There’s a caveat that needs to be applied to any review of Fede Alvarez’s remake of Evil Dead, Sam Raimi’s unassailable 1981 horror staple: the new version isn’t as good as the old. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be, because nobody should reasonably expect genre remakes to live up to or exceed the masterpieces that spawn them. The better news is that Alvarez actually has a great movie on his hands- perhaps one that’s not capable of creating the same lasting, resonating impact within its categorical boundaries as Raimi’s original movie did, but certainly one that brings the blood-soaked goods with the sort of unhinged, fearless verve few mainstream studio horror films are capable of mustering.
Maybe Evil Dead fits more comfortably into our cultural dialogues about the necessity and value of remakes than it does conversations about the state of horror- if you think you can bring your “down with remakes!” bluster into Alvarez’s house, think again- but the sheer audacity present in the film’s FX gives it significant heft as an entry in gore cinema. In that specific realm, Alvarez has Raimi beat; the latter showed superior resourcefulness and inventiveness in his D.I.Y. filmmaking ventures, but Alvarez appears to have had several warehouses worth of karo syrup and red food coloring on hand during principal photography. He’s made not the better film, but the redder film, and that’s very much to his credit.
He’s also made a movie that stands on its own and works whether or not you know a damn thing about Ash, Deadites, or the Naturon Demonto/Necronomicon Ex-Mortis. Evil Dead follows the same outline as Raimi’s picture: a group of friends head out to a remote cabin (in the woods), mess around with an evil book, inadvertently summon vicious demonic spirits, and get picked off one by one as each of them are possessed and dismembered in turn. As his own addition to the formula, Alvarez gives our victims-du-jour a personal reason to isolate themselves in the devil-haunted wilderness: an intervention and detox for Mia (Jane Levy), a [substance] addict and recent survivor of a near-fatal overdose.
She’s accompanied by a quartet of vaguely sketched twenty somethings, including her older brother, David (Shiloh Fernandez), his girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), discontent hippie-nerd Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), and nurse Olivia (Jessica Lucas), all of whom have a vested interest in seeing Mia kick her drug habit. Things start off inauspiciously- the cabin is in a state of severe disrepair, and somebody’s been doing some weird occult stuff in the basement involving sacrificial felines and a book bound in barbed wire- but events move along swimmingly until Eric has the wacky notion to read out of said tome, and that’s when the fun starts.
“Fun”, of course, translates to “rampant graphic gore”, and this is where another caveat is warranted: Evil Dead is easily one of the bloodiest horror films you’ll see all year. That feels like a true statement even though it’s only April, and it’s also quite possible that Alvarez’s film stands tall as a recent entry in splatter cinema. Anybody watching Evil Dead probably at least has a mild affinity for horror, so describing the film as “not for the faint of heart” would be stating the obvious, but Alvarez might have a thing or two to show even veteran gore-hounds as he bludgeons, immolates, mutilates, desecrates, punctures, impales, slices, dices, and violates his cast at every turn without relenting for more than a moment. Because it’s only gentlemanly for him to let his audience catch their breath.
That could be Evil Dead‘s contribution to genre dialogue- never skimp on the gore. Alvarez doesn’t cut corners and do things the easy way, either: when Levy gets doused head-to-toe in crimson, she really gets doused head-to-toe in crimson. You don’t get that kind of effect from turning to CGI. So in a way, Alvarez has thrown the proverbial gauntlet down and declared the superiority of practical over computer-generated FX. If Evil Dead has any value to it whatsoever, something that’s surely going to be debated in the name of good taste, it’s Alvarez’s willingness to challenge himself, his cast, and his crew for the sake of getting it right, from the special effects to the effectively atmospheric and often beautifully framed cinematography. There’s something to be said for that kind of dedication to craft.
Strangely, the more muddling elements of the film are found in how closely Alvarez sticks to Raimi’s vision. In some cases, that adherence pays off; in the end it’s Mia, not her brother, who ends up standing in as the replacement for geek god Bruce Campbell, who took Olympian levels of abuse in Raimi’s Deadite trilogy- Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2, and Army of Darkness– and came back for more with a chainsaw fastened to his wrist. Jane Levy might not have Campbell’s chin, but whether she’s playing the skittering horror trapped in the basement, the frightened, tormented drug abuser, or the newly empowered, wholly determined heroine, she’s a wonderful stand-in- so good that she makes up for how ill-defined the other characters are (though blank slates are fairly important to horror as a genre).
On the other hand, many of the callbacks to the original Evil Dead only really have an effect if you’ve seen it- even the sacred chainsaw. (Chekov’s chainsaw.) The book itself almost feels like it doesn’t belong, odd considering that it’s the font of evil responsible for everything bad that happens here. That’s because it’s an invention of the 80s that’s out of place in 2013, timeless in its own context but anachronistic today. Evil Dead never feels lazy and never holds back; it does, however, limit itself by indulging in obligatory fan service when it’s completely unnecessary. As it stands, the film is a noble tribute to Raimi’s work, but it could have been that and a new classic in the horror lexicon.