Thursday, May 02, 2013


It took a long time and years of inner struggle but I’ve finally stopped rending my flesh and garments over remakes. It’s not like I can do anything to stop them and since nobody that matters asked for my opinion anyway. Reaching this peace required the recitation of the “Serenity Prayer” until my throat was raw. It also required my viewing, if not embracing, of less-than-stellar versions of classic horror “for the new generation”. I had to remind myself that The Maltese Falcon was shot at least twice before the definitive 1945 John Huston version, so was King Kong—hell, so was Casablanca, and there are always rumors of another coming our way. There always will be. Even though it’s counter-intuitive—your built-in audience, fans of the original, will always be disappointed in the new version and those younger viewers you’re aiming at don’t really care one way or another if the movie had previous incarnations—remakes and sequels are always considered safe money.

The best example, the one I always point to, is that they threw more money at James Gunn to remake Dawn of the Dead than they did for Romero to make an original franchise installment. The Dawn do-over was given more marketing money, more commercial time and it opened in far more theaters than Land of the Dead. Regardless of how you feel about either film, financially Dawn Redeux was the winner.

Therefore, when it was announced that instead of a long-desired Evil Dead 4 we were going to get a “reboot” of the first film, I met this news with neither surprise nor outrage. Maybe fleeting dismay at first, but once I learned that the guys who created the original film and made it what it was, Sam Raimi, Robert Tapert and Bruce Campbell, were on board 100%, my unease got squashed beneath the boot of the inevitable. A new The Evil Dead was upon us and there was nothing I could do about it.

Besides, like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies, Evil Dead II, the film I saw before the original and fell in love with, was more or less a remake itself. So who was I to complain? My only concession was to check with Tom Sullivan, the effects master who gave the original’s deadites their DIY charm. Once I learned he had been originally approached to do some design work (turning it down for his own reasons) and had not been shuttered out in the cold, I gave myself permission to go.

Fortunately, I was able to see it in a safe space. Opening weekend coincided with the Thursday night pre-kick-off of the 2013 Spring Cinema Wasteland show and I’d be among loved ones. Almost 20 of us marched into that midnight screening. The white dread on the faces of those already in the theater were priceless to behold. “Oh, no—those people”, that thundering horde that will no doubt ruin the experience for everyone with their talking and laughing and gum-chewing and delinquency! 

I was completely unfamiliar with the new director, Fede Alvarez, best known for his internet-sensation short film, Ataque de Pánico!, which I hadn’t seen. The script was by Alvarez, Rodo Sayagues, and some notoriously “uncredited”, and barely-noticable, “additional dialogue” from the unfathomably-famous Diablo Cody. It started well: a witch-burning in the basement by some Spanish-speaking hillbilly cultists slammed into your eyeball right off the bat, along with plenty of foggy-forest atmosphere. So, cool.

The plot was a little more plotty than I expected, given that both the original and Evil Dead II had premises rather than stories: friends visit a cabin and unleash some nasty, evil Evil. Insert gore and/or slapstick here. In this new one, a group of friends go to a cabin for the express purpose of giving Tessa from Suburgatory (Jane Levy) a much-needed, but oft-repeated, intervention. Beginning by pouring her drugs into the cabin’s well and, therefore, poisoning their sole water supply, the intervention comes to a rather abrupt climax a few minutes later with Mia/Tessa almost immediately relapsing.

Okay, cool, some urgency here. A legitimate reason not to leave the cabin once it starts Evil Dead-ing out. Not sure how the others fit in or even know each other—one of them is her brother and the hippie-schoolteacher guy was apparently once in love with him, I think. Before long, they’re downstairs in that notorious root cellar, but this time, instead of random hanging gourds, they find a room filled with suspended cat corpses. And, of course, the Book of the Dead—returning to the original movie’s nom de biblio, “Naturom Demonto”, instead of the better-known Necronomicon ex Moris (loosely translated “Book of the Dead of the Dead”) from the later movies. You know that this is the big bad book because it’s wrapped in thick black plastic and barbed wire. Now every other animal on Earth would see this as a natural sign of “don’t touch”, but lovelorn hippy guy decides that the barbed wire is obviously a ribbon and bow and can’t wait to open his present. Fine, he doesn’t, we don’t have a movie. Please proceed.

As you’ll recall, the Tom Sullivan-designed Books of the Dead in the previous films are inked in human blood and wrapped in shriek-faced human flesh. Now, do you remember when Madonna put out a photography book called Sex and outraged the Tipper Gores of the world? Okay, remember when Linnea Quigley did something similar with a book called Skin, and the book cover looked like the stitched-together inside of Leatherface? Well, the new-and-improved Naturom Demonto looks just like Linnea’s book. The cover was a simple flesh-quilt that could have been made by any deranged first grader for his Phonics Book. Wrapping in plastic, barbed wire, in a room full of rotting cats, the most evil of all evil books not written by Harold Robbins, this Naturom Demonto was hardly impressive. Do better, movie.

Now comes the fun part, we’re all thinking. In the original, it was Scotty who plays a tape recording of Professor Raymond Knowby (played by Turner Movie Classic’s original host, Bob Dorian) reading the Kandarian incantations. In the subsequent sequel/remake it’s Bruce Campbell’s rock-headed Ash who lets the deadites out of the bag. But it seemed like those guys had an excuse. Ash didn’t know what he was doing; Scotty thought it was “wild” and a joke. Lou Taylor Pucci as Eric is feeling pretty sullen and broody at this point in the film. Judging by the very first few pages of the book—nowhere near as cool as Sullivan’s, which anyone with the special DVD releases can tell you—this Naturom Demonto seemed to have been illustrated by some high school kid in shop class. You know, one of those guys who was “really into” death metal vomit rock but didn’t really know anything about the genre. Screaming women engulfed in flames, missing limbs, etc., all rendered in colored pencil and surrounded by inscriptions in a foreign language. And on top of all that, scribbled in big angry letters, are dire warnings like “DO NOT READ THIS OUT LOUD!” and “QUIT READING THIS OUT LOUD!”

So what does long-haired hippie-freak Eric do? He does a few pencil rubbings to find some key words (presumably on pages torn out because the physics teacher caught the student doodling instead of taking notes) and, quite petulantly and with a voice booming with “Screw you, I’m doing this!” reads the key gibberish we all know and love so well—including the “Kanda” trigger word that means “Demons, c’mere!”. And his pronunciation is terrible. Then, as if on cue, the Shakicam rises from the mist and leaves and zips towards the house. I’ll be honest, my inner Evil Dead geek’s heart thrilled a little to this homage to Raimi’s spirited camerawork.

Now, for months, we’ve been hearing about a “female Ash” this go-around. I was totally cool with this and naturally assumed that Mia/Tessa would be said nigh-invulnerable hero/ine. But in a twist, she’s the first to feel the dead kiss of possession. She’s the one who has to be hurled into that root cellar, the door chained to the floor. Mia/Tessa is now Ellen Sandweiss’s Linda, taunting them from below. Neat.

Except now we’re left with her weak sister of a brother, Shiloh Fernandez as David, who is, in another knowing nod to the original, dressed in an approximation of Ash’s “undateable” look (i.e. the jeans and brown moccasins—in this case, work boots—that Raimi felt would never look dated). Up to this point, David’s been a wussy schnook, but to be fair, so was “Ashley” (as Cheryl called her brother) in the original. Remember, Bruce Campbell spent the majority of the first film trapped beneath a variety of book cases.

By this time, we’re all aware that the other characters, Jessica Lucas as Olivia and Elizabeth Blackmore as Natalie, are there simply to serve the movie as the recipients and delivery-mechanism of gore. Now that the titular Evil Dead force has been unleashed, the movie doesn’t skimp on the much-touted practical gore effects. There are hints of CGI but mostly in service of limb removal. Overseen by Jason Durey, the damage sustained to the human body is beautifully cringe-inducing. In particular, a shot where demon Mia licks the edge of a utility knife and slits her tongue down the middle, I flinched noticeably.

Once the gore really gets going—and it doesn’t take too long to arrive—the audience perked up, thrilling and cheering and laughing like the anti-social murder monkeys they were. Our group was no different, mocking it, lovingly for the most part, pointing out the little in jokes and gags peppered throughout, particularly the appearance of the Raimi “Classic” rusting away behind the cabin. Further down on either end of our row, though, I could feel some growing impatience.

So far, the movie wasn’t the “dick slap in the face” (to quote either Don May, Jr. of Synapse or Michael Felsher of Red Shirt Pictures, who’d attended the previous screening) that we had been dreading. Good gore, decent pace. Nothing too overtly stupid to provoke a walk-out. Things started to get a little ridiculous towards the end—something about the Big Bad needing five souls sacrificed in order to gain access to our world, but the movie had stopped playing by those rules by the third-act twist. I called bullshit on a character’s ability to pull her hand off—not severing it via any tool, that had already happened—but freeing it from a crushing object by just pulling free of all tendons, muscles, bones—in movies, you’re really only held together by pipe cleaners anyway. Look how easy a head comes off in a horror movie? Champagne corks are harder to pop!

Thanks to Don May, who’d read the screenplay beforehand, the ending was supposed to be very different than what wound up on the screen. The Big Bad beast that arose on paper consisted of parts of all the friends, similar to the giant face that confronted Ash at the end of Evil Dead II, but less Audrey II. The beast we got was more Sadako, all elbows and hair. I didn’t know how it figured into the story—was it the girl burned alive at the beginning, some shadowy aspect of Mia/Tessa? Whatever. It was a fine climax but it wasn’t the one I’d been waiting for. Even if Don hadn’t told me of what he’d read, it still wasn’t quite what I felt the movie had been building towards.

If you’re reading this, I’m sure you’ve already heard about or saw the post-credits tag. The nonsensical shot of Bruce/Ash turning to the camera and delivering his famous “Groovy” line. As I’ve learned, there was an original post-tag that had Mia wandering down the road and getting picked up by Ash, thus visually “passing the torch”. This bit was removed after a deal was inked not only for a sequel to this (Evil Dead 2 or 5?) as well as an Army of Darkness 2 that would link everything together. Okay. So Bruce’s little appearance at the end was basically his seal of approval and a nod to future things. Honestly, I was more jazzed at hearing the return of Bob Dorian’s voice-over during the credits. The Bruce thing seemed cute and unnecessary but it didn’t bother me.

It bothered a lot of other people. Not just the folks I saw it with but horror fans globally. Many of the people I talked to later that weekend felt it was a personal insult, an attack on the most loyal of fans.

Ultimately, I didn’t have an emotional reaction to the film one way or another. It certainly did nothing to supplant my affection for the original. Its existence, obviously, does not negate the existence of the original and I have three different formats to choose from whenever I want to revisit. As we filed out of the theater, discussing what we liked and/or (mostly and) what we hated about it, I found that I barely had an opinion about it.

When you get right down to it, The Evil Dead 2013 has some great gore effects. Really top-notch, cross-your-legs and keep-looking, the kind of which I hadn’t seen in quite a while. But there were no people in that film, just actors playing characters born of maybe a paragraph. When one died, I felt nothing. When one survived, I felt the same way.

The original Evil Dead is far from a perfect film but it had, as I said, charm. It had that do-it-yourself (and do-it-to-yourself) spirit that every at-any-cost indie movie has. You can see on screen the hell the filmmakers and actors put themselves through to bring this movie to you. Raimi and company made The Evil Dead because otherwise they would have died trying. There were no such stakes in this new one. Little thought had gone into it except to make it “extreme”. “The most extreme horror movie you’ve ever seen!” It wanted to live up to that boast and nothing more. So it didn’t try to do anything else.

Perhaps the film’s biggest fault lies not with what it is but with what came before it. The Evil Dead did for demonic possession what Night of the Living Dead did for zombies. It created its own sub-genre and thousands of filmmakers have followed in its path. Like Romero, Raimi created a style that could be imitated, lovingly or cynically. Before Burn Notice, Bruce Campbell was merely a working actor who was worshipped all over the world, because he was Ash and he put in the time to bring Ash to life. He’d inspired other lanky weirdoes to try their hands at becoming action/horror/comedy heroes. Most failed, of course. But the point is, there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of cabin-in-the-woods movies in the wake of The Evil Dead, including one produced by our current Fanboy Messiah, Joss Whedon, called Cabin in the Woods.

This new Evil Dead wasn’t anything new. It had a few clever tricks but to me it just felt like another homage to The Evil Dead. It wasn’t its own thing and it never once really tried to be. It wanted to be extreme and on that level it succeeded. It’s a perfectly serviceable, empty-calorie party movie. As far as in-name-only remakes goes, it’s a little better than most. It’s very well-made. The actors do their jobs. The camerawork is Raimi-esque. They could have done better than to desaturate the footage for “grittier” appeal, but that’s a stylistic choice and it remained consistent. I’d probably get it through Netflix when it’s released and I’ll probably moderately enjoy it, but probably less unless I can get my fourteen fellow-travelers back to recreate the experience.

But as far as the movie goes, I’d already seen it before a single frame appeared on screen. There was nothing new. It was just another Evil Dead-type movie. We’ve all seen dozens of those. This just had more money behind it.

To paraphrase one web reviewer, I’d give it a ‘meh and a half’.

Original EVIL DEAD (1983)


EVIL DEAD (2013)