When THE EVIL DEAD exploded onto theatre screens in 1983, it was with all the gorily gleeful impact of a Jack-O’Lantern detonated by over-enthusiastic kids playing with firecrackers – a wild and unrestrained blast of grueling horror influenced by everything from THE EXORCIST to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD to THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. Although the film essentially came out of nowhere – shot in Tennessee by unknown filmmakers from Detroit – it did suffer from unrealized expectations in at least one sense: author Stephen King had helped rescue THE EVIL DEAD from obscurity by writing a review in which he called it “the most ferociously original horror film of the year.” Although the adverb “ferociously” is perfectly appropriate, one can only credit the adjective “original” to excess enthusiasm on King’s part, THE EVIL DEAD’s essential virtue is not originality but an unrelenting intensity born of a go-for-broke attitude that seems to known no limits, pummeling the audience with one insane shock effect after another.
Unfortunately, these overblown horror theatrics are preceded by early scenes that are lame even by the standards of exploitation cinema, as five hapless friends arrive at an isolated cabin for a weekend of vaguely defined fun (with no obvious interest in having sex and/or exploring the woods, they mostly sit around talking). The attempt to establish setting and build mood is laudable, but there is an amateurish quality to the character interaction. The directorial flourishes – which will work so well later – only underline the weaknesses: for example, during a scene of Ash (Bruce Campbell) pretending to be asleep while Linda (Betsy Baker) examines a present he has given her, a series of close-ups of the characters’ eyes suggests a dramatic intensity that is entirely lacking.
Thankfully, once the characters discover and play an old tape recorder, with an incantation that resurrects Kandarian demons lurking in the woods, the unsatisfying dramaturgy is replaced by an all-out assault of horror. Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) is raped by moving branches and vines in the woods. Morphing into a demon, she plunges a pencil into Betsy, breaking off the tip in her ankle. When Shelly (Theresa Tilly) also becomes possessed, her boyfriend Scott (Richard DeManicor) resorts to the only method of dispatching the demons: total body dismemberment. When Betsy joins the ranks of the Evil Dead, Ash is forced to defend himself, beating her with a wooden beam and eventually decapitating her with a shovel. When Scott finally falls prey to the evil forces, Ash is driven to the brink of madness before making a final stand against his former friends…
How do we account for the effectiveness of THE EVIL DEAD, a film that uses its simple story only as a pretext to hurl horror at the audience? Sure, it is loaded with gore and violence (so much so that the filmmakers had to sidestep the MPAA and release the film unrated rather than take an “X”), but that is hardly unique. I think that there are three basic qualities that raise THE EVIL DEAD to the top of the bloody heap of exploitation horror.
The first is that, despite THE EVIL DEAD’s dramatic deficiencies, there is an absolute conviction about its horrors – they get inside your head, making it difficult to dismiss them mere gratuitous excess lavished by overenthusiastic filmmakers. Even when the film oversteps the bounds of good taste, with the notorious and potentially offensive tree-rape sequence, the viewer reaction is one of “Oh my god, what’s happening to that woman!” – not “What kind of sleaze-balls made this movie?”
The second essential quality is a nightmarish situation that grabs you by the gut and forces you to confront the horror in a supremely visceral way: the characters are basically trapped in a cabin and must use whatever sharp or blunt instruments are available to defend themselves – from monsters that used to be their friends. It would probably take a scorecard to determine which side sheds the most blood, the humans or the Evil Dead, and the violence gets an extra kick of revulsion when performed by hapless heroes reluctantly carving up their girlfriends.
The third element that lifts THE EVIL DEAD above the charnel house and into the realm of grotesque art is the manic stylings of director Sam Raimi, whose restless camera, contrived angles, and jagged editing propel the audience into the action. Although the abundance of flashy technique can be distracting during the character moments (e.g., the aforementioned gift-giving scene), it is perfectly suited to the intensity of the horror sequences, forcing you to go along for the delirious ride almost as if you were another character.
The effect becomes the cinematic equivalent of the over-heated prose of an Edgar Allan Poe or an H.P. Lovecraft, who managed to convey the tortured mental state of their characters (usually first-person narrators) through an abundance of verbiage. Raimi uses the camera to convey an almost deranged state of mind to the audience, who find it easy to identify with Ash when he starts to crack under the pressure: at one point he sees his hand slide into a mirror as if into a pool of water – a moment of pure insanity that disturbs as deeply as any of the carnage. In a film notably short on characterization, this audience empathy is a remarkable achievement.
In retrospect, it is worth noting that Ash here is not the resilient monster-fighter of EVIL DEAD 2, nor is he the over-confidant blow-hard of ARMY OF DARKNESS. Still, as the mayhem mounts higher and higher, Campbell becomes more comfortable with the role, offering hints of where he would take the character in the sequels. In THE EVIL DEAD, Ash is simply the last survivor – the fifth little Indian, so to speak, and there is little heroic about him. But that’s all part of the film’s grueling horror aesthetic, in which the characters live only so that they can die in horrible ways for the entertainment of the audience. It’s a simply formula, but it works well here, earning the film’s reputation as a cult classic if not a full-blown masterpiece.
HOME VIDEO HISTORY
Thanks to its original English distributor, THE EVIL DEAD is one of the first films to be released simultaneously into theatres and on home video, back in the days of VHS. A little movie without stars or a big advertising budget, it was unlikely ever to become a theatrical blockbuster, but videotape sales turned it into a cult success. Appropriately then, it has seen several resurrections in different formats: laserdisc, DVD, and now Blu-ray.
Up until Anchor Bay Entertainment’s Augst 31, 2010 release of the limited edition Blu-ray disc, the essential version for serious collectors was Anchor Bay’s previous “Ultimate Edition” DVD. Since the new Blu-ray is almost, but not quite, a duplicate, we will examine the DVD first and then note the additions, deletions, and improvements in the Blu-ray version.
ANCHOR BAY’S ULTIMATE EDITION DVD
The Ultimate Edition DVD of THE EVIL DEAD is a three-disc box set that will probably remain a collector’s item despite the Blu-ray competition – for its impressive packaging, if nothing else. The box unfolds into five segments, which are decorated with publicity artwork (featuring Campbell with a female model not seen in the actual film). The discs themselves are also nicely illustrated with artwork or photos, and there is fold-out recreation of the theatrical poster (14 inches by 19 inches). The 25 chapter stops (with titles like “Violated in the Woods” and “Hacked to Bits”) are listed on the inside front cover.
DISC 1 – WIDESCREEN presents THE EVIL DEAD in a 1.78 transfer, with an optional audio commentary by producer Rob Tapert and writer-director Sam Raimi. Also on the disc is the lengthy documentary, ONE BY ONE WE WILL TAKE YOU: THE UNTOLD SAGA OF THE EVIL DEAD.
The widescreen transfer is not bad, but it is marred by a problem inherent in the film, which was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm for theatrical distribution. The result is grainy, especially because the film was intended to be shown in the old-fashioned 1.33 aspect ratio; stretching it out to the 1.78 aspect ratio for today’s widescreen televisions brings the grain out even more. The transfer also looks a bit dull and soft, as if it needs more contrast, and it seems slightly over-matted – almost zoom-boxed – cutting a bit too much off the bottom of the frame. (This is noticeable in a scene wherein Shelly fools Betsy into thinking she has ESP: the first card that Theresa holds up for Betsy to guess is barely visible at the bottom of the frame.)
- Audio Commentary: The remarks by Raimi and Tapert are friendly but not as lively as one would expect. Some good behind-the-scenes stories emerge (such as one about Raimi falling asleep behind the camera – a secret he kept from the crew until the dailies were seen, revealing that he had left the camera run on endlessly). However, at times Raimi and Tapert sound as if they do not have much to say about the film, and there are numerous drop-outs.
- ONE BY ONE WE WILL TAKE YOU: THE UNTOLD SAGA OF THE EVIL DEAD is an extensive chronicle of the making of the film, loaded with interviews from most of the major players and many of the minor ones as well: Rob Tapert, makeup man Tom Sullivan, Josh Becker, and actresses Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker, and Theresa Tilly (Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell are noticeably absent). Fans like filmmakers Edgar Wright (SHAUN OF THE DEAD) and Eli Roth (CABIN FEVER) show up to express their enthusiasm. The result is nicely intercut with clips from the film, including outtakes and trims, with sound recorded live on set, that will give you a new-found appreciation for the post-production sound enhancement that turned these voices into demonic howlings from hell.
DISC 2 – FULL FRAME preserves the original 1.33 aspect ratio in a superior transfer with an optional audio commentary by Bruce Campbell, plus the bonus feature THE EVIL DEAD: TREASURES FROM THE CUTTING ROOM FLOOR. The full-frame transfer is preferable over the widescreen version, leaving picture information intact and not magnifying the graininess as much.
- Audio Commentary: This disc benefits from Cambell’s amusing audio track. All by himself, he out-talks Raimi and Tapert combined, offering a continuous stream of jokes, asides, and anecdotes far more informative than one usually expects from an actor (no doubt because Campbell served double duty behind the camera, he is well acquainted with the nuts-and-bolts kind of details that make for a compelling commentary). This commentary (not duplicated on the Blu-ray) remains a selling point for the DVD.
- THE EVIL DEAD: TREASURES FROM THE CUTTING ROOM FLOOR: Not as much can be said for the bonus feature, which offers unedited outtakes and trims, with slates intact, rather than deleted scenes. Presented in continuity, without audio commentary, the footage winds up feeling like a fragmented alternate version of the film, seldom providing any interesting information about the making of the film. The sole exception is the tree-rape scene: in the actual film, the footage is run in reverse to create the illusion of deliberate movement by vines and branches; seeing the action staged is an interesting glimpse into how the effect was achieved. The key scene (a branch thrusting between Ellen Sandweiss’s legs) belies the actresses’ claim that the branch was added in post-production. Overall, this footage is put to better use in ONE BY ONE WE WILL TAKE YOU, which inserts illustrative clips at appropriate moments.
- EASTER EGG: This disc contains an Easter Egg that is recycled on the Blu-ray, where it is listed as a bonus feature. (See Blu-ray review section, below.)
DISC 3 – LADIES OF THE EVIL DEAD offers the majority of bonus material, including featurettes, makeup tests, trailers, and image galleries.
- LIFE AFTER DEATH: THE LADIES OF THE EVIL DEAD features interviews with Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker, and Theresa Tilly, explaining how they became part of the EVIL DEAD convention phenomenon decades after putting the film behind them.
- THE LADIES OF THE EVIL DEAD MEET BRUCE CAMPBELL is a group interview, spiced up with a few film clips, in which the actor and the three actresses share several funny stories about the injuries they received while working on the film.
- DISCOVERING THE EVIL DEAD offers insight from Palace Video partners Stephen Wooley and Nick Powell, along with Bill Warrern (author of The Evil Dead Companion), who discuss the day-and-date simultaneous theatrical-video release strategy that helped the little horror movie finds its audience in England (and make a profit even though American theatrical distributor New Line Cinema coughed up few if any dollars to the filmmakers).
- UNCONVENTIONAL is a group interview with Campbell, the actresses, and Hal Delrich (Richard DeManicor) discussing the convention phenomenon, while Sam Raimi’s brother Ted recalls visiting the film set and being drafted as a “Fake Shemp” (i.e., body double).
- AT THE DRIVE IN features the by-now familiar faces, plus makeup man Tom Sullivan, giving away DVDs to enthusiastic fans at a drive-in screening in Chicago. Though nicely shot, this is essentially a home movie, with little of interest.
- REUNION PANEL features a Q&A discussion with the usual suspects at a 2005 convention. The best story comes from actresses Sandweiss, Baker, and Tilly, who recall signing the thigh of a man, who later had the signatures permanently tattooed onto his skin. Otherwise, this is fun but somewhat slow, with apparently the entire conversation playing out in real time, as we wait for questions from the audience that are barely audible on the soundtrack. Also, some of the stories are starting to sound familiar. Editing together the best bits might have been a wiser strategy.
- MAKE-UP TEST is a bit misnamed. The footage is actually special effects test footage, first of blood dripping on a white background, then with a split-screen shot of model, combining stop-motion and live-action.
- TRAILER in widescreen with no narration
- TV SPOTS – full frame with narration melodramatically warning potential viewers about the horrors contained therein
- STILL GALLERY:behind-the-scenes images, location shots, makeup shots
- POSTER & MEMORABILIA: poster art, video box art, and 2 design sketches of makeup and effects.
- EASTER EGGS: This disc contains two Easter Eggs: one with Rob Tapert, Betsy Baker, and Therese Tilly (a.k.a. Sarah York) appearing at an American Cinematheque screening in Hollywood; the other with Ellen Sandweiss discussing the film with her old high school drama teacher.
ANCHOR BAY’S LIMITED EDITION BLU-RAY
Anchor Bay’s limited edition Blu-ray release OF THE EVIL DEAD (which hit stores on August 31) is essentially their old three-disc Ultimate Edition DVD condensed down to two discs: one Blu-ray (which contains the film) and one DVD (which ports over most of the old bonus features).
DISC ONE contains two high-def transfers and an all-new audio commentary featuring Sam Raimi, Robert Tapert, and Bruce Campbell. The 1080p transfers are presented in anamorphic 1.85 and the original 1.33 aspect ratio, with Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio. Essentially, this recreated the Ultimate Edition DVD presentation, which also offered widescreen and full-screen transfers (although on separate discs).
Unfortunately, the disc seems slow to load (I have heard complaints that it freeze, but this did not happen on my low-cost Insignia player). Then you have to sit through the obligatory trailers for other Anchor Bay releases; the disc will not allow you to skip this section by pressing the menu button, but you can chapter stop through. This can be very frustrating if you have to take the disc out of the player for some reason before you are finished watching (for example, if you are going back and forth between the Blu-ray and the DVD for the purpose of writing a review like this one).
Due to the 16mm origins of THE EVIL DEAD, with its legacy of visible film grain, it is unfair to expect the full benefit of high-def; nevertheless, both transfers offer visible improvements on the DVD versions: they are clearer, brighter, and sharper. Especially impressive, some flawed matte work has been corrected: the moon, inserted via split screen, was once surrounded by visible matte lines, and the color of the sky was noticeably different (dark blue instead of black). On Blu-ray, the effect is near seamless, visible more in memory than on the screen.
The framing of the widescreen transfer has been improved (the first card Shelly holds up for Betsy to guess is now clearly visible), and overall this version is now quite presentable. Still, the full frame version is preferable, both for preserving the director’s original intent and for keeping the magnification of grain to a minimum. (Raimi and Tapert understandably express a preference for this version in the audio commentary.)
- Audio Commentary: The combination of Raimi, Tapert, and Campbell is a good one, as between the three of them they know just about everything a fan could want to know about the making of THE EVIL DEAD. Perhaps in an effort to avoid duplicating their previous (separate commentaries), this one is not scence-specific; instead, it proceeds chronologically, offering an audio account of the film, from conception, through financing, production, post-production, and distribution. The conversation is loaded with detailed information about such subjects as the switch from Super 8 (which they used in their student films) to 16mm, in their effort to go pro, and there are many kind words for Irvin Shapiro, the rep who helped the film make money on foreign and home video sales (which saved the day, since they saw no money from New Line Cinema’s theatrical release). Along the way, there are many new stories (or at least stories not heard on the other commentaries), such as Sam Raimi’s disappointment over the reaction to the script from one potential investor, who said, “You can’t have five minutes of set-up and 60 minutes of THE EXORCIST!” One minor quibble: in the back-and-forth dialogue about various people encountered during post-production, Raimi references writer-director Frank LaLoggia’s THE LADY IN WHITE, in a way that might make a careless listener think the film was directed by Joel Coen.
Missing are the two audio commentaries from the Ultimate Edition DVD. In the case of the Raimi-Tapert commentary, this is not as severe a loss, but the Campbell commentary is dearly missed.
The LIMITED EDITION BONUS DVD (whose surface lacks cover art, sporting only the lettering of the title) ports over most of the bonus features from the Ultimate Edition DVD and adds one “new” feature.
OLD BONUS FEATURES:
- ONE BY ONE WE WILL TAKE YOU: THE UNTOLD SAGA OF THE EVIL DEAD
- THE EVIL DEAD: TREASURES FROM THE CUTTING ROOM FLOOR
- DISCOVERING THE EVIL DEAD
- AT THE DRIVE-IN
- REUNION PANEL
- MAKEUP TEST
- THE LADIES OF THE EVIL DEAD MEET BRUCE CAMPBELL
- STILL GALLERY
- THEATRICAL TRAILER
- TV SPOTS
Missing are LIFE AFTER DEATH: THE LADIES OF THE EVIL DEAD and the Poster & Memorabilia Gallery. However, some images from the latter have been added to the Still Gallery: four professional poster images, a homemade ad for the film under its original title (BOOK OF THE DEAD), and two makeup-effects sketches.
“NEW” BONUS FEATURE:
- BOOK OF THE DEAD: THE OTHER PAGES is not technically new, as it appeared on the second disc of the Ultimate Edition DVD as an Easter Egg. This is a longer version of the scene wherein Ash flips through the mysterious book found in the cabin’s cellar. Basically, you see more of the strange illustrations that fill the pages. This looks like footage from an unfinished rough cut, and it is easy to see why the scene was trimmed down.
Anchor Bay’s limited edition Blu-ray lacks the beautiful packaging of the Ultimate Edition DVD, and it is missing some bonus features: two audio commentaries, the LADIES OF THE EVIL DEAD featurette, and some of the gallery images. The inclusion of BOOK OF THE DEAD: THE OTHER PAGES is not enough to compensate for these omissions, so that the DVD box set remains an essential component for a hardcore fan’s collection, even one who decides to acquire the Blu-ray as well.
Fortunately, the new Blu-ray audio commentary is not only excellent but also quite different from the previous ones, making it worth hearing even for fans who think they have heard it all before. The real selling point, however, is the high-def transfers. Although a grainy grindhouse horror film hardly seems like the ideal candidate for a lavish Blu-ray treatment, the new transfers are such an obvious improvement that you do not have to be a tech-geek to spot the difference. If you want to savor the gory goodness of THE EVIL DEAD on home video, with every burst pustule and glob of blood as clear and sharp as the day it was filmed, then the Blu-ray disc is the way to go.
THE EVIL DEAD (Renaissance Pictures, 1981; released by New Line Cinema, April 15, 1983). Written and directed by Sam Raimi. Produced by Rob Tapert. Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Richard DeManicor (as Hal Delrich), Betsy Baker, Theresa Tilly (as Sarah York).