The Evil Dead [DVD]
Screenplay : Sam Raimi
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1982
Stars : Bruce Campbell (Ashley J. "Ash" Williams), Ellen Sandweiss (Cheryl Williams), Hal Delrich (Scotty), Betsy Baker (Linda), Sarah York (Shelly)
In the spring of 1982, a low-budget horror film made by a bunch of college buddies from Michigan State University, shot in the fall of 1979 on 16mm for about $50,000, debuted to unexpectedly rave reviews at the Cannes Film Festival. After being hailed as a masterpiece by author Stephen King, the freshman work of a 23-year-old writer/director named Sam Raimi went on to theaters and has since become a huge international cult hit that has spawned two sequels and a passionate following, particularly after its release on home video.
The movie, The Evil Dead, is striking in the creative energy it invests in a generally uninspired story full of half-baked ideas. In fact, the blandness of the plot, characters, and narrative development is almost as shocking as the in-your-face blood and guts Raimi throws around like a hyperactive kid without his Ritalin. However, Raimi invests enough manic energy into the telling of this story that you can't help but be enthralled by his sheer exuberance. It's catching to say the least, although when the movie's over, you might ask yourself what it was you just watched.
The story involves five college students—two guys and three girls—driving to a remote cabin in the Tennessee woods for a quiet weekend together. Raimi immediately sets up an atmosphere of danger with ominous sound effects and a subjective camera of some unseen force crashing through the woods as the car approaches. Something big is lurking out there, just waiting for these kids to arrive.
Once at the cabin, the kids stumble into the eerie basement and find the "Sumerian Book of the Dead," a strange volume bound in human flesh. It turns out that a professor had been using the cabin for his research into the Book of the Dead, and he conveniently left a tape recorder with his notes about how he released some slumbering demons that must have made off with him and his wife. Of course, he was also kind enough to leave the mysterious wake-up chants on the tape, so when the kids play it, demons come bursting from the earth to make off with them, too.
What ensues is a constantly escalating bloodbath in which the demonic forces take over each character one-by-one, turning him or her into a rotting, possessed zombie. Raimi never gets very deep into explanations; for instance, it's never clear exactly what makes someone turn into a demonic zombie. Is it caused by some form of supernatural possession, or is from being bitten by another zombie, ala George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968)? But, even those two options don't explain how one of the kids turns into a zombie simply by being stabbed in the Achilles' tendon by a pencil that happens to be wielded by one of the zombies.
In fact, it becomes quickly evident that everything in the movie is just a quick set-up for the gory pay-off. Unlike Romero's films, there's no underlying subtext—The Evil Dead is all surface. However, considering the budget size and nonprofessional actors Raimi was working with, the surface ain't bad. The movie's make-up effects by Tom Sullivan are quite impressive, which is a good thing since they are constantly tasked into use (remember, dismembering the demons is the only sure way to kill them).
Special effects aside, Raimi is no hack—he knows how to make something out of nothing. With creative camera angles, sharp editing, manic pacing, and terrific sound effects, he turns a low-budget trash heap into an entertaining bit of comic book fun in the spirit of old EC comics like Tales From the Crypt updated for the MTV generation. He inserts just enough self-effacing humor that he avoids the pitfalls of taking himself too seriously. This is supposed to be ride, after all.
While much of The Evil Dead is adopted from other movies, Raimi has the good sense to turn some of the genre's conventions on their heads. For instance, instead of giving us a woman terrorized by men, he gives us a man, Ash (Bruce Campbell), being attacking by possessed she-devils, one of whom used to be his girlfriend. Unlike The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973), Halloween (1978), or Friday the 13th (1980), all of which left bloody, shrieking heroines standing in the end, Raimi gives us a bloody, shrieking hero standing at the end of his film (which is also underscored by Ash's gender-questionable name, which sounds tough but is actually short for Ashley). It's a jab at the underlying sexism in horror films that all men are predators and all women are prey.
However, Raimi isn't above the old jump-out-of-the-dark, false alarm, or the-dead-are-never-quite-dead scare tactics, all of which he uses over and over again. In fact, by the time the movie arrives at its bloody, surrealistic conclusion, he's exhausted just about every horror and gore cliche in the book—all in less than an hour and a half. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but that's the last thing on Raimi's mind. Repetition is the name of the game, and he who is grossest wins.
|The Evil Dead: The Book of the Dead Limited Edition DVD|
|The Evil Dead is also available from Anchor Bay in a new "Standard Edition" packaged in a keep-case and featuring most of the same supplements. Although the "Fanalysis" and "Discovering Evil Dead featurettes are not included, a 24-page booklet on "The Ladies of Evil Dead" is (SRP: $19.98).|
|Audio|| Dolby Digital EX 6.1 surround|
DTS ES 6.1 surround
Dolby 2.0 surround
|Languages||English (DD 6.1, DTS 6.1, DD 2.0) |
French (DD 6.1, DD 2.0)
|Supplements|| Audio commentary by director Sam Raimi and producer Robert Tapert|
Audio commentary by star Bruce Campbell
"Discovering Evil Dead" 13-min. featurette
"Fanalysis" 26-min. featurette
Behind-the-scenes footage and outtakes (18 min.)
Original theatrical trailer
Four TV spots
Production stills and posters gallery
24-page booklet: "Bringing the Dead Home for Dinner: A History of The Evil Dead in Your Home"
|Distributor||Anchor Bay Entertainment|
|Release Date||March 5, 2002|
|In its third DVD release (after earlier releases by both Elite Entertainment and Anchor Bay), The Evil Dead has been given a new, director-approved, THX-certified anamorphic widescreen transfer. The fact that the film has been matted to approximately 1.78:1 may perturb some purists, who recall that Raimi shot the film on 16mm using the full 1.33:1 film frame. I find the new matted aspect ratio somewhat questionable (although it was undoubtedly matted at various ratios during its theatrical run), mostly because it isn't much of an improvement. Some of the scenes benefit from the narrower aspect ratio, which emphasizes the horizontal aspects of the composition, but there are too many scenes that feel cramped or in which the tops of characters' heads are clipped off. In terms of visual quality, this new transfer looks as good as can be expected for a $50,000 movie. The image is somewhat grainy, but you have to remember it was shot in 16mm on low-budget film stock. The graininess is part of the movie's low-brow aesthetic, and I wouldn't ever want to see a perfectly smooth and crisp Evil Dead. The image is appropriately dark without being muddy, colors are strong and natural, and detail levels hold up well.|
|Anchor Bay has gone all out in the audio department, offering both brand-new Dolby Digital EX 6.1 and DTS ES 6.1 surround soundtracks in addition to Dolby two-channel surround. The newly remixed soundtracks are outstanding, especially given the low-budget origins of the original soundtrack elements. It has to be stated that the soundtrack has always been one of The Evil Dead's strongest and most effective elements, so the remix only enhances what was already an impressive piece of work for its time and place. The sound is significantly opened up to the multiple surround channels, and the front soundstage is noticeably expanded. Bass levels are good and rumbling, and imaging and directionality have been nicely mixed to achieve maximum effectiveness.|
| The supplements on "The Book of the Dead" special edition of The Evil Dead are a hodge-podge of the old and the new. |
First, the packaging deserves some mention. Always looking for new and unique ways to differentiate its products, Anchor Bay commissioned Tom Sullivan, the illustrator and make-up effects artist who designed the effects in The Evil Dead, to sculpt a replica of the human-flesh cover of "The Sumerian Book of the Dead" and reproduce many of its illustrations on the inside. Made of fleshy foam latex, the book cover that houses the DVD is a unique piece of work that will certainly stand out on anyone's DVD shelf.
Starting with the supplements on the disc itself, we have two audio commentaries, both of which have been ported over from the earlier Elite special-edition DVD. The first includes comments from writer/director Sam Raimi and producer Robert Tapert, and it is somewhat disappointing. Considering that Raimi and Tapert are old college buddies, one would think they would have more enthusiasm for the commentary, but it tends to lag and has large gaps in it from time to time. Never fear, though, because star Bruce Campbell contributes a solo commentary that more than makes up for what the other lacks. Turning on all his B-movie charm and sarcastic sense of humor, Campbell keeps you glued to his commentary with a parade of funny stories, sardonic asides, and amusing quips. He's got something to say about everything, even when it's in the form of affectionately mocking the movie that made his career.
The "Book of the Dead" edition also has a pair of featurettes (as with everything else on the disc, these are presented in anamorphic widescreen). "Discovering Evil Dead" is not a making-of featurette, but an intriguing 13-minute look at how the movie was picked up and distributed by Palace Pictures, which turned it into one of the great cult classics of the 1980s. "Fanalysis" is a new, 26-minute short documentary produced and directed by Bruce Campbell about his experiences as a B-movie star and centerpiece of cult worship. Comprised of interviews and footage of Campbell at various conferences, it is a sometimes funny, but always fascinating look at what drives fandom. In addition to the featurettes, there is also about 18 minutes of rough footage and outtakes from filming, which offers a nice behind-the-scenes glimpse of low-budget filmmaking at its finest.
The production stills and poster gallery is quite thorough, containing 20 publicity photos, about 80 behind-the-scenes photos (many of which are, not surprisingly, of Tom Sullivan's various gore effects), 23 of Sullivan's conceptual pencil sketches and storyboards, and 11 publicity cards and posters. Also included is an original theatrical trailer and four scratchy 30-second TV spots. Anchor Bay has also included well-researched talent bios for Raimi, Tapert, and Campbell, as well as a nicely produced 24-page booklet with photographs and Michael Felsher's "Bringing the Dead Home for Dinner: A History of The Evil Dead in Your Home," a humorous and informative historical account of the movie's illustrious history on home video, from the "video nasty" debates in the early '80s in England to its multiple DVD incarnations.
Copyright © 1997, 2002 James Kendrick