to be the film’s one and only aim. However, if you’ve got the stomach for it, you’ll be witness to a fairly good horror movie that delivers on the scares and the gore. And like I said at the beginning of the review, stay all the way past the credits, as there’s a little surprise for those who stand and wait.