People who constantly weep and beat their chests at the idea of reboots – especially Fede Alvarez looming Evil Dead reboot itself – often forget that not only was the gristly, gruelling instant hit of 1981’s The Evil Dead, effectively rebooted by its own creator into the bombastic beer-burp slaughter satire of 1987’s Evil Dead II (released as Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn), which if anything, has become even more celebrated than the original.
Wooden-faced horror purists may claim to prefer the original, but it was Evil Dead II that made a geek icon of rubber-faced leading man Bruce Campbell, that catapulted Sam Raimi from the indie fringe to the studio spotlight, and that changed the face of fear in a big way – giving horror movies permission to be brutal and bloody, crass and confrontational, a huge amount of fun, and hugely successful, all in one dripping bodybag.
Evil Dead II wasn’t the first film to wed black comedy and grindhouse gristle, nor the first to couple outrageous physical effects with film school trickery, but the endless, dizzying kaleidoscope of combinations that Sam Raimi’s crypto-reboot throws up has all the gleeful inventiveness of raiding the dusty liqueurs for cocktails at a house party.
It’s easy to overstate Bruce Campbell’s role since his apotheosis to self-parodying geek godhood, but at the same time it absolutely cannot be understated. There’s so a sort of Chaplain-esque silent movie physicality to his performance that gives Evil Dead II an element of timelessness, as he flings himself across rooms and downstairs, a spinning tombola of increasingly energetic reaction shots.
So mute is Ash Williams that his most overquoted lines seem to account for half of his actual lines, but for the first half of the film as he’s tormented and besieged, his sanity steadily unravelling, behind all the torrents of gore and the surrealism, Evil Dead II is as intensely intimate and claustrophobic as the more recent likes of Rodrigo Cortés’ Buried, Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist or Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio.
The tone shifts slightly when well-scrubbed academics Annie (Sarah Berry) and Ed (Richard Domeier) and yucksome yokels Jake (Dan Hicks) and Bobby Joe (Kassie DePaiva), suddenly intrude in Bruce Campbell’s private circus of self-abuse, and we’re resentful of having to share the narrative with a bunch of walking horror movie tropes. The intrusion precipitates the film’s increasingly ludicrous final third, a pile-up of Henson Creature Shop weirdness, spinning space vortexes, flying fatsuits, and attacking tree monsters that defies all attempts to explain.
Then, as a parting shot, everyone gets all lightheaded and with the last $16 of budget, we’re introduced to an unconvincing truck stop mediaeval Europe that acts as less a precursor to the threequel, 1992’s deeply silly Army Of Darkness, but more an precursor to the unconvincing truck stop Ancient Greece of the Sam Raimi-produced knockabout fantasy series Xena: Warrior Princess.
It doesn’t matter how often you watch the film, it’s tough taking in each and every nugget of set piece madness in one eyeful as the production team use all the filmmaking tricks and tools in their palette, from the imitable unknown terror of the steadicam chasing Campbell around the cabin, to stomp motion animation morphing into prosthetics on sticks. It’s clearly not just enough to do a thing and stick it on camera, with Evil Dead II, they had a burning drive do it harder and faster and bigger and crazier and from every angle – and it’s no wonder the film saw so many future FX heavyweights pass through its hyperactive workshop and into the production teams of some of sci-fi, fantasy and horror’s biggest and boldest movies.
As for the nuts and bolts of disc itself, this is a straight port of Lionsgate’s 25th Anniversary US Blu-ray release, a fantastic improvement on the previous murky HD transfer, mutilated by digital noise reduction and other over-enthusiastic tinkering. This version meanwhile is crisp and bold, with respect to the original grain that gives it a rare authenticity. Also included are the US special features, the highlight of which is a staggering 100-minute plus ‘Swallowed Souls’ documentary, in which the cast and crew – Raimi and Campbell included – recount the making of the film, accompanied by behind the scenes footage from the era.
The timing of the release may be obviously cynical with the reboot circling the cinemas, but it’s the platform for a vital lesson – whether The Evil Dead or Evil Dead II is superior, or the Evil Dead reboot is an ideological travesty, is immaterial. Nothing can take away from the endlessly rewatchable genius of Evil Dead II – not best or second best bickering, not painfully dull arguments about whether it’s a zombie movie or a demonic possession movie, not dreadful crossover comics, cheap cash-cow videogames, endless clubfooted parody, or baffling Italian sequels. Nothing.
Just as Alien and Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope‘s shadow may have fallen on some contentious garbage, the towering monument of the original remains untouched. And like Alien and Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, you’ll gleefully hoover up the release in each and every new format that comes along.