In Soviet Old-Meme, YOU Take Deadites!
I was shocked when the first Red-Band Teaser for the Fede Alvarez' written/directed reboot of Sam Raimi's splatter classic [THE] EVIL DEAD showed so much promise. I'm just as shocked to report that, having seen the actual film, it delivered everything I could have realistically asked for. Anyone on the fence is urged to go see it, now; it's the very best kind of cinematic junk food, and it delivers everything that fans of the original film could have asked for. (Note that I didn't say "The Original Trilogy." We'll talk about that in a minute.)
Without plowing head-first into spoiler territory - which I'll clearly mark in just a minute, so no worries if you're seeing it in the next day or two, just come back later - I can safely say that there's plenty here for fans of Raimi's iconic trilogy to gleefully chew on, but a working knowledge of the original isn't actually necessary to understand anything important. Granted, it's hard for someone my age so thoroughly saturated in genre movie malaise to imagine a world in which someone hasn't seen The Evil Dead '81, but... hey, it takes all kinds.
There's been a handful of critics who have complained that the film can't settle on whether or not it's a gritty Platinum Dunes inspired "hip" remake or a throwback to a goofier, sleazier time. I personally think that the movie intentionally defies this categorization by the sheer fact that it's both; it's a slick, polished, relatively expensive take on what was really just an endlessly lovable and stylish B-movie, but once the supernatural elements hit their stride, the film never throws the throttle back to keep those grim, modern sensibilities in check; it simply lets the fantastic elements evolve and consume everything around them, until the entire film is literally drowning in blood in a manner that's neither quite comedic nor horrific, just mad to its very core.
This is, let us remember, a remake* Sam Raimi's 1981 film, not the brilliant parody sequels that followed and, in the pop-cultural memory, perhaps replaced and even re-tooled the original in retrospect. The Evil Dead '81 had a sense of humor, surem but that was Sam Raimi just being Sam Raimi; most of the moments that come off as funny are moments that everyone involved groans over today, knowing they were all just inexperienced kids just trying to make a scary movie but having neither the experience nor the monetary support to make everything stick. Granted, when Raimi and everyone else involved realized how audiences reacted to the "funny" moments, they decided to just go that direction. I can't claim that Raimi invented the Splatstick film, but with the exception of Peter Jackson, it's fair to say he damn well perfected it, and in proving that he had more talents up his sleeve than the modest Evil Dead '81 alone could provide, launched his career from that of an independent nobody to a genuine Hollywood bigwig. The problem is this has left people with the impression that The Evil Dead '81 was a horror comedy. It wasn't - Evil Dead II was. Army of Darkness (or "Midieval Dead", as it was originally called) was a comedy in Horror Movie Clothing, which is perfectly fine, but has only further blurred the line as to just how seriously everyone was supposed to take the original film.
*Calling this a "remake" might be... how should I put this. Slightly disingenuous. See the SPOILER TAGGED material for more details.
With this in mind, anyone expecting Fede Alvarez' modern reboot to flip a switch at the one hour mark and fall apart into a parody probably isn't viewing the film as a mounting series of increasingly gross and physically impossible set pieces; they're viewing it through the prism of a decades-long subculture that became so self aware that it spawned Evil Dead: The Musical, and on some level, perhaps we were all waiting for the film to degenerate into that as what would, at first glance, appear to be its only logical conclusion: A Horror-Comedy. But it isn't; it's just slowly unwravelling until the boundaries between "horror" and "absurdity" have ceased to exist. There is a natural, gradual shift from the intensely cold, serious first act and the growing sense of shock and revulsion that the film continues reaching for in its bag of grotesque carnival tricks. The trailer makes the film look terrifying and like an intentionally patched together ghost film full of slow burn jump scares, but in reality, it's closer in tone to the ghost train ride of the original Raimi trilogy than all that. It just takes a little while to show its true colors, is all; by the time it's decided to be spooky, it's already tearing people's faces off and then feeding it to someone else. (Well, not literally. Not in that particular order, anyway.)
The other thing I'll tell you before getting into the nitty gritty is that, oh hell yes, it's just as nasty as you probably think it is. Yes, it's a fun, over the top kind of nasty, but when boiling water, hypodermic syringes and crowbars are all on the table, the flick finds new and exciting ways to make you squirm like a little bitch. Despite the dour, spooky makeup, the "Deadites" (still not a word outside of Army of Darkness, goddamn it...) are still just gigglingly sadistic children, using anything and everything that crosses their paths to make a bloody impact. It's how they use it that'll raise eyebrows, though. Make no mistake, this isn't on par with Nekromantik or Human Centipede 2 [Full Sequence], but the fact that an R-rated film distributed by a major corporation like Sony/Tri-Star got this much in-your-face gore on screen is still a shock, even in the 21st century. Comparisons to Alexandre Aja's The Hills Have Eyes and Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead are absolutely warranted, and that's a very good thing.
So, let's get into the nitty gritty of what both did, and didn't quite work... as said, everything will be marked as spoilers, so if you're not wanting to have your fun spoiled just avoid the RED TEXT. We good?
Hauling someone there for a hardcore heroin detox - and then having her be the first person to be stalked by Naturon Demonto's fury - was a brilliant twist. Not only does it give everyone around her a reason not to freak out, but it also means that everyone staying locked down in an isolated cabin with no communication with the outside world in the middle of nowhere, actively ignoring the person who was just raped by a fucking tree MAKES PERFECT SENSE. (Also, that's gotta be the single least sexy tentacle rape in film history. Trust me on this guys; I'm a goddamn expert.)
The only real weak link, at least that I can remember feeling that way at the time, was "Grampa" being killed suddenly and without any real fanfare felt like kind of a waste. Yes, it's a shocking and unsettling turn of events that doesn't clue anyone in to the fact that Mia might not be herself anymore, but still, no horrific violence? Even the kitten that got hilariously/horribly stabbed to death in Drag Me To Hell got more attention! I had wondered if he'd avoid the possessed Mia, or maybe get injured and become a Deadite Dog himself - wouldn't that have been fun?! But, no, dog gets its fucking head caved in off screen. Eh, kudos for killing the pet at all, I guess? (Wow, that... sounded worse than I'd thought it would.)
That general quality extends to the rest of the script, which is filled with characters who generally don't do anything especially stupid; the "rules" of the Deadites are never made explicitly clear to begin with (it's something the book itself might be trying to hide, for all we know), which make the one questionable moment of someone willing to let a Deadite free once they've "regressed" to human form seem like at least a compassionate reaction. Besides, this is one of the corner stone scenes of the original Evil Dead - bitching about it in a film designed to literally carry on its legacy would be like bitching about a Friday the 13th remake using a POV camera. There's a few moments of questionable reactions sure, such as Eric's almost manic fascination with The Book of the Dead itself, but there's never any especially lulzy, or head slappingly dumb reactions to bitch about. (You know what I'm talking about. Prometheus springs to mind: "HEY LIL' FELLAH!")
The first reel has some of the expected, oddly exposition-heavy dialog flying around just to get the viewer up to speed, but overall the screenplay itself was surprisingly solid, and seems far more aware of things like logic and character consistency than Raimi's own film of the same name. We even learn quite a bit of unusual, unpleasant backstory about two of our protagonists, and that all has a pretty heavy resonance on what follows - a satisfying turn of events from a genre where splatter is the highlight, not character growth.
But is the script a little too clever for its own good by peppering the development through the tragedy itself? I'm a little torn on the fact that there's little to no setup in the film for the actual characters. We learn enough about David and Mia to sympathize and pity them, and Eric does enough hemming and hawing that we get where he's coming from in his bittersweet reunion with what was clearly once his close friend, and even gets to redeem himself for what looks like . Overall it gives us some tasty bits of character development to chew on, and learn primarily through the characters interactions with each other as the horrors unfold around them, but by the end of the film we don't know anyone in any meaningful way... then again, this is a fucking Evil Dead movie. It's not like we're going to see more than one of them in the sequel again.
Unfortunately, Olivia's sole development is that she's a competent nurse with a slightly pissy disposition. It's not much, but it's just enough that her actions and reactions seem consistent enough to recognize her as a person of some kind. As for Natalie... well, she's there to get fucked up with power tools. She literally has no defining personality traits other than "the blonde one" - she doesn't scream, she doesn't fight, she just watches shit explode around her and does what people tell her to do. She's not even interesting enough to become a sort of Damsel in Distress, she's just bland window dressing. Don't know if this a weakness from newcomer Elizabeth Blackmore of if she was simply too underwritten for talent to matter, but I literally forgot she was in the movie for long stretches until something bogus happened to her.
That said, holy shit, Elizabeth's impromptu take on "A Farewell to Arms" was really something. Let's talk about that practical gore, shall we? PHENOMENAL. Yes, I'll admit it, CG could potentially have increased the total squick factor (not to mention the consistency) during the eye-jabbing bit especially, but the fact that everything looks so hyper-real, the direct result of doing everything in a manner that just doesn't exist anymore, was like pure goddamn catnip for a rubbery gore-hound like myself. I'm certain the "falling drop of blood" (you know the one) and the buzzing flies in the basement were added in post, but considering what a bitch having done them any other way would have been - they'd have been optically printed if this were 1981, let's face it - I'm cool with them, even if the former looked a bit cheesy. By the by, I can't wait to see the "Making Of" materials on the upcoming Blu-ray; how on earth did they get that one long shot of Mia hacking up that spiny, blood soaked hairball?! Either it's some kind of magical collapsible material, or Jane Levy has a throat that'd put Linda Lovelace to shame!
Speaking of Jane Levy (in a, y'know, not-throat-fucking sort of way...), she gets serious credit for both pulling off abject spit-spraying hands-shaking terror in a way even seasoned veterans often shy away from. Before "He" has her, there's a moment of undilluted fear and dread that just fills that actress, and she spits it on the screen as nothing but raw, unfiltered honesty. Loving it. Mind you, her inevitable turn as a cheesy ass-kicker is slightly less impressive, but far from bad - just, not as shockingly great as when she was one step away from slitting her own throat to escape whatever else might happen to her. I wanted to give her the crown for playing the raspy, sneering Deadite... until I remembered that "Abomination Mia" is credited to Randal Wilson. I'm hoping she was just the body double for the final reel and not the centerpiece to the film's churlish bellowing menace, but until I get some clarification on who played what, I just can't make that call. Everyone else is competent, professional and not overly showy, but I'm afraid Levy steals the entire show leaving everyone else looking a bit uninspired by comparison.
And hey, let's face it, when you're put up against The Chin himself, you can only ever be so cheesily awesome before you're just bordering on trying to be Ash Williams, both a locing parody and, somehow, the perfect embodiment of the one-liner spewing, firepower toting, stupidly macho 80s action hero. Thankfully the film knows better than to go down that road, and Ash just... doesn't exist in this story. There's winking moments, familiar actions from different characters that recall his spirit and his role, but at the end of it all Mia does not equal Ash With A Vagina. You see that, The Thing 2011? That's how you create a new heroine, rather than gender-swap the one your franchise already had.
And yet, the film is missing one core element of the original film; actual terror. There's a handful of jump scares, certainly, and one of the most unsettling moments in the film is purely an effect that was accomplished through sound editing, but... well, there's simply no tension in the film. Raimi's film may have had some ham-fisted moments of unintentional humor, but scenes like watching Linda's eyes flicker as Ash digs her grave, and the long, slow shots of "That Thing" in the woods eyeing potential new victims before bowling them over had a certain overbearing sense of Lovecraft inspired dread. If the cloying, soft-focus softcore porn of horror is the tension and the build up, then Fede Alvarez' stripped down splatter film is gonzo pornography, cutting to the body horror and supernatural spooks early on and never once looking back to question if the audience was on their seats uncertain of what would happen next. We know what's going to happen next; some motherfucker is about to get FUCKED. UP. The only question is how, not if.
Upon leaving, Mrs. Kentai was rather non-plussed about the whole thing. I asked her what she was less than impressed by, and she said, without even thinking about it, that the film simply wasn't scary, which left her looking through her fingers at an hour of increasingly absurd violence. She acknowledged it was all well done and kind of fun in its own right, but it just didn't burrow to the nightmare inducing part of the brain the same way as Raimi's original was designed to. Mind you, this all appears to be by design, but... if the promise of the film's poster was "The Most Terrifying Film You Will Ever Experience", it was a failure. Even those fucking Paranormal Activity flicks pack more actual dread and terror in their 90 minutes of falling pots and attractive ladies sleep-standing for hours on end! "The Most Fun You Have Ever Had Dry Heaving Into Your Popcorn"? Sure, that's a bingo. Whether or not this distinction will harm the film's longevity or appeal, I can't say; I had a blast in the theater, listening to the entire audience around me squirm and gasp and cheer in unison, but I'm still just a little bummed that I'm not looking over my shoulder as I crawl into bed tonight.
On reflection, a big part of my not being upset by the lack of actual 'horror' in what's being marketed as a horror film is that is we've already seen what contemporary remakes of The Evil Dead would have been in both "serious" and "deconstruction" modes. They were called Antichrist and The Cabin in the Woods respectively, and anyone who feels let down by the lack of balls-out terror or underlying tongue in cheek attitude in this film should be reminded that these two great films covered a lot of ground that Fede Alvarez couldn't, not without being looked at as playing to old-hat tropes already dissected by the masters, anyway.
Speaking of "okay but weird" feelings, what was up with Natalie up and dying after all no apparent head trauma? Was there a consistency with Deadite Death I just didn't catch? Her body was never "cleansed" and her head was never destroyed and she was never burned (a point of consistency to every other Deadite in the film... I think?), I guess it just reached a point where "He" gave up on them? That would made sense, I suppose; Olivia's head was crushed, rendering her base senses useless, and while Natalie still could have bitten someone (hell, Mia bit her!), not having any hands makes her a less than ideal host, that's for sure. This was one of the only things that really bugged me walking out of the theater; then again, these Deadites don't seem to possess severed body parts, so I guess being an animated head might not apply in this reboot the way it did in Raimi's trilogy. Speaking of Deadite consistency, the lot of them never "flying" was probably for the best, but I liked the visual cue of Mia simply scooting along the water's surface as an analog. It's still charmingly retro-spooky, easy to pull off without shitty CGI, and looks unlike anything I've ever seen in film - well, outside of anime, at the very least.
For the record, it's just a little underwhelming to try and put a face on "Him", by the way, even if it was just in passing. (Notice the old Jewish spelling for 'Satan' scribbled on the page where we see "Him".) Evil Dead II went out of its way to show Naturom Demonto's ultimate "form" to be an amorphous Shoggoth that used the faces and voices of those it consumed as interchangeable masks, but I guess the fact that the film ultimately used a ghastly mirror-image of Mia's own self as the creature stalking her in the woods was smarter than anything else they could have done. Actually, I really like the idea that The Book simply shows you what it'll turn you into as a matter of course; that gave Ash plenty of reason to run in the previous trilogy, and gives a plausible explanation as to why he never tried to describe it to anyone else.
Fanservice is abundant, but more subtle than I figured it'd be. Ash's old car is still there, rotting under a tree, we see the necklace (which was... broken earlier, wasn't it?) forming a familiar face, and while the results are completely different this time around, kudos for trying to burn The Book anyway. Hearing Sheryl's voice fill the cabin just before Mia lost all semblance of herself is the kind of manipulative bullshit that sends a shiver up my fanboy spine, but with everything else in place, it's forming a common theme; this has all happened before.
So... is this a remake? Kinda. It's clearly taking place in the same 'universe' as the Sam Raimi trilogy, and Fede Alvarez has made the charming argument that maybe The Book of the Dead makes these things happen in a self-repeating cycle of black magic influence. Yeah, sure, at the end of the day it's a cheap way for the fans to have their sequel cake and eat a remake, too, but it's at least a clever way to look at it, no? With this in mind, is the version of Naturom Demonto in the '13 film a sort of Version 2.0, crafted by the Candarian Demons themselves to lure new souls into their gaping maws? We did see a number of "fake" Necronomicons in Army of Darkness - so hey, who's to say that there was only one Naturom Demonto, or that its texts couldn't be re-created in some way? They're already talking about a sequel to the '13 revamp - plus a fucking sequel to Army of Darkness, plus some sort of wild "Evil Dead vs Army of Darkness" finale to cap off both franchises - which has officially bent the very concept of continuity over the fence and sodomized it until it was a gaping bloody void.
Y'know what's NOT in the film? Mia singing "Not another peep...", or David cutting anything up with a chainsaw and spraying blood on a lamp, both of which were featured prominently in the film's earlier trailers. Were there some major changes late in the game, or are these just goodies we'll see restored for the inevitable Unrated Director's Cut? Only time will tell, I'm afraid.
Let's just throw this one out there and be done with it: Best. Chainsaw. Violence. EVER. That was an award I never thought I'd have to take away from Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2, but goddamn, if that wasn't some cheer-worthy gross out greatness, and the biggest high the story as presented could have ended on without going full bore bullshit in the last 10 minutes by remaking the end to Ash's story.
You stayed to the end of the credits, right? If you didn't... well, you're either an asshole or your bladder was ready to blow, but either way you missed the single biggest theatrical fanboy tease since Iron Man. Have fun with that knowledge, tiny bladdered assholes! All kidding aside, that was pretty friggin' awesome (even if it means nothing to a fresh audience), and it leaves me with little doubt that Raimi was confident enough in the finished film to leave the door open for... well, you know where this whole ridiculous franchise is going by now. And as a long time fan, I couldn't be happier for it.
EVIL DEAD '13 probably isn't going to be a trend setter, and while Fede Alvarez has proven himself to be a competent, polished film maker who knows what his audience wants, I don't think we've uncovered the next Sam Raimi here. But it doesn't matter; the film is a gruesome good time for old fans and newcomers alike, and if it doesn't make its meager $17 Million budget back in the first weekend, I swear I'm going to die a little inside. It's not horribly complex, but it has pretty goddamn massive cajones and delights in testing its audiences' limits, even at the cost of literally everything else. With one major stylish choice aside, it's everything that a remake of The Evil Dead probably should have been, and I can't ask for any more than that. Fede Alvarez has done a fine job dusting off the title for an engrossing splatter film, and Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell's involvement has made sure it stayed true to the fans that have been fawning over their almost accidental masterstroke. This might not be an accidental classic, but it's pretty goddamn fun anyway. Highly recommended to people who love movies that hate human flesh.
EDIT: Updated for a few very relevant sections I spaced before publishing (damn my enthusiasm!).
You'll be surprised how much you forget to clarify at 2 in the morning.