Evil Dead 2 (1987) – Film & DVD Review
[EDITOR’S NOTE: EVIL DEAD 2 makes another appearance on home video today, this time in the Blu-ray format, so we took this opportunity to post a retrospective-review of the film, including an interview with director Sam Raimi.
Hands down absolutely one of the greatest achievements in the horror genre—ever. This is literally one of those films that have to be seen to be believed—it’s outrageous, over-the-top, and beyond what you could possibly imagine, if you haven’t already seen it. It’s a high-octane visual assault on the senses that starts fast and keeps accelerating, slowing down only enough to change gears from scene to scene. If you’re one of those people hung up on literary values like characterization and narrative coherence (and by the way, why are you even reading this?), then this film is not for you; if, however, you really appreciate good cinema—filmmaking pushed to the limits of what can be achieved with camera techniques and editing—then you’re guaranteed to enjoy this mind-blowing roller-coaster ride.
A little background for the uninitiated: In 1981, director Sam Raimi and company churned out The Evil Dead, which Stephen King called the “most ferociously original horror film of the year” (maybe he actually said “decade,” but since the decade was only one-year old at the time, it amounts to the same thing). This film was a gore-hound’s delight, with a minimal story (a group of young people attacked and possessed by an evil force in the woods) and maximum carnage. The intent was clearly to capture some of the gut-level intensity of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and combine it with the sort of zombie gore effects that had been popularized in Dawn of the Dead (1979). The result was truly strange, by turns shoddy and shocking, crude and yet undeniably effective. True to the time, the film ended with one of those final-shot “gotcha” moments, meant to imply the last-minute triumph of evil, just when you thought the movie was over.
Well, Evil Dead II is not exactly a sequel, although it does carry on somewhat from where the previous film left off. Basically, the first five minutes of the sequel recapitulate the entirety of Evil Dead in condensed form; this time Ash (Bruce Campbell) goes to the cabin with just his girlfriend Linda instead of a group of people. After she is possessed and (apparently) dispatched, the evil, lurking point-of-view camera (implying an invisible presence in the woods) catches up with Ash just as it did at the end of the first movie, and then we finally see what happens next: He is sent hurling through trees a mile a minute before being dropped into a pool and apparently drowning, only to be revived as Evil Ash…at least until the sun rises, driving the devil out of him, at least temporarily. From there, the film goes on to show Ash’s continuing battle with undead forces, during which he is eventually joined by Annie (Sarah Berry) and a few others.
What follows is so close to THE EVIL DEAD, in terms of content, EVIL DEAD 2 is almost a remake; in terms of style, however, it is anything but. Recognizing the absurdity inherent in the whole project, Raimi and his collaborators opt to send the film straight over-the-top. Instead of backing off the bloodshed, they pump it up even further, until it reaches absurd level never attained before or since (although Peter Jackson tried hard in Brain Dead/Dead Alive). Apparently hoping to avoid an X-rating (an attempt that failed), the film does shy away somewhat from showing the actual contact between sharp implements and flesh, but that is more than counterbalanced by the geysers of blood that result.
The excess is so…excessive that you’ll be forced to burst out laughing, but don’t let that fool you into thinking this is a comedy or an exercise in camp. This is a balls-to-the wall horror film; it’s just that (unlike its predecessor) it’s not aiming for shock of a disgusting, I-want-to-throw-up variety. Instead, the key adjective here is “hysterical,” which is exactly what the film is. The tone is enhanced by the occasionally surreal special effects, including some miniatures and blue screen shots that are transparently obvious. Instead of undermining the film’s effectiveness, they help set it in its own weird little world where all this outrageous stuff seems possible.
Perhaps the film’s approach is best summed up the scene in which Ash is tormented by the objects in the cabin, which come to bizarre life and laugh at his predicament: having run out of screams, Ash begins to laugh along with them, his laughter edged with manic insanity. This is actually one of the more interesting elements of the film: the fact that Bruce Campbell’s character spends so much of the first half alone. After all, how can this be a body count movie when there are no bodies to count? Instead, the early scenes focus on the assault by the undead forces on Ash alone, driving him to the edge of sanity. Included in all this is some great footage of Campbell playing scenes with his possessed hand, which takes on a life of his own and proceeds to pummel him into unconsciousness. (This film could be the missing link between Dr. Strangelove and Fight Club; it also clearly inspired at least a few moments of IDLE HANDS.)
After the other characters show up, there’s not much story to speak of. The evil force just keep possessing people and turning them into evil-dead versions of themselves. Ash, somehow, turns out to be very proficient at killing monsters, which he does repeatedly while he and Annie try to figure out how to dispel the force once and for all. Along the way, Campbell gets to say two of my favorite lines in any movie: (1) “You’re going down!” and (2) “Groovy!” I realize they don’t look particularly memorable on paper, but in the context of the film they really rock. I don’t want to spoil them for you, so I won’t explain here, but now you know what to look for.
In the end, EVIL DEAD 2 is not as graphically shocking as its predecessor, but it is a vastly superior film, one in which imagination ran riot to brilliant effect, creating a classic piece of cult cinema. Hardcore horror addicts may quibble that the film is more funny than frightening, but they’re missing the point. EVIL DEAD 2 is an out-of-control blender, spinning at full speed, mixing laughs and scares and flinging them in all directions and leaving the audience to sort it all out. The end result is truly one of the most hysterical films (in the precise dictionary sense) ever made.
After the first Evil Deadfilm, which went out unrated (rather than accept the X-rating from the Motion Picture Association of America), director and co-writer Sam Raimi wanted the sequel to earn an R-rating. He opted for a more comical approach; for instance, the film billed itself as “the sequel to the ultimate experience in grueling terror.” (As your high school English teacher might ask: If THE EVIL DEAD was the “ultimate” [meaning “final”] experience in grueling terror, then how could their be a sequel?)
Despite the comic approach to horror, the blood flowed just as freely, and the film failed to satisfying the MPAA, so that, like its predecessor, it had to be released without an MPPA rating. “Evil Dead 2 had quite a lot of comedy, but there our philosophy was still, the gore, the merrier,” admitted Raimi.
Often, the sequel seems like a sadistic exercise, designed to inflict as much pain on the lead character of Ash (played by Bruce Campbell), who is variously beaten, bounced, and bloodied throughout the running time. Yet, somehow, he keeps going, like an invulnerable cartoon character. “”That’s how I look at Bruce – though he sometimes doesn’t feel that way when he’s under the wheels of a steamroller!” Raimi laughed, explaining his treatment of the character. “My theory is that what the audience wants more than anything – more than a good story, more than an interesting visual or a good joke – is to see Bruce Campbell in pain. If Bruce Campbell is in pain then the audience is having a great time. I’ve read a few books of film criticism, and it all really boils down to that: the more pain, the more laughs.” (Raimi pushed this approach even farther in the third “Evil Dead film, the R-rated ARMY OF DARKNESS, which was released in 1992 by Universal Pictures.)
Of course, not everyone gets the joke, as Raimi himself admits. “Yeah, well, the Evil Dead movies have a very small audience, so obviously not everyone relates to the rule that they teach in school: ‘violence is golden.’ A lot of people – such as the British censor board and the MPAA – don’t find the first Evil Dead film funny. But there is a small crowd that seems to like them, and to both of those people I say, ‘Thanks, Mom and Dad!’”
Like its predecessor, Evil Dead 2 has a relatively short running time—under ninety minutes. Raimi explained the reason for this: “I personally like movies that are eighty-five minutes; I don’t like sitting too long in a theatre. The Evil Deadpictures are just roller coaster-style thrill pictures that have no story that demands being there longer than eighty-five minutes anyway.” Raimi added, “I liked it when they used to make really short films. I think that just under ninety minutes is a great length for a picture. In fact, the type of picture I made would be best at sixty minutes – no brain, no story, no nothing. That way the audience, after leaving my movies, won’t think they’ve wasted an entire afternoon, just an hour and ten minutes.”
Raimi’s success at creating a cult horror film is remarkable, considering that he was not a genre enthusiast. “When I grew up, I wasn’t really a fan of those pictures, but I did know them very well. It was only after I made Evil Dead that I began to look at horror films and appreciate them for their art and the craftsmanship that went into them. Until that time, they scared me, and therefore I didn’t really like them.”
Raimi chose to begin his career in the horror genre because of its cinematic potential. “I got into motion pictures because I like what cameras were and how they captured reality. And then the fact that you could shuffle that reality in editing was outrageous to me. That’s why I got into it: to study the effects of camera movement, lighting, and sound. And those horror movies that I made when I got started – Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2 – they were about the exploration of what film was, and presenting the world of the supernatural was a great medium for that, because you had to present something that doesn’t exist in our world. It really was great ground for experimentation.”
This excellent film has received an excellent treatment on DVD, courtesy of Anchor Bay. The disc comes in a special, limited edition collectors tin (mine is number 26,944 out of 50,0000) that looks kind of like a box of cookies but with poster artwork from the film. Inside, you will find a copy of the DVD, a forty-eight page booklet, a 5”x7” horizontal reproduction of the theatrical poster, and a postcard-sized ad slick for the Evil Dead: Hail to the King computer game.
To be honest the DVD is the true highlight here. If you’re not a total fanatic for the film, you might just as well forego the pleasure of buying the collectors tin. The computer game ad is just a teaser with little real information on the game. The poster is a more durable version of the thing you get in most DVDs, with the artwork on front and the chapter stops listed on the back. The booklet is actually very nice, loaded with color photographs from the film (and a few that didn’t make it into the film).
The booklet opens with an amusing introduction from Bruce Campbell (in which he refers to the title as Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn, a subtitle that does not appear on the film itself, apparently having been only a tag line on the posters). Then there is a reprint of an old Fangoria magazine article on the creation of the film’s makeup effects. The latter is interesting as far as clarifying who did what effects, but it’s basically an “in-production” article that was written while the film was being made, so it can’t really give a good assessment of how all the work turned out in the final cut.
So much for the bells and whistles. What about the disc itself? It’s great, absolutely great. The film is presented in both full frame and widescreen versions (the latter is enhanced for 16×9 television screens). Since the film was not shot in an anamorphic process, the widescreen version isn’t really going to show you any additional picture information on the left and right edges of the screen, but the image does look good matted to the 1:85 aspect ratio. On the other hand, the full-frame version looks good, too. In either case, the image is sharp, and the sound is clear—you can really see and here each incredible moment in all its glory.
Besides the film itself, the disc offers several extras: an audio commentary, a making-of featurette, a theatrical trailer, a preview of the video game, two stills galleries, and talent bios. The trailer is interesting, but it doesn’t quite convey the full impact of the film (perhaps one reason it didn’t do as well theatrically as it should have). The preview for the Evil Dead: Hail to the King is just a brief bit of computer animation, but it does make the video game look intriguing. The stills galleries are divided into shots from the film and behind-the-scenes images. There is some repetition of shots from the booklet, but most of the images have not been often published before, even in magazines like Cinefantastique and Fangoria that covered the film during its production. The talent bios are limited to director Sam Raimi and star Bruce Campbell. Both contain filmographies as well as background information; they are fairly informative for newcomers, and even those more familiar with Raimi’s and Campbell’s careers will find some interesting facts they might not already know.
So far, so good. But the real meat of the supplemental material is the documentary, entitled “The Gore The Merrier” and the audio commentary. Don’t expect a whole lot of solid information from either one, but they are a lot of fun. The documentary includes current interviews with Gregory Nicotero, Robert Kurtzman, and Howard Berger, the three makeup effects men who met on the production and went on to form KNB Effects. They discuss working with Sam Raimi and provide behind-the-scenes footage in the form of home video tape they shot during filming. The result focuses almost solely on special effects, so it’s hardly a definitive examination of the film, but it does provide some interesting glimpses of movie magic, including a couple of deleted scenes: in one, we see the dismembered corpse of Evil Ed still wriggling with unnatural life; in another, we see Evil Ash swallow a squirrel in the woods. Apparently, the actual film footage is lost (at least it’s not included here), so these videotaped glimpses may be all that’s left of these scenes.
The audio commentary is not what we’ve come to expect from sober directors like Roman Polanski or Michael Apted. Basically, you get a group of friends sitting around and all talking at once about this movie they made thirteen years ago, and their enthusiasm and love for the project comes through, blotting out most of the information and turning the experience into a kind of nostalgic free-for-all. Informative it’s not—at least, not very—but amusing it most certainly is.
You hear from Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, co-writer Scott Spiegel, and Greg Nicotero. They tell some good stories, but mostly the commentary resembles an amateur “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” with the participants adding verbal sound effects, suggesting new lines of dialogue, ribbing each other good-naturedly and generally joking around. (“I should have helped you with a camera thing there,” Raimi says to Campbell at one point. “Then we wouldn’t have had to rely on your acting.”)
This is the kind of stuff that plays well when you hear it but looks flat on the page, so I’ll refrain from giving too many examples. Still, there are some good behind-the-scenes stories, including one right off the bat: The opening logo for the non-existent distribution company Rosebud Releasing (featuring a stop-motion shot of a rose opening, with a buzzing fly on the soundtrack) was designed by Raimi specifically for this film. Dino DeLaurentiis’s DEG company (for whom the film was produced) was contractually prohibited from distributing an X-rated or unrated movie, so “Rosebud Releasing” was created as a kind of front.
Overall, this is a pleasing and entertaining package, although it would have been nice if there were more information and fewer unanswered questions. For example, both the audio commentary and the documentary refer to the use of unrealistically colorful blood (green, blue, etc) as a way of circumventing the MPAA, but no one really addresses the fact that this ruse failed. Wasn’t anyone disappointed? Did they try to appease the ratings board? Did Dino DeLaurentiis get mad that he had invested money in a film that would end up being extremely limited in its possibilities for play dates and advertising (because many theatres and papers will not cover X- or unrated films)? This kind of material might have been too dry for the lively audio commentary, but it would have been perfect in the enclosed booklet.
But that’s only a quibble. When you love a film, you want more, more, more, but you have to keep in mind that what’s actually here is pretty good stuff. What you’re getting is not the ultimate, in-depth analysis of how Evil Dead II was conceived and created; you’re getting a fun-filled look back by participants who really enjoyed what they were doing, and that tone is perfectly in keeping with the film itself.
EVIL DEAD 2 (1987). Directed by Sam Raimi. Written by Raimi & Scott Spiegel. Cast: Bruce Campbell, Sarah Berry, Dan Hicks, Kassie DePaiva, Ted Raimi, Denise Bixler, Richard Domeier, John peaks, Lou Hancock.
Copyright 2007 Steve Biodrowski