Evil Dead played at my bachelor party. Evil Dead stars my favorite actor of all time, Bruce Campbell (I call him Brucey). Evil Dead inspired me to direct and star in my own horror film in college. What I’m trying to get across to you is that Evil Dead is an extremely important film to me. The simplicity of the plot did away with needless twists and boiled down to the essence of horror. The villain, both seen and yet useable, takes either the twisted forms of the dwindling protagonists or an invisible, possessing force rushing through the woods. The budget, ($350,000) bare-bones even in today’s currency, forced the then mostly untested director (Sam Raimi of Spider-Man fame) to improvise, invent, and go back to basics on what makes a horror film scary. With such a strong base, the crew was able to craft the ONLY good remake ever made by mankind, Evil Dead 2, and then continued with the perfect B-movie, Army of Darkness.
Fans identify themselves as “Deadites” named after the army of the dead that is released in the film. Film makers from Wes Craven to Joss Whedon have stuck homages in their films to this masterpiece. In an industry where modern technology could easily and cheaply be used on every horror film as a crutch, films like Evil Dead remind new directors to stick with simplicity if they want quality. And every so often a filmmaker tries to recreate the magic that is this horror film.
How dare they?
It’s ok to sacrifice virgins to the elder gods, but you think you can create a tentacle-faced Great One of your own? Judgment is coming and judgment will be swift and complete! I, who has watched everything Bruce Campbell has ever done, including Maniac Cop and the 10 second cameo in Darkman…I, who almost invented my own religious sect for how strongly I proselytized the Evil Dead franchise to uninitiated in college…I will judge these six attempts at walking in the shadow of greatness.
To be fair, these six movies are great, but they ain’t no Evil Dead.
1. Cabin Fever
I’m going to start with the film farthest away from the mark first. Cabin Fever is a horror film where the villain is a flesh-eating virus…and stupidity. Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: A group of college kids go to a remote cabin to swim, bone, and die. Maybe that last part wasn’t planned, but it sure as hell happens. Director Eli Roth thought that as long as he had teenage girls having sex, bloody corpses, and a spooky cabin, he’d get a sip of that sweet, sweet Evil Dead magic juice. NO JUICE FOR YOU, ELI!
First of all, the “Villain” isn’t evil. A flesh-eating virus doesn’t care if you just had sex, it doesn’t wait in the shadows and pounce out to create jump-scares. Hell, it doesn’t even chase after you! The only way this film even lasts past minute 10 is that everyone shoves the “idiot-stick” right up their butts. You’ve got college-age teens who, when discovering various bloody rashes, hides it from their peers. No person in college is going to do that, they’d demand everyone bend over backwards to attend to their needs and take them to the hospital. A hobo gets accidentally set on fire, and I just want you to re-read that sentence again. Once girl, who already knows there’s a flesh-eating virus going around, has unprotected sex. That’s like if the camp counselors started doing it AFTER they were stabbed by Jason Voorhees! They try to get the sheriff to help, but when the sheriff’s son bites one of the teens for literally no reason, the sheriff blames the teens and starts trying to kill them. Because Eli Roth has no idea what he’s doing, and this film should be ashamed of itself. No Evil Dead here.
A lot of people got excited about this film, me included. Sam Raimi, the original director of Evil Dead, returning to horror after his long bout of Spider-man success! The dream was that he would meld the horror that he’d always been known to deliver with the comedy that appeared in latter Evil Dead installments. What we got was a talking, possessed goat. Dammit Sam.
First of all, Evil Dead was great because the villain was released by the protagonist. It was Bruce Campbell’s fault for reading from the Necronomicon, even though he couldn’t have known what he was doing. Because it was his fault, all the destruction and murder that happens afterwards weighs heavy on his shoulders. Likewise, us as the audience on some level feel he deserves it. In Drag Me to Hell, the main protagonist is a loan officer who is doing her job. The Gypsy woman who eventually curses her legitimately shouldn’t have been given a loan extension, and even so we see the protagonist emotionally grapple with the decision. There’s no empathy or guilt on the part of the audience, so barring any psychopaths in the theater, nothing that happens to the main character feels earned. It’s just torture for the sake of torture; the protagonist did the right thing, then gets punished for it. Also, someone at some point thought that a talking goat would be a good thing to totally not ruin the flow of the film. They were wrong.
3. Dead Alive
Many of you might not have heard of the little known director of this film, Peter Jackson, but this was one of his earliest films and boy does it try to match Evil Dead in terms of over-the-top gore, comedy, and schlock. Initially a commercial flop but earning a cult following, this film was known as Braindead outside of North America. The setting is a house in the suburbs instead of the woods, but the house full of scary monsters motif is the same. Jackson actually stole from several films to put this together, starting with a “Sumatran rat-monkey bite” as the genesis of the monsters which brings to mind both Gremlins and any zombie film.
From there, we have a meek main hero who is driven to the point of madness, choosing to rise to the occasion and become a monster killing hero…pretty much the exact plot of Evil Dead. Where Bruce Campbell famously attached a chainsaw to the wrist that his hand used to occupy, this guy picks up a lawnmower and uses it as a monster-shredder. Where Evil Dead featured an infamous “Tree-rape” scene, [i]Dead Alive has the protagonist forcefully shoved back into the womb of his repulsive, oozing, monstrous mother. Beat for beat the two films are similar, but where[i]Evil Dead moves with tact and restraint, this film says “What if we had one monster bone the other monster, and then have a monster baby?” Less is more, Jackson, less is more.
If we were to break up Evil Dead into individual components, the “Comedy in the face of horror” aspect would be what Dale and Tucker vs Evil tries to emulate. Trying to turn the tropes of “all creepy rednecks in the woods want to murder you” on it’s head, we have a group of teens wanting to go camping in the woods. The “Creepy cabin” aspect of Evil Dead is actually a vacation home to two well-meaning hillbillies, and most of the horror aspects are all misunderstandings. A teen will see one of the men staring at her and assume the worst, but the man was just shy. Another teen will slip and fall, killing himself, and when the two titular men come to investigate they are mistaken for murderers. It’s funny but never quite pulls of the “funny and also scary” juggling act.
Evil Dead is scary, and understandably some directors know they can never compete with such brilliance. The only other way to go is either dissection or parody, and this is decidedly the latter. Alan Tudyk (Wash from Firefly) and Tyler Labine (something, I’m sure) play a little loose with the idiot-stick, but for the most part it’s just a comedy of errors. Then at the end there’s a twist that was thrown in so last-minute that the movie all but breaks. You know what movie doesn’t break at the last minute? Evil Dead.
Remember when I said you can either dissect Evil Dead or parody it? Well here’s both at the same time. Cabin in the Woods is an excellent film, but can only exist if the audience is at least passingly familiar with the horror genre in general, and Evil Dead specifically. Hell, the “Cabin” is pretty much the exact cabin from Evil Dead, and that’s done on purpose. Joss “Buffy and Marvel” Whedon started with a store-brand version of the name-brand Evil Dead so the audience has a primer, then veer off the rails into a commentary on the entire horror genre. Kids go to a remote cabin in the woods for a vacation. An evil McGuffin is found in the basement (seriously, the presence of McGuffins is hilariously staged). One previously meek character rises to the call and saves people.
Yes I know it picks apart the frayed edges of horror tropes, and tries to add intelligent explanations for why protagonists do dumb things in scary situations. At the end of the day, would this film be as well-received if Evil Dead never existed? The answer is no. And if you can’t stand on your own two feet without someone else holding you up, you’re never going to be as great as them. It’s Genie/Jafar logic, deal with it.
Finally we come to the film that stands in the middle of the stage and yells “I’m trying to be Evil Dead!” It’s got the evil book that’s read to release the monsters. It’s got the teens in a cabin in the woods, though this time they’re helping a friend detox instead of just vacationing. Hell, it even has an updated “Tree-rape” scene because everyone wanted that? What interests me the most is that since this film is a true remake of the original, the question on everyone’s lips was how to re-cast Bruce Campbell? The answer was not to try. Instead, the character traits he exhibited were separated and divvied out to the expanded cast. One character gets tons of punishment lobbied against them, yet keeps on going. Another character amputates her hand to stop the infection/possession and we thing “Yay, she’s going to have a chainsaw hand!” but then that character is killed. The movie takes all the best parts of Bruce Campbell’s performance and shares it between the many protagonists, until the audience is left unsure who exactly will make it out of the film alive. In that respect, I tip my hat as they do an excellent job.
Why is this remake of Evil Dead not worthy of being Evil Dead? It’s too polished. It’s too perfect. One of the most charming and effecting features of the original is that low budget and green filmmakers created horror that was scary yet homemade. Just like the difference between a human painting a masterpiece and a HP printer making a copy, it’s the imperfections that make it beautiful. To be able to see the brushstrokes, to hear the one or two sharp notes in a symphony, that is what makes Evil Dead true work of art and not just a money making moving picture.
There can only be one Evil Dead. It was made for a shoe string budget, it stars Bruce Campbell, and it is great. Now if only Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell would get together and continue the saga of Ash vs the Evil Dead. THEY’RE DOING WHAT NOW?!