The Evil Dead (Book of the Dead Limited Edition) Review
For an alternative view on this film and for a rundown of the original R2 release of Evil Dead (without the book of the dead packaging) you can read Alexander Larman’s excellent review Here
As I already own the Elite edition of Evil Dead I never imagined I would be buying this “Book of The Dead” edition. Unfortunately a combination of obsessive fandom and a love of gimmicky special editions led me to put yet another dent in my wallet.
The film itself doesn’t really need an introduction but needs must when the Devil drives (no offence Colin). This is of course the classic horror film that spawned a trilogy and started a top director on his road to stardom (I should write featurette voiceovers). Before the film was even made Raimi, Campbell and company made a short called Within The Woods to try and drum up funding for the full-length feature they had in mind. The funding was eventually secured and Book of the Dead was shot predominantly at a cabin out in the wilderness. After 3 years, many further locations (including Raimi’s garage), post production dubbing and stop motion work the film was completed. After months of trying to get a distributor the film found a backer at Palace Pictures who suggested the film should be renamed The Evil Dead. The rest, as they say, is history.
Shot with a budget of just $50,000 Evil Dead was expected to be a low budget schlock movie that would generate a few video sales. It exceeded expectations to such an extent it got a theatrical release in the UK. Unfortunately due to shortsighted politicians it was banned in the UK along with a lot of so-called “video nasties” in the mid-80’s.
The plot is one that has been duplicated many times before and since. Five teenagers find their way to a mysterious cabin for the weekend. Once there they discover that things aren’t all that they appear and an untimely incantation causes an ancient invisible evil to be unleashed on the unsuspecting group.
The rest of the film is a mixture of deadites, possession, gore, genuine scares and laughs. Whilst Evil Dead 2 is definitely in the comedy horror genre this film is mostly a straight horror film even though there are some laughs to be had. The scares are beautifully choreographed and still make me jump after all these years. The only minor flaw with the script is the dialogue, which is laughable in places but certainly better than dialogue in other films such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Last House on the Left. Other than that the script is very tight even though it has a traditional horror “slow” opening.
Given its budget the acting is actually fairly good. It is wooden and workmanlike in places but it is a darn sight better than other movies of this type and budget. The deadite/possession acting is nigh on perfect. Special mention goes to Ellen Sandweiss whose performance as Cheryl is easily the best of the lot.
Technically the film is an absolute marvel. The roving camera is a revelation and gives the film its distinctive look that has been copied but never equalled. The camera angles and cutting is unconventional, unnerving, inventive and utterly brilliant. I cannot fault Raimi’s direction in any way whatsoever. The use of stop motion animation towards the end of the film may seem a little hokey but I feel it is an inspired sequence. I apologise if this seems a little too over the top but I can’t help it. This film is one of the best calling cards a prospective director could have. The only other comparable example would be Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste and I feel this beats it into a cocked hat (and that’s saying something).
I rarely give out 10/10 for a film. To me that rating should only be given out for a film that is exceptional and outstanding in its genre/field. The budget for this film may be low and the acting maybe variable but the direction and end result easily makes you forget its shortcomings. The Evil Dead is one of the most important horror films ever made and should sit up there with such films as Dracula, Frankenstein, Halloween and Night of the Living Dead.
The history of this special edition has been covered extensively on DVD sites across the web. First the “Within the Woods” short was to be included and then at the last minute it was pulled. Also this disc contains the controversial reframed 1.85:1 transfer of this horror classic. This special edition has one final (and some say only) saving grace, the packaging is a facsimile of the Book of the Dead from the film.
I think the only fair way to review the disc and its contents is to compare it with the Elite Edition in each section and then you can make your own mind up…
The Elite comes in a normal plain case with a simple single chapter sheet insert.
The “Book of the Dead” is a latex copy of the prop used in the film and is designed by Tom Sullivan (original designer of props etc on the film). I have to say it is creepy to touch and my wife dropped it as soon as she picked it up. The pages in the book are inked in the same way as pages seen in the film, again this design is by Tom Sullivan. The disc is held in a plastic pouch towards the back of the book and is quite difficult to extract without scuffing it. Finally there is a 22-page booklet that contains quite a bit of information about the films history and its success. I normally don’t read accompanying booklets but this one is worth the effort.
Overall it is obviously streets ahead of the Elite version and some people will buy this for the packaging alone.
This is going to be a tough one because each transfer has its own positives and negatives. I don’t think either version is perfect so I think this will come down to individual preference.
The Elite Edition is in the original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The picture seems sharp and mostly free of print damage. There is a fair amount of grain but this is a 16mm low budget horror movie. The colours are nicely understated and well balanced throughout. The shadow detail and black level are adequate although nothing outstanding. The only flaw is some compression artefacts, which are definitely noticeable in certain scenes. This is a shame as it is the only real black mark against this transfer.
The Book Of the Dead is reframed as anamorphic 1.85:1. Bruce Campbell oversaw this at the request of Sam Raimi. The reframing seems very tight indeed in certain scenes as some details have been cropped completely. The card-guessing scene loses impact as initially you can’t see the cards she is holding in her hands. Also in the commentary Elastoplasts are mentioned and they are no longer viewable in shot due to reframing. Personally I don’t feel the new 1.85:1 transfer is that terrible it just feels more cramped. The transfer and print are different to the Elite edition but not better. Again there is little noticeable print damage so a good cleanup process has been done. The picture seems softer and doesn’t seem to be as grainy as the Elite edition. Personally I prefer it grainy and sharp. Also the colours seem more vibrant and bright but this has lead to some colour bleeding. This is especially noticeable during the titles, which look just horrible in their new soft and bright red format. The shadow detail and black levels are noticeably better than the Elite Edition, which is obviously a boon. Also the other major advantage here is that there are no noticeable compression artefacts indicating either a higher bit rate or a lower level of detail. Given the softer nature of the picture I would say it is a mixture of the two.
Overall this will come down to a matter of taste. The new anamorphic transfer certainly seems more cinematic in its scope but I prefer the extra sharpness and height of the Elite edition.
Now before I get into the meat of the sound comparison I should point out that I only have DD 5.1 and DTS capability so the –ES and –EX parts are lost on me.
The Elite edition has a subtle DD 5.1 remix. The track is fairly clear although the dialogue can sound a little muffled on occasion. The rears are used sparsely for atmospherics and as a result it isn’t a very dynamic track. I actually prefer subtlety in remixes and if it wasn’t for the slightly indistinct dialogue this would be a winner. There is also a DD2.0 surround mix for those of us without 5.1 systems. Again the dialogue is fairly muffled and the sound is understandably “thinner” compared to the 5.1 mix.
The Book of the Dead has 5 soundtracks including a new 6.1 DTS-ES track and a new DD5.1-EX track. Anchor Bay are renowned for their 5.1 remixes and they won’t lose their reputation here. The DTS mix is lively and vibrant with good use of the rears. Whereas these remixes can sound gimmicky this one seems full and rich. The dialogue problems on the Elite edition don’t appear here and it’s a hard track to fault. The DD5.1-EX mix is almost identical to the DTS track except it seems to have a little less depth. There is also a DD2.0 surround track that sounds similar to the Elite track and has the same problems. The other two tracks are a French DD5.1 and DD2.0 surround track. Overall this is a cracking collection of remixes.
Please note neither disc has the original mono track, which is sadly par for the course with Anchor Bay.
The extra that everyone wants is notable by its absence. Despite assurances that the “Within the Woods” short would be on the disc it was withdrawn late into production due to a “rights issue”. The extras that remain are a pretty formidable package though, as you will see.
First of all there are two commentaries. These are identical to the ones on the Elite edition but I will recap them here. The first is the infamous Bruce Campbell commentary that is an absolute riot. He never stops talking and alternates between slagging off his performance, slagging off Raimi (in jest of course) and imparting a wealth of information. This commentary should be played to everyone planning to record one to show how it should be done. The second one, done by Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert, isn’t too shabby either. The two guys bounce off each other for the whole running time with just a few silences. Also there is very little duplication of information or jokes between the two tracks. All in all these are two of the best commentary tracks to grace DVD.
Next we have 18-minutes of behind the scenes footage. This raw footage edited into a vague structure shows a very young Raimi and crew shooting various scenes. This is easily the best “documentary” style extra on the disc and is also present on the Elite Edition.
Finally common to both discs is a theatrical trailer and a stills gallery. The Elite has 150 stills and the Anchor Bay has 137 stills.
The next two featurettes are exclusive to this new “Book of the Dead” edition. The first one is a 26-minute piece by Bruce Campbell called Fanalysis. Whilst it is an interesting piece it isn’t really specific to Evil Dead fans, indeed it seems to cover other fans in more depth. The second featurette called “Introducing Evil Dead” is a short 13-minute piece on how Evil Dead managed to gain distribution via Palace Pictures and how it was released in the UK and subsequently banned. It is an interesting history lesson on the distribution nightmare surrounding a new independent director. Both these pieces are fascinating but you won’t watch them more than twice.
There are also a collection of 4 TV spots that are only on The Book of the Dead but these aren’t too exciting.
Finally there are two Easter Eggs on the “Book of the Dead” edition. The first is a 1-minute makeup test, which is fairly dull. The second one is rather more interesting. On Halloween 2001 there was a special showing of the Evil Dead and after the showing there was a panel discussion with Rob Tapert and two of the Evil Dead actresses… Betsy Baker (Linda) and Theresa Tilly a.k.a Sarah York (Shelly). This is a 7-minute piece that is interesting if only to see what time has done to the two actresses. The interviewer on stage is fairly incompetent and the organisation is bad as there are only 3 mics on stage for the four people! Also there is a tantalising mention of Evil Dead 4, which I won’t spoil here. To find the eggs simply press the left button on the first entry on each extras menu.
Well the film is a classic and every horror fan should own it. As to whether they should own this edition is debatable. I personally prefer the 1.33:1 transfer on the Elite edition as I feel the film is a little too cramped in this new edition. The soundtracks here are accomplished and certainly better than the Elite editions but the original mono track is sadly still missing. The extras are pretty much identical except for two missable featurettes and a couple of so-so Easter Eggs. If this new edition had the “Within the Woods” short this would be a no-brainer. However it hasn’t so you have to ask yourself, “How much of an Evil Dead nut am I?”. I have both the Elite and the new edition and I don’t regret it, others may want to tread more carefully.