In the Book of the Dead, the barbed-wire-wrapped volume causing the fuss in Evil Dead, one lavishly illustrated page states that after the forest demon “feasts on five souls, the sky will bleed again.” Translated into franchise terms: If this grim, outlandish remake of the 1983 Sam Raimi film makes $50 million or more, which it will, the multiplex screens will weep once more with crimson tears. Sequel!
Evil Dead offers the core audience for modern horror plenty of reasons to jump, and then settle back, tensely, while awaiting the next idiotic trip down to the cellar beneath the demon-infested cabin in the woods. The most reliable jumper cable, cinematically, is the old trick you already know: the sudden appearance of someone or something, accompanied by that hackneyed metallic YeeeeeeUMMMMPPPP!!!! sound effect.
The movie’s gore, meanwhile, goes straight to 11. Many dismemberings. Limitless liters of blood. The weaponry includes nail guns, chain saws and crowbars. Nothing stops these evil dead. As in the original, one character suffers a grueling act of supernatural, plant-based rape. As in the original, the scene is offensive and throws you straight out of the movie in the name of upping the stakes.
Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez, making his feature debut, manages a shrewd narrative variation or two on the original. What’s missing, though—by design—is the jaunty, kinetic exuberance of Raimi’s visual approach. You can’t remake a sense of humor. Alvarez may well have one, but it’ll have to wait for the next project.
To its credit, the new Evil Dead takes seriously the recovering-addict plight of its central character, Mia, played well and fiercely by Jane Levy. The premise here is simple: Mia’s drug problems, and her withdrawal, confuse her senses. Her brother and her friends have brought her to the cabin in the woods to cure her. But is she seeing visions of demonic possession, or is this simply the cold turkey playing tricks with her brain?
Evil Dead never had much plot, and never made much sense. The demon jumps from human to human, setting demonized human against regular human. But once inhabited and transformed, the demonized human can be confined to a cellar? Really? Not in my experience.
Back in the early Reagan era, Raimi upped the violence to improbable levels. The original Evil Dead went out unrated rather than risk the demonic X from the Motion Picture Association of America. Yet each time Bruce Campbell appeared bug-eyed, square-jawed and freaking out in close-up, you knew this wasn’t a standard horror film. Raimi’s camera was on fire: It never stopped moving, and it sprinted through the woods like something out of James Fenimore Cooper.
Raimi and Campbell serve as producers on the remake, which is rated R but is, naturally, 46 times as bloody as the original. Little of what Raimi brought to Evil Dead remains. (Except the remains.) All is dark, sepia-toned, artful in its murk, and relentless and rather numbing in its geysers of bodily fluids. The original featured crummy writing and mostly (besides Campbell’s) bad acting, but it was perverse and icky fun. The new one is better acted, more carefully composed. But it feels like a lot of other remakes of ’70s and ’80s horror titles. Competent craftsmanship, vacuous slickness. It’s not bad. It’s nowhere near the sub-basement level of Saw and Hostel sadism. But it’s no Evil Dead 2, even though we most certainly will be getting the remake Evil Dead 2 in a year or two.
Evil Dead (R) ★★☆☆☆