Evil Dead and the Transcendence of Expectations
Although typically associated with superhero and science fiction films, the muddied swamp of cinematic re-makes, re-boots, retcons, and extended universes is no stranger to the horror genre. In fact, the horror genre may have been the first to establish such ridiculous filmic modes. Early films such as Dracula Meets the Wolfman (1943), The House of Frankenstein (1944), and Son of Frankenstein (1939) all but depleted the budding genre from movie houses across the country.
Later on, the slasher film took up the mantle of siphoned overproduction with franchises such as Halloween garnering eleven sequels (a new one is being released this year) and Friday the 13th pumping out twelve separate films that include the franchise-crossing title Freddy vs. Jason (2003). When it comes to horror franchises audiences must have asked themselves, why was it necessary to reboot the cult fan-favorite Evil Dead (1981)? What possible grounds could the film cover that hasn’t been done? As it turns out, a lot.
The original Evil Dead is a low-budget horror film written, produced, and directed by Sam Raimi (yes, the Spider-Man director) that sets five college students in an isolated cabin in the woods of Tennessee during a university break. After discovering a book that contains ancient Sumerian rites and rituals that conjure the dead, the group of students fall victim to demonic possession one after the other. Full of violence and gore, the film was received well in the United States but released with an X-rating (typically reserved for pornography) and deemed a “video nasty” in the United Kingdom. The film spawned two sequels, The Evil Dead 2 (1987) and Army of Darkness (1993); both helped generate a more campy-dark humor feel that still circulates to this day (the Showtime series Ash vs. Evil Dead relies heavily on humor and gory camp tropes). But, as audiences discovered in 2013, the remake Evil Dead was far from the campy-humor of Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness, which is where the genius of the (sequel, remake, reboot, re-interpretation?) lies.
“That wasn’t funny at all”
Fans searching for a darkly-funny reinterpretation of the original franchise will be wildly disappointed at Evil Dead’s overall tone. Producer Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell chose little-known Uruguay-born directed Fede Alvarez to helm the project with an estimated budget of $17,000,000. Its plot is loosely derived from the original with a modern flourish to the darkness overtaking the five isolated friends in the cabin. Instead of college kids wishing for a college getaway, Alvarez’s group are desperately attempting to ween their friend, Mia, from her addiction to opioids after a recent overdose. The protagonist, David, with his girlfriend, Natalie, arrive to support his sister’s decision to overcome the habit. Unfortunately, after his mother was institutionalized David moved away and left Mia to care for their ailing mother without even returning for her untimely death and funeral. Dark comedy, right? The cabin itself has been read by fans as the cabin from the original film and the Sumerian book is once again found, read, and a demonic entity is released upon the five characters.
Similar to the original, graphic violence and gore pour onto the screen (sometimes literally), which almost garnered an NC-17 rating upon its initial release. There are familiar plot elements held over from Raimi’s version such as Mia’s possession that leads to her being locked within the cellar, Ash’s (David’s) blue denim wardrobe, and even the classic red chainsaw. The overall tonality and pacing of the film, however, is reinterpreted and deployed in startling horrific genre-appropriate fashion.
As other great horror films have showcased, the horrific element found on the screen will replicate and reproduce unconscious human fears and desires. For instance, typical “haunted house” films will generate the haunting around the protagonist’s trauma (The Haunting, The Shining) or more nuanced societal issues (The Poltergeist and mass-media, for instance). The Evil Dead is no different. In this instance, the demonic possession parallels the struggle of the recovering addict (Mia) and her close familial relations. One by one the group, whom are sworn to help the addict, are taken over and affected horribly by the disease. It is in Mia’s isolation from the domestic setting (the cabin) and separation from her close friends (she’s running away from their help) that she is bound and (literally) penetrated by evil that soon takes over her body, mirroring the effects of the addictive substance. While possessed, her friends debate how to best treat her and still act as if she is simply displaying evidence of withdrawal. It isn’t until she pins a friend to the floor and projectile vomits onto the victim that she forced into the cellar and contained. While in the cellar she taunts the group and even swaps personalities between the original Mia and the possessed form in order to coerce her friends to either let her out or join her in the cellar. Her possessed actions verge on the vulgar, violent, and sexually explicit, which garners pity and support from the group trapped in the cabin while they each are brutally attacked and murdered. It is this circle of friendship and solidarity that is corrupted and disrupted by Mia’s affliction that only she, as the viewer finds out, can overcome.
Upending and Re-affirming Genre Tropes
Another spectacular element to the film that was by and large overlooked by film critics is its conscious use of genre-specific tropes and the subversion of such. For the most part the film establishes itself in the realm of pseudo-teenage slasher film (five friends in an isolated cabin, graphic violence, etc.) that ties into both possession (The Exorcist and the monstrous female form) and zombie films (28 Days Later and how disease spreads quickly into seemingly safe, contained areas). Unlike the typical slasher, the protagonist is a male, at least at first. This element is upended later in the film just as the other genre tropes also are slowly untangled. Like other possession films, Mia’s body is penetrated in a forced, sexual manner that transforms her into a vulgar, violent monstrosity; however, unlike films such as The Exorcist Mia’s possession is female and mirrors her own form whereas The Exorcist concerns a young female being penetrated and governed by masculine forces with the only hope of salvation coming from divine male intervention. Although male intervention takes place in Evil Dead this trope also is subverted throughout the climax of the film.
But as the original also establishes, the remake’s pacing is quick, brutal, and unrelenting. In a time of lack-luster sequels, prequels, and re-boots, Evil Dead truly succeeds in paying tribute to a spectacular horror masterpiece yet reinterprets and transcends the bounds of the original, making it a new classic that should stop being undervalued and overlooked.