The Evil Dead Trilogy Review
Since the arrival of The Evil Dead in 1982, the franchise has become little short of a phenomenon. Not only has each film in the trilogy attained a sizeable cult following, but the series has also branched out to accommodate the likes of action figures and Playstation 2 console games. (Surely it’s only a matter of time before we see the animated spin-off.) Now with the arrival of Anchor Bay UK’s The Evil Dead Trilogy box set, DVD buyers have been given the chance to own the entire collection in one simple package. Moreover, ABUK have served the movies remarkably well, creating what is probably the finest trilogy DVD collection since Paramount’s release of The Godfather Collection. (George Lucas take note.)
The Evil Dead
Completed when director Sam Raimi was still in his early twenties, the first Evil Dead movie now stands as a true masterpiece of the genre. Stripping everything down to the basics, the plot is simplicity itself: five youths spend the weekend in a remote cabin, whereupon they are possessed by the dead leading to their untimely deaths.
Of course this set-up was nothing new at the time, and has been revisited time and time again since, yet despite his youth (or perhaps because of it) Raimi manages to create a remarkably assured piece. As Raimi and producer Robert Tapert note in their commentary, they had previously only worked together on a number of short Super 8 films (including Within the Woods, which was used to raise finance from private investors), yet one gets the impression that it is their sheer love of the genre they’re working in and, indeed, of films in general that has allowed them to create such an enjoyable experience. Or, as the end credits describe it, “the ultimate experience in grueling [sic] horror.”
This passion extends throughout the entire film. Following a brief twenty minutes of exposition in order to set up the characters’ dynamics, the film never gives up in its documenting of their downfall. Of course, by creating a film with the simplest of plots, the filmmakers are allowed to concentrate on delivering the thrills, and from this point on the inventiveness of the piece is stunning. From Tom Sullivan’s fabulous make-up to the impressive sound-design, not to mention some truly remarkable camera work (all the more remarkable considering the low budget) and the break-neck pace of the editing (on which future Coen brother, Joel, worked as an assistant), everything appears to work in the film's favour. Indeed, it would appear that the filmmakers have achieved their aim of creating “the quintessential drive-in movie”.
Special mention, however, has to be reserved for Bruce Campbell. Having previously worked on the aforementioned short films, The Evil Dead was Campbell’s feature debut. Offering a slight twist on genre conventions, Campbell plays the coward of the group, yet also their sole survivor. Equally adept at cowering under a bookcase or attempting to cut-up his possessed girlfriend with a chainsaw, the actor steals the show. Moreover, he gives the impression of being as much in love with the material as his youthful cohorts are, and jumps into the proceedings with a wonderful vigour. Indeed, it is this love that prevents The Evil Dead from ever seeming like a cynical attempt to break into filmmaking that was rife in the horror genre at the time (as evinced in the commentary of another Anchor Bay release, 1981’s Madman).
Evil Dead II
At first glance, Evil Dead II appears to be nothing more than a remake of the first film with a larger budget. However, closer inspection reveals that the film never settles for being a simple replay, rather it, in the words of Nigel Tufnell, goes “one louder”, cranking up both the humour and gore quotient. Indeed, Evil Dead II can be seen in relation to its predecessor in the same way that Aliens can to Alien or, more recently, Blade and its sequel.
The effect of all is that Evil Dead II takes on the tone of the film that Raimi made in between his first two forays into horror, Crimewave. That effort was largely based on the EC comics he had read in his youth, and their blackly humourous edge is presented here with a wonderful assuredness. Moreover, Raimi has the audacity to explicitly link this humour with gore, effectively creating a situation where the bloodletting never seems gratuitous, rather it’s integral to the entire piece. Whilst there are far too many instances to mention, my personal favourite remains the scene where Campbell attempts to trap his disembodied hand under a copy of Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms.
Indeed, Campbell once more deserves special attention. For the most part the actor remains the sole participant on-screen, though this never descends into a Tom Hanks/Cast Away love-in. Instead, the film proves to be a showcase for his impressive comic talents, and once more Campbell gives it his all. There’s also a great amount of pleasure to be had in seeing his character’s reinvention from the cowardly nerd in the first picture to a fully-fledged action hero complete with chainsaw and sawn-off shotgun. As he puts it himself, “Groovy!”
Evil Dead II shows its true qualities, once again, when compared to the other genre pieces of the time. The mid-eighties also saw such horror stalwarts as Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven revisiting their earlier success with sequels to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes respectively, yet they did by adding little new to their masterpieces. Evil Dead II, on the other hand, may not quite be in the same the league as its predecessor, though still proves to be one of the most purely entertaining films of the eighties.
Army of Darkness (The Director’s Cut)
Perhaps aware that a third Evil Dead film wouldn’t survive another trapped-in-a-cabin rewrite, Army of Darkness relocates the action to 1300 AD following a slight re-edit of the second film’s final scene. Essentially a reinterpretation of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court with a dash of Ray Harryhausen thrown in for good measure, this relocation works well in the film’s favour.
Again, the plot is remarkably simple: in order to get back to the twentieth century Campbell must embark on a quest to find the Book of the Dead, though in doing so inadvertently resurrects the dead once more. And once more, this simplicity allows Raimi to concentrate on the more apparent gore and comic elements.
However, and the 15 certificate is a clue to this, for the most part the blood and guts quotient is remarkably toned down. It could be argued that it would be impossible for Raimi to top the events of the first two (though most noticeably the second) films, and indeed this change of tact proves to be profitable.
The most overt change, however, is the emphasis on humour. The slapstick element is greatly increased (much of it reminiscent of Tex Avery’s Looney Tunes) and the stripped-down dialogue of the first two efforts is replaced with a plethora of one-liners, many deriving from Campbell’s out-of-time situation. As with Evil Dead II, there are far too many to mention, though again a personal favourite exists: “Are all men from the future loud-mouthed bastards?” “No - just me, baby!”
As I’m sure this quote testifies, Campbell also becomes the beneficiary of a reinvention. Here the macho element of Evil Dead II is retained, though also extended so that the actor now more closely resembles such matinee idols as Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn. Aside from the numerous one-liners, Campbell also gets an epic sword-fight during the finale and gets to win the girl. Moreover, he takes the piece with the same zest as his previous efforts and one wishes he would be offered similar roles more often.
Of course with such a jokey tone, there is the constant danger of the film falling apart at any moment. However, despite Army of Darkness’ tongue-in-cheek attitude, Raimi still keeps the filmmaking itself entirely serious (as Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky, with its similarly humorous take on the middle ages had done), and as a result the film perfectly justifies its place within the trilogy. Whilst, again, the film might not be in the same league as previous Evil Dead endeavours, it still stands out as a wonderfully entertaining example of filmmaking.
Picture and Sound
Considering that each of these films were made with low-budgets, visually the discs work well with the elements on offer. Each is presented anamorphically (though the fourth disc also offers The Evil Dead in its original academy ratio for the purists), and whilst there are occasional problems concerning grain (particularly Evil Dead II during its daylight scenes), there is little that can be done unless the films were remade entirely.
It’s also worth noting that Army of Darkness is the director’s cut which adds fifteen minutes of additional footage. These extra minutes suffer a similar problem to the additional scenes present in Metrodome’s release of Witchfinder General, namely an overtly apparent blur. Again, however, little can be done to rectify this situation, and I’m sure fans will be happy to have this cut of the film over the studio version.
The sound is more of a mixed bag. The Evil Dead offers a choice of the original mono (spread over the front two speakers), Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS. The latter two mixes come off wonderfully, adeptly utilising the films stunning sound design.
Evil Dead II offers only a 5.1 mix, though once more that film’s sound design works tremendously well.
Army of Darkness provides to only let down. Presented only in a 2.0 stereo mix, and whilst this mix is clean and offers no evident problems, an additional 5.1 mix would have been welcome.
The Evil Dead
All of the extras that appear on this disc are identical to Anchor Bay’s previous “Book of the Dead” release. An astounding set of extras, the two major pieces being the commentaries, the only thing missing is the booklet that detailed The Evil Dead’s various incarnations on VHS, laserdisc and DVD.
The first commentary is by director Sam Raimi and producer Robert Tapert. For the most part this is a surprisingly dry chat, though its anecdotal nature keeps it listenable. Indeed the long gap between the making of the film and the recording of this commentary in 1998 has allowed the participants to hone their tales on the convention circuit, and it's certainly welcome to have them collected in one place.
Bruce Campbell’s commentary, on the hand, is a wonderful over the top affair. Whilst he’s forthcoming with any information the listener may require, that doesn’t stop him from doing it in a frequently entertaining, and indeed hilarious, manner. Whether taunting his own youthful performance or pointing out the plot holes and continuity errors, Campbell proves a charismatic speaker.
This charisma is extended on a brief documentary entitled Fanalysis. Directed and hosted by Bruce Campbell, this follows the actor through various fan conventions as he tries to discover what makes these people tick. Lasting only 26 minutes, Fanalysis often resembles a condensed version of the feature length documentary Trekkies, and considering some of the interviewees, we should perhaps be grateful.
Equally interesting is the 13 minute piece Discovering the Evil Dead. Consisting for the most part of interviews with Palace Pictures directors Nik Powell and Stephen Wooley, the featurette traces the history of the film’s reception in the UK, from its simultaneous release on the big-screen and video to its various court cases relating to its “obscene” nature. Despite its length, Discovering the Evil Dead covers a remarkable amount of ground, and does so with a pleasing thoroughness.
Also present are the more typical extras. These encompass 18 minutes of behind the scenes footage, a gallery made up of almost 150 stills (covering production stills, make-up designs and poster art), cast and crew biographies, plus a trailer and four TV spots.
Evil Dead II
The commentary accompanying Evil Dead II is perhaps superior to those featured on the first disc. This time we’re offered four participants (Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, co-writer Scott Spiegel and special effects crewman Greg Nicotero), and the camaraderie between these four men allows for much more information to be detailed, plus a great deal of humour. Of course, it could be argued that the incessant bad punning and general goofing around are distracting, but it perfectly matches the film its accompanying and, indeed, proves to be highly entertaining.
Offering a different take on the film is a 31 minute featurette entitled The Making of Evil Dead II, or Gore the Merrier. This presents modern day interviews with four of special effects team and intercuts them with archive video footage taken from their workshop. The footage is fascinating (apparently edited from six hours worth) and complements the newer material extremely well; rather than simply using the finished product, the viewer is allowed to see the work-in-progress designs, enabling a greater understanding.
Also present is the original theatrical trailer, which quite rightly emphasises the film’s ridiculousness.
Army of Darkness
Once more a commentary is offered for Army of Darkness, and this one is perhaps the pick of the bunch. Only Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell participate this time, therefore escaping the occasional over-crowdedness that sometimes distracted from Evil Dead II’s offering. Moreover, Raimi seems much more relaxed that on his track for the first film, and of course Campbell is as listenable as ever.
The two men also offer an optional commentary for four deleted/alternative scenes. The print quality of these is poor as they were sourced from a video recording of the first work-print, though still prove to be entertaining. As Raimi emphasises, they were cut purely for timing reasons, and they make a welcome addition here.
Supplementing these two extras are a brief gallery of various character designs and the ability to view scene specific storyboards whilst watching the film.
As this disc is identical the second DVD in Anchor Bay’s previously available Army of Darkness package, that collection’s featurette, plus the original “shop smart, shop S-Mart” ending are both absent.
As if the extras already featured on the individual titles weren’t enough, Anchor Bay has also supplied a bonus disc of exclusive material. The major presence here is the first UK DVD release of The Evil Dead in its original 1.33:1 ratio. Whilst the masked version looks, for the most part, fine, this release will surely satisfy the purists. More importantly, the three soundtrack options found on the first disc are also present here (although the two commentaries only accompany disc one).
Also present are three featurettes made by Nucleus Films exclusively for Anchor Bay UK. The first, The Living Love the Dead!, consists of interviews with numerous British film critics and filmmakers. Lasting 35 minutes, this provides ample time for the discussion of all three films, tracing their production and inception, as well as detailing the special effects and camerawork.
Bruce Campbell: God or Geek? is devoted solely to the star of the trilogy and again features many of the same interviewees. Whilst not as informative as the first featurette, it proves to be a brief (seven minutes) diversion.
The final featurette, Evil Dead: Dead Good Marketing, interviews The Creative Partnership about their role in the first two films’ promotion (both theatrically and on video) in the UK. Again this is a short piece (nine minutes), though some fascinating information is revealed. The most interesting element, however, is the television ad the company made which starred Jonathan Ross and Sam Raimi. Played in its entirety, this is exactly the kind of trivial titbit that DVD was made for.
Jonathan Ross also plays an integral part in what is likely to be the box set’s main selling point: an episode of his 1988 television series The Incredibly Strange Film Show. Ross proves to be a shrewd interviewer, and whilst a lot of the information presented is available elsewhere disc, the likes of Sam Raimi, Robert Tapert and of course Bruce Campbell still provide the odd nugget of trivia. Most interesting is the footage taken on the set of Scott Spiegel’s feature film Night Crew (later retitled Intruder). Raimi served as an actor in this effort, and its fascinating to see him undertake a different role. Fans may be upset at the lack of the Within the Woods footage that was present in the original broadcast, though rights complications offer an explanation for this. (This is also the reason why the short doesn’t appear anywhere in the box set.)
Finally, an Evil Dead influenced music video by rock band Antihero entitled ‘Stravinsky Gave Me Nightmares’ is also present. Frankly the song is terrible, though the promo is afforded a brief introduction by director Adam Mason explaining its creation.
Presented in a simple fold-out digipack, the important element here is the use of Graham Humphries original artwork for Palace Picture's eighties marketing campaign. One of the most notable examples of video cover art, its presence is extremely welcome.
None of the extras feature subtitles, except for Evil Dead II's featurette. (The subtitles available are the same as those for the main feature - see top right.)
Three hugely enjoyable films supplemented by a welter of wonderful extras. Whilst the first three have previously been available individually, the exclusive fourth disc should sway the punters. Simply put, these represent the finest trilogy box-set since The Godfather Collection.