Review first published on EyeforFilm.
Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead has been undergoing revisions ever since it came out in 1982. In the UK, it was initially granted an X certificate for theatrical release by the BBFC after some 49 seconds had been cut. Its subsequent VHS release saw it dubbed the “number one nasty” by Mary Whitehouse, and subjected to a number of obscenity prosecutions. Eventually removed from the ‘video nasties’ list in 1985, it was still refused a video certification until 1990, when it was released as an 18 (with further cuts). It was not until 2001 that the film would become available here uncut with an 18 certificate.
Mired for much of the Eighties in controversy, the film’s notoriety – and the very illicitness attached to watching it – profoundly coloured its reception. Primed for a harrowing experience in terror, many viewers failed entirely to see its funny side until the release of the more overtly madcap sequel Evil Dead II (1987) sent them back to rewatch the original with fresh eyes.
Of course, its impact and influence on horror has been immeasurable. So frequently has Raimi’s innovative low-budget, no-holds-barred pandemonium been honoured, adapted, deconstructed or just plain ripped off by subsequent titles that it has now become part of the genre’s very bloodstream. So any attempt at a remake must hack its way through this thorny, tangled history, and somehow come out the other side intact. It must, without too much hubris, acknowledge the now iconic status of the original (tinted over time with blood-pink nostalgia), it must decide whether to go for full-on shock, raucous comedy or an uneasy alliance of the two, and it must contend with a familiar corpus of later films – not just the the two official sequels, but also the countless tributes, clones and virtual remakes – that have all helped shape the way we look back at the original. In other words, it faces a near impossible task: it must plant its own roots, while still seeing the old woods for the new trees.
Perhaps emblematic of Fede Alvarez’s approach with his remake is the necklace given to protagonist Mia (Jane Levy) by her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez). Its pendant, a metal-bound circle of glass, is instantly recognisable from Raimi’s original and here makes an almost literal cameo. Yet there are differences too: for this time round the pendant comes on a necklace whose beads are “made from a buckthorn tree” (better perhaps, if they were derived from an ‘Ash’ tree) and are “supposed to make your willpower stronger”; and it betokens a bond between siblings rather than lovers. Yet these differences are largely cosmetic, and as such, reflect many of the frankly minor changes that Alvarez and his co-writer Sayagues ring on the Eighties horror classic.
What are these changes? The definite article has been amputated from the original’s title. An entirely unnecessary prologue introduces us to the film’s brand of demonic possession, as though introduction were somehow needed now more than it was back in 1981. Bruce Campbell’s now cultish hero Ash has wisely been removed from the picture (although his fans will be rewarded – again rather pointlessly – if they wait through the closing credits). The broken bridge that traps the co-eds in the original is here replaced with a teeming river (an apt symbol of derivativeness). There is a new pet dog (bizarrely named Grandpa), in keeping with the voguish principle that every film post-The Artist needs a pooch to root for.
Also new here, and more significant, is the way that all the spooky goings-on in the cabin come with something of a psychological underpinning: for junkie Mia is not only going through (metaphorical) hell and facing (personal) demons as she attempts to go cold turkey in the woods, but also carries on her shoulders a family history of madness (her mother died in an asylum, violent and hallucinating till the bitter end). This brings with it plenty of hints – “I feel like I’m losing my mind”, “crazy withdrawal talk”, “it’s all in your head”, “she’s totally psychotic”, “what if she just lost her mind?”, etc – that what we are seeing may not be the demonic apocalypse it seems to be, but rather the demented, distorted visions of a survivor who ‘remakes’ her own monstrously psychotic killing spree as a horror scenario in which she can become the victim rather than the aggressor (cf. Shrooms, The Descent, or Lovely Molly). By the end, of course, this subtext is conveniently forgotten, presumably to allow for more Satanic slaughter in a sequel, which is already, inevitably, being scripted.
Still, Alvarez is hardly reinventing the wheel here. All the beats from the original are here, mutatis mutandis: the cabin, the toolshed, the cellar, the mystic tome bound in flesh, the rapacious trees, the demonic possessions, the dismemberments of loved ones. Such iconic scenes are supplemented by several line variations and farewells to arms borrowed from Evil Dead II, by possessed profanities (“your sister’s being raped in hell”, etc) reminiscent of The Exorcist (1973), by an old gypsy woman in the prologue whose only apparent function is to evoke Raimi’s later Drag Me To Hell (2009), and even by a suspenseful crawlspace sequence pillaged directly from The Raid (2011).
Along the way, Evil Dead does acknowledge other variants on Raimi’s original. At one point David tries explicitly to attribute the dangerous conduct of his friends to a virus, in what is plainly a nod and a wink towards the plot of Cabin Fever (2002), while the very fact that Mia is undergoing cabin-based cold turkey points to Resolution (2012). Yet the one pertinent title of recent times to which Evil Dead conspicuously fails to allude is The Cabin In The Woods (2011) – a film whose postmodern meta-commentary on The Evil Dead, its producers and its audience renders this remake entirely redundant.
There, in essence, is the rub. Alvarez may be going back to the old school, but it seems the only new lessons that he takes with him involve filmmaking craft. Few would single out the performances, or such elements as plotting, characterisation and dialogue, for special praise here, as all, though proficient, come rather by rote. What remain are the more technical aspects of the film’s packaging – but while it is true that the original film was made under severe constraints of financing and equipment, this was to prove the mother of invention as Raimi developed a whole new film language of overcranked cameras, ultramobile disembodied POV shots and uncomfortably canted angles, all set to a monaural soundtrack of unnerving bangs, thuds and roars.
Of course the bigger-budget remake is slicker, with its queasy array of low angles and aerial shots and its fully immersive multi-channel soundtrack – but ‘newer than 1982’ is not the same as ‘new’, and there is something flatly generic about this film’s grainless digital sheen. In its day, The Evil Dead looked and sounded like nothing that had preceded it, whereas this remake resembles pretty much every horror film from the last decade. What Alvarez’s film does deliver is copious quantities of vomit, blood and gore, as the five central characters do ghastly things to themselves and each other, scribbling, cutting and binding a new text into the fleshy pages of their bodies.
The problem with this kind of excess, however, is that it establishes a pattern of corporeal transgression which can never be fully satisfied. There could so easily have been more Grand Guignol here – and there will no doubt have to be more in the sequel – but in the absence of characters about whom we much care, gore per se becomes boring fast, and is an uncompelling raison d’être for a film even in the horror genre.
Evil Dead does manage to locate a slyly absurdist humour amid all its depravities – as increasingly horrific injuries are bandaged with gaffer tape, as discarded items in a dirty shed are recombined to fashion a working defibrillator, and as David’s friend Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), confined to a remote cabin, somehow magics up a set of textbooks for the translation of Ancient Candarian. It never gets as goofy as Evil Dead II, but then nor did The Evil Dead itself.
Overall, Alvarez’s film goes efficiently through the expected motions without really finding its own identity in relation to either the original film or the contemporary horror landscape – where it will be remembered, if at all, as just another post-millennial cash-in remake. Indeed, Evil Dead suffers the curse of its own mediocrity: while it is really not bad, it would linger longer in the viewer’s mind if it were better – or indeed worse. As it is, the fun ride is over and forgotten as soon as its brisk 90 minutes have elapsed.
© Anton Bitel