Evil Dead (2013): Necromaniacal Intentions

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Once Hollywood finds a successful brand, it never lets go.  From sequels to prequels, remakes to re-imaginings, “requels” to spin-offs; once a movie has proven successful, studios will do whatever it takes to keep that success going.   Hollywood’s voracious appetite has consumed movies from every genre.  Comedies get prequels, comic book franchises get rebooted, classic dramas are remade.  However, if there’s one genre wherein no successful movie franchise is ever allowed to die in peace – one genre where, appropriately enough, no brand name ever stays dead and buried – it’s horror.

It makes sense, really.  Fear is very subjective, and most horror films are highly representative of the time in which they were made.  As such, it’s understandable why a studio might be possessed by an enormous temptation to take the familiar themes of an old classic, put a fresh spin on things and make a scary experience for a new generation.  Not every horror remake is bad, either; there’s actually a number of excellent ones, including such creepy films as David Cronenberg’s The Fly and John Carpenter’s The Thing.  Unfortunately, these remakes are the exception to the rule.  The vast majority of horror remakes tend to be watered down, forgettable misfires – underwhelming disappointments that are forgotten a year after they’ve been released.  This doesn’t mean that studios shouldn’t try to put new spins on old classics.  I understand exactly why they continue to do it, and in some cases even support their intentions—but it does mean that if they’re going to try, then they need to actually try.  If a studio is going to say that they can do a new version of a movie that people love, then they sure as hell better be able to prove why that new version needed to made.  Again, Cronenberg’s excellent remake of The Fly justified its existence quite well; in many respects, it’s actually a vast improvement over the film that inspired it.  Why can’t other films do the same?

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The problem here isn’t just that studios are milking old franchises, however; it’s that they’re creatively bankrupt, unwilling and unable to take chances on new properties.  As a result, the horror genre has grown stagnant.

I’m a diehard horror fan.  Horror has been my favorite genre since I was a teenager, and my exhaustive studying of the genre’s tropes and history has only increased my passion for it.  However, over the last few years I’ve found my interest in contemporary horror movies dwindling more and more.  The modern horror market has become a cesspool of PG-13 Exorcist rip-offs, jumpy ghost stories, repetitive zombie flicks that lack George Romero’s social insight, and ultra-violent torture porn.  The problem here isn’t remakes – the problem is a nonstop slew of bland, watered down “horror” films that both aren’t scary, and don’t actually say anything.

As a rule, horror fans tend to get really upset about remakes.  Often, a remake can feel like an insult; it can feel like a studio is milking one’s favorite film for all that it’s worth.  But overall, most horror fans have gotten used to remakes.  We expect them.

But I don’t think anyone really expected them to ever remake The Evil Dead.

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Back in 2011, when rumors first surfaced about the plans for a remake, fan reaction was highly negative.   For those who are unfamiliar with the franchise, The Evil Dead was the highly-influential 1981 debut of both director Sam Raimi (now famous for the Spider-Man movies) and his childhood friend Bruce Campbell, both of whom grew up making Super 8 home movies together.

The Evil Dead—which Stephen King famously referred to as “the most ferociously original film of the year” – was a highly subversive, incredibly bizarre movie.  It broke the rules, carving its own gory path in the horror landscape and becoming on enormous influence on the genre as a whole; in a sea of repetitive slasher films where the good, abstinent girl always survived, screaming, covered in blood, The Evil Dead instead presented a story wherein the final survivor was a nerdy, awkward man—a man named Ashley, of all things (!!!)—and the film itself contained a vast number of experimental shots, controversial sequences and offbeat camera angles.  The movie’s sequels, Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn and Army of Darkness, both furthered the original film’s manic sense of experimentation as they embarked on a decidedly satirical and often slapstick approach to the horror genre, simultaneously mocking, celebrating and redefining the classic horror tropes.   The trilogy’s hero, Ash—played by Bruce Campbell, with his chainsaw, boomstick and classic wisecracks—became a film icon.

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Fede Alvarez’s new Evil Dead remake seeks to bring the material back to its roots, and then look at its themes in an entirely new light.  Instead of turning a humorous eye toward the familiar abandoned cabin/Necronomicon plot, the remake instead returns to the grimmer, more desolate tone of the original movie.   Alvarez’s Evil Dead is a gripping, tense, big-budget modern thriller. If the intention was to redefine the Evil Dead franchise, then taking it more seriously is certainly an understandable approach – and in the movie’s defense, it’s nice to see a horror movie that’s actually scary again.  As a film itself, I highly recommend it to all horror fans.

But…here’s the thing.

The real reason that many fans were so unenthused about the idea of a remake —and it’s not just because of the lack of Ash—is because a big-budget Evil Dead with realistic special effects isn’t really Evil Dead anymore.  At least, not the same Evil Dead that fans are familiar with.

See, in order to understand the rabid fan devotion that Evil Dead has inspired over the years, it’s important to recognize that the original film, The Evil Dead, was made on a shoestring budget of about $90,000—and yes, it shows.  It definitely shows.  The movie is cheap, gory, campy, silly at times; the pacing is flawed, the scares don’t always work.  The cast and crew were mainly comprised of Raimi’s friends and family, and Raimi and Campbell both had to beg everyone they knew in order to fund the movie.  At the time production began, Sam Raimi was only 20 years old.  20!  But this low budget—and the crew’s obvious lack of prior experience—actually acted in the movie’s favor, because it forced Raimi to take chances.  It forced him to take big risks, to experiment, to see what worked.  Raimi’s ambition continued into Evil Dead II, which was a much more professional film, but kept the subversive spirit of the original intact; it took what worked  best, discarded the rest and then embarked on its own quirky, experimental path.  Army of Darkness, then, has always functioned a sort of grand finale to the original saga; equipped with a bigger budget and the experience of the prior two films, Raimi was able to craft a Jason and the Argonauts-style medieval epic, wherein Ash is forced to finally stop running and become a hero.  Well, an antihero, at least.

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So, yes, the original movie is campy.  But it works exceptionally well, because of the one thing that so many studio films are lacking today – creativity.  Raimi’s talent shines from beginning to end.  Watching The Evil Dead, one can clearly see that Raimi is a beginner, but one can also see that he’s a beginner with guts, with talent, a beginner who’s willing to throw in everything and the kitchen sink if that’s what it takes.  This is exactly why the movie was such an inspiration to so many horror fans over the years; many aspiring creators (myself included!) grew up watching The Evil Dead, Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness, and by witnessing Raimi’s example, they realized that artistic success wasn’t an impossible dream.  If Sam Raimi – a person who was once one of us—could do it and make it work, then it meant we had a chance, too.  Raimi’s example demonstrated to his fans that success could be found through talent, bravery, a little luck and a lot of hard, hard work.

The Evil Dead is basically the ultimate homemade movie, in many respects.   When looked at in this light, I can understand the desire to remake it.  I can also say that by producing a big-budget remake of it, the creators are overlooking the homegrown, do-it-yourself roots that made the original so special.  Yes, it’s dirty.  It’s flawed.  It’s cheesy.  So what?

I won’t pretend to be unbiased.  I own the Book of the Dead DVD edition of the original film.  I have an Army of Darkness poster on my wall.  But walking into this remake, I realized that I had to look past my strong connections to the original film.  I had to recognize that this film wasn’t going to be a real continuation of the films that I loved – that it’s something else, something different entirely.  So, I went into Evil Dead with open eyes and no expectations.

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And you know what?  As a horror movie, the 2013 Evil Dead is really, really effective.  It’s dark, relentless, and at times mind-numbingly scary; it’s easily one of the best horror movies in a long time.  Evil Dead is the first film by Fede Alvarez, and in many ways the director’s style reminds one of a modern Sam Raimi.  His film maintains the same subversive nature, the same willingness to break the rules and shock the audience.   It’s exactly the sort of jolt that the genre needs right now.  If one looks past one’s expectations and forgets about the original films, Evil Dead is an experience that will remind many fans why they loved horror in the first place.

What makes Evil Dead work so well, interestingly enough, is its surprising lack of irony; Evil Dead rarely laughs at itself.  Unlike Evil Dead II, which gleefully poked holes at hallowed ground, this Evil Dead is an utterly serious horror film, and that works in its favor, largely due to a smart screenplay by Diablo Cody of Juno fame.  Cody deliberately refuses to let her characters become mere monster bait; audience expectations are subverted right off the bat when the “teenagers” coming to the cabin aren’t just a bunch of partying college kids, but instead of a group of friends doing an intervention on one of their own, Mia—a recovering drug addict.  They’ve holed up in the cabin not to get drunk, but instead to help Mia get through her withdrawals.  This approach results in characters who have layers, instead of being mere stereotypes—and then, once the horrific events get under way, the use of practical effects instead of CGI grounds the proceedings in a twisted, gritty sense of reality.  The intense violence displayed here actually feels real—and because the characters are people instead of caricatures, we actually feel for them instead of rooting for their demise.

This is all good stuff, very good.  Where the film often falters, I find, is in the instances when it remembers that it’s supposed to be an Evil Dead movie.

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Alvarez’s film constantly references back to the original trilogy.  They’ve got the chainsaw, the hand removal scene, the deadites, the Necronomicon, even the bloody lightbulb.  At times, this works – as a fan, it was a joy to see the familiar deadite personalities back up on the screen.  However, the downside is that when Alvarez’s film references the trilogy—when it openly displays its love for the original—it also calls attention to what’s missing.

I’ll admit it.  As much as I want to look at this film with open eyes, the lack of Ash is very, very difficult to get past.  When so many of Ash’s greatest moments  are given away to other characters—the hand removal scene, for example—it’s hard not to feel a bit miffed.  Unlike most horror franchises, where the returning characters tend to be the villains – see Friday the 13th, Halloween, etc.—Evil Dead was never really about the cabin, the book, or the deadites; it was about Ash.  As a result, seeing the storyline proceed without him feels much like seeing a movie about Robin/Dick Grayson, a movie which features the Batcave, the Batmobile, Gotham City, the Joker and the Penguin—but no Batman.  It’s like a Hellraiser movie with all of the cenobites…except Pinhead, or a Nightmare on Elm Street movie without Freddy.

What’s also missing here is the sense of manic glee that permeated the original films and made them so much fun to watch.  This Evil Dead is a very dark, brutal, at times fairly torturous affair—that’s the point, really—but as a result, it loses much of the creativity, the joy, the wicked humor and the satire that the Evil Dead series is well-known for.  In that respect, I think that Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s brilliant Cabin in the Woods is far more true to the spirit of Raimi’s Evil Dead sequels.

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This lack of humor is, however, more faithful to the original film.  The humorous commentary of Evil Dead II isn’t necessarily what Evil Dead started as—the first film was fairly serious in its intentions—but it is what Evil Dead became, and that humor is what the franchise has been recognized for since 1987.  As a result, progressing back to straight horror feels a bit like moving backward and losing the great touches that Evil Dead II brought to the series.  As Roger Ebert stated, in his review of the second film;

“”Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn” is a comedy disguised as a blood-soaked shock-a-rama. It looks superficially like a routine horror movie, a vomitorium designed to separate callow teenagers from their lunch. But look a little closer and you’ll realize that the movie is a fairly sophisticated satire. Level One viewers will say it’s in bad taste. Level Two folks like myself will perceive that it is about bad taste.”

But again, this new Evil Dead isn’t trying to be Evil Dead II.  It’s a return to the grueling darkness of the original film, while amping up the brutality to a whole new level.  In this respect, the movie succeeds.

This isn’t the Evil Dead we grew up with—but it never could be, and it was never trying to be.  The 1981 film was a product of its time, a product of its budget, lightning in a bottle.  Today, Evil Dead has become too well known, too much of a cult classic to ever really return to its DIY roots, and so it must evolve.  Like so many film franchises before it, Evil Dead must redefine itself for a new generation if it’s ever going to survive.  As fans, we need to look at this film as an entirely new entity, instead of comparing it.  I know this might lead to us experiencing a bit of cognitive dissonance, but the important thing to remember is that the original films will never go away – and never be forgotten.

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…and hey, for us fans of the original trilogy?  Rumor has it that Raimi is working on a so-called Army of Darkness 2, a continuation of Ash’s adventures.  So, fingers crossed.  Maybe someday soon, we’ll get the Evil Dead IV-type movie that we were all hoping for—and the new generation will get their own series to remember just as fondly as we remember ours.

-Nicholas Conley     

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5 thoughts on “Evil Dead (2013): Necromaniacal Intentions

  1. I would’ve enjoyed the remake a whole lot more had the marketing not given away that Mia is the lead. David was a very strong stand in for Ash and had I not known before hand that Mia was the lead I would’ve considered him the new Ash.

    I am looking forward to the sequel but I want them to stop trying to win over the original fans by suggesting a cross over film.

    • Oh yeah, that’s a frequent problem with most of the marketing done for big movies these days. More and more, I find that I have to avoid all commercials, trailers and photos released for any film I’m anticipating…unless I want to have the entire movie spoiled, that is.

      But yes, it’s certainly very aggravating.

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