Film review: Evil Dead.
If, on stepping out of the cinema after seeing Zack Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead back in 2004 you'd been told that what you'd just watched would be pretty much the high point of the Hollywood "updating" of almost the entire catalogue of classic 70 and 80s horror/exploitation films, chances are that you would either snorted with incredulity at the idea or been thoroughly appalled. Snyder's reworking of the seminal original isn't bad by any stretch of the imagination: sure, it has running zombies, something George Romero himself poked fun at in Diary of the Dead, and there is absolutely no subtext or social comment on how the survivors hole themselves up in a mall, but it has some finely drawn, sympathetic characters (especially Sarah Polley, who is superb as the nurse Ana), doesn't skimp on the gore and even goes beyond the original in the bleakness of its finale. Seen in its own right, it's a decent late entry in the increasingly overblown and dare I say it, boring and overplayed zombie genre. Beyond that though, it's fairly unremarkable.
Compared to what's come since, it's close to being a masterpiece. With the exception of Alexandre Aje's Hills Have Eyes remake, almost all the other attempts to recreate the magic of the originals have been either exceptionally poor or outright failures, with those produced by Michael Bay the utter nadir. Their production values can't be faulted, yet they are mere facsimiles of what went before. In almost all cases the amount of gore is increased, regardless of how little or how much was in the original, while the palette is invariably washed out, not to monochrome but to one where greens and browns predominate. This is especially odd when the originals were often so vibrant regardless of their subject matter; the reds in Dawn of the Dead are vivid and lurid, while the woods in Last House on the Left are naturally green, not this dismal mixture of green, grey and brown that is meant to evoke the darkness occurring.
And so we come to the long awaited by some remake of Evil Dead. It's easy to forget now, but when Stephen King described Sam Raimi's debut as the "most ferociously original horror film of the year" he wasn't being hyperbolic or forgetting numerous other examples of films where teenagers go off to an isolated place and get picked off one by one, it genuinely was innovative. Yes, the slasher genre was just about up and running, and the gialli that did so much to inspire the stalking killer trope had been pumped out by the Italians for over a decade, yet prior to Evil Dead there hadn't been something so completely over the top, both funny and unintentionally funny, while also being in places absolutely petrifying.
Also easily forgotten is that Evil Dead was at the very centre of the video nasty panic in this country. Despite receiving an X certificate for cinema distribution from the BBFC after 49 seconds of cuts, the pre-cut video was among those seized from dealers and members of the public, many of whom pleaded guilty to possessing material deemed illegal under the Obscene Publications Act, rather than challenge in court that the films really were liable to "deprave and corrupt". It was only after the video's distributors themselves were acquitted that Evil Dead was removed from the DPP's list of banned "nasties", although it still took until 1999 for the film to be released fully uncut.
As in many other cases, Evil Dead is the film it is precisely because those making it did didn't properly know what they were doing. Raimi, Robert Tapert and Bruce Campbell had raised the funds to get started by going round local businessmen, showing their past short efforts and promising them they'd double their money. The entire crew were friends of theirs, the blood was karo syrup, in one shot you can clearly see the pipe through which the grue was pumped, the contact lenses were so primitive they could only be worn for a matter of minutes lest they cause permanent damage to the eyes, and the script is barely there, yet everything works because of the charisma of Campbell as Ash, the superb special effects considering the circumstances, and most of all, the virtuosity of Raimi as a director. Every other shot in the film is one which an older, supposedly wiser director would reject; Raimi poured scorn on such conservatism with takes such as the ones that open and close the film, the camera pitching and yawing and then seemingly zooming through the woods and the cabin, achieved simply by attaching it to a plank of wood and then having two people carrying it while running at breakneck speed.
Almost all of this is gone from Fede Alvarez's remake, despite Raimi being involved. A truly global picture, directed by a Uruguayan and filmed in New Zealand, it nonetheless fits completely into the same niche as the updates that have gone before it. In the only real major twist on the original, our intrepid five "heroes" have gone to the cabin in the woods not for time away from college but with the intention of helping the lead, Mia played by Jane Levy, kick her heroin habit. She intends to do this by going cold turkey, a plan apparently approved by nurse Olivia, played by Jessica Lucas.
Immediately, the problems are obvious. Any nurse who recommends the cold turkey "cure" in the first place is either an imbecile or a sadist, let alone when it turns out later that Mia has already tried the approach before and failed. Even if one did, they certainly wouldn't suggest doing it in the middle of nowhere away from easily reachable hospitals, someone medically trained present or not. It also almost goes without saying that Mia is a junkie only in the Hollywood sense: she looks perfectly healthy apart from having slight bags under her eyes.
From the very off then you don't believe that these people were ever friends, and the script at least nods at this by how annoyed Olivia's boyfriend Eric is at the late arrival of Mia's long absent brother David. He brings along his girlfriend Natalie, who unless I missed it is never even properly introduced. Regardless of the wooden acting that occurs occasionally in the original, you believe that all five characters were and are friends. This time round it's difficult to make any such allowances.
Which brings us to the other problems evident from the outset. The palette is that horrible grungy green and brown one discussed above, which never feels right. It's not as distracting however as just how unbelievably stupid our five friends are. The cast in the original were daft, as those in horror films often are and need to be, going off into the woods alone or seemingly unable to lift themselves up from under shelves that have collapsed on top of them; here they're positively certifiable.
Whereas in the original the discovery of the book of the dead happened when the "wind" blew open the hatch leading to the cellar, here they find it after the dog paws at the hatch concealed under the carpet. In the cellar are over a dozen dead cats hung from the ceiling; rather than immediately leave, not only does Eric take the book and proceed to read from it (the book is incidentally bound with barbed wire and all but says DO NOT READ THIS OUT LOUD), although not to the rest of the group as happens in the original but unfathomably to himself, out loud, David then proceeds to cut the cats down and throw them away. There's playing with conventions and making the audience feel knowledgeable and superior, and then there's just crass bad writing.
In the biggest single nod to the original, the notorious tree rape scene is reimagined, and just as problematically. While this time the character isn't drawn into the woods simply by the trees seemingly whispering to her, as Mia instead tries to escape as her withdrawal symptoms begin to kick in, it makes almost no sense whatsoever why the detached branch, meant to represent the spirit that possesses her enters through her vagina. Mark Kermode quotes Raimi as saying that the original rape scene was conceived "by an immature mind, his" and as something he's not proud of, so why on earth would you repeat it when there is no reason whatsoever why the branch couldn't instead be forced down her throat, even if it was then deemed a cop-out by the more ardent fans? Is there some greater significance I'm missing, rather than just referring back to the original? If there is, it certainly isn't hinted at more starkly than very tenuously through the illustrations we see in the book of the dead.
The greatest fault of all though is the tone. Evil Dead was as said above, both funny and unintentionally funny. Alvarez's remake is played completely straight, and yet repeatedly I was laughing and sniggering, both at the dreadfulness of some of the acting and also sadly at some points that were clearly meant to be scary. Jane Levy is mostly very good, both as the demon and herself, and yet when she begins to be possessed she intolerably overacts, her neck muscles tautening to the point at which you feel like copying her. Throughout the actors strain to imitate the demon from the Exorcist and inevitably, fail miserably.
Likewise, the occasional flashes of what's about to happen to the other characters also invoke mirth; the image Olivia sees in the mirror of half her jaw hacked away and yellow eyes was meant I presume to be a jump point, whereas I couldn't help but laugh at how silly she looked. When this taste of what's to come is then played out, Eric backs away from his deformed girlfriend and slips on the piece of skin she's cut away, whacking his head on the toilet bowl. I howled with laughter, except again it couldn't have been meant to be funny as there isn't a single other moment of humour in the entire film.
The one thing Alvarez doesn't scrimp on is the gore, as evidenced by the number of cuts that had to be made to get the film an R rating in the US. It's very much an 18 over here, yet there still seems to be something missing. There are limbs that are loped off, and one scene in particular that is very much of the torture-porn aesthetic, but there isn't anything as outre as in the original. The famous decapitation scene isn't emulated, nor is the eye-gouging, or the complete dismemberment with the axe that left the parts quivering. What is there is all pulled off very adequately, the only disappointment perhaps being the completely unreal looking contact lenses/CGI used on the eyes, which are bright yellow rather than the glassy, glazed over look that worked so well in the original.
Unfortunately, despite all this spam being thrown at the screen, the film simply isn't frightening. Indeed, the amount of grue is in part the problem. Where Raimi was advised to have the blood running down the screen and duly did, he also knew how to build tension between delivering the goods. Alvarez doesn't, and so you're just waiting for the next attack to take place. It doesn't help that rather than pencils forced into ankles, or the bottoms of legs scratched to pieces by instantly sharp nails, Alvarez instead opts to have Natalie wield a nail gun, another point when I couldn't help but laugh at the silliness of something intended to be serious.
And yet, and yet. Despite all of the above and more besides, Evil Dead is still one of the better of the remakes. Yes, it's utter rubbish and can't even begin to hold a candle to the original, but it's polished and made with the best of intentions, which is more than can be said for a lot of the others. It's also much better than Cabin in the Woods, purely down to whether intentional or not, it's far more amusing than that cloyingly smarmy and insincere film. Please though, let's not have a sequel.