The Evil Dead (Book of the Dead Special Edition w/ Running Time) Review

Please note that this review is for the most part a slightly tweaked excerpt from the one I wrote when covering Anchor Bay’s The Evil Dead Trilogy release. If you’ve already happened to have read that piece then please scroll down until I discuss ‘Running Time’, the additional feature which makes up disc two.

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).

The Disc

The first disc is identical to Anchor Bay’s first Book of the Dead release and the one that appeared in their The Evil Dead Trilogy boxed set. As such we get the film in a ratio of 1.85:1, anamorphically enhanced and looking as good as could be expected given the low budget (the ratio, which crops the original 1.33:1 framing, was reportedly supervised by Raimi himself; the original framing can be found on the fourth disc of the trilogy boxed set). Certainly, it’s technically sound, comes with the requisite cleanliness and clarity and is generally impressive.

As for the soundtrack here we get the original mono (spread over the front two channels), plus optional DD5.1 and DTS mixes. Though Anchor Bay have more often than not been variable in such offerings, here the results are generally sound. We have the mono for the purists, whilst those wishing for something a little extra will no doubt be pleased with the added atmosphere which the more expansive choices allow for. All in all, highly impressive again – and technically sound to boot.

As for the extras, the disc’s 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.

It is the second disc, however, which is likely to attract the most interest as it is where this new release differs from the previous incarnation of The Book of the Dead. In addition to The Evil Dead we also find Running Time, a 1997 Bruce Campbell crime flick, inserted into the package (which is otherwise completely identical) in its own slip case.

Of course, the first question about Running Time is likely to be with regards to exactly what it’s doing here – and in all honesty the answers are tenuous. As well as having Campbell in the lead, this particular effort was written, directed and produced by one Josh Becker who had served as second unit lighting technician and sound man on The Evil Dead and who would go an to collaborate with Raimi and Tapert on a number of occasions. He was a “fake shemp” in Evil Dead II, for example, whilst he has also directed one of the Hercules pilot movies and an episode of Xena. As said, it’s all very tenuous, so what of the film itself?

In all honesty, it’s quite an interesting work. Of course, Campbell is also worth a watch (remember how the film within a film in The Majestic was far more interesting?), though Running Time’s central concept is also of note. Essentially, we have a real-time thriller akin to High Noon or Robert Wise’s The Set-Up, except that here it’s also constructed so as to appear to be one continuous take in the manner of Hitchcock’s Rope. (Bear in mind that this was 1997 and therefore before DV become widespread and allowed the likes of Timecode or Russian Ark.)

Indeed, it’s often impossible to ignore the concept given the amount of dialogue which refers to it (“We got 23 minutes”; “We got eight minutes”; “I’m fresh out of time”) and it is true that there’s something of the gimmick about it. Certainly, the heist which forms the narrative centre is hardly original and neither are its various permutations; we know from the start that it’s going to go wrong. More to the point, Becker needs to continually accommodate it within the real time structure which makes for some awkward exposition and a need to make every second count.

That said, the structure does allow for a certain suspense that would otherwise not exist and, as said, there’s always Campbell. Indeed, what we have is a film which passes the time (and a very brisk time at that, Running Time lasting only 65 minutes) easily enough, though it’s hardly essential. And as such, those who already own the previous Book of the Dead really don’t need to make the upgrade, though those that haven’t will be treated to a pleasant enough freebie.

In terms of its presentation quality, Running Time is mostly fine. The image is perhaps a little soft, but then we do get the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and taken from a pleasingly clean print. Moreover, the contrast levels of the black and white photography (Becker shot on this film stock and in 16mm – later blown up to 35mm - as it allowed the lengthy takes to captured more easily and without having to worry so much about light levels) are similarly fine. As for the soundtrack, here we get the usual Anchor Bay options of DD2.0, DD5.1 and DTS. In this case it is the first that is the original and in all honesty there is no need to go for an upgrade. Shot on the cuff and cheaply, Running Time doesn’t come with the most impressive soundtrack – the audibility levels understandably vary throughout as the boom operator struggles to keep up with the actors – and as such five channels don’t really add all that. However, it is perhaps worth noting that all three mixes are technically sound and in this respect a favourite really can’t be chosen.

The Running Time disc also comes with a pair of extras, namely its original theatrical trailer (not that it earned a theatrical run in the UK) and a commentary by Becker and Campbell. This latter piece is mostly pleasing – the pair are clearly enthusiastic; Becker knows his stuff; and when things flag Campbell switches to interviewer in order to get things moving. Admittedly, it’s not quite as enjoyable as Campbell’s chat tracks for the various Evil Dead films and does err towards the technical, understandably so perhaps, but then as with the film makes for a diverting hour. Indeed, much like Running Time’s inclusion as part of this Book of the Dead release, it’s not essential, but a likeable addition nonetheless.

9 out of 10
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