The Evil Dead Review
Modern connoisseurs of extreme horror don't enjoy the same sterling service as their early eighties equivalents. Back in those hazy, crazy days of VHS horror proliferation, the UK Department of Public Prosecutions provided an exceptional service to the ravenous fans of the genre by publishing an ever-growing list of controversial, provocative, and gory videos which should be tracked down and greedily consumed as a matter of some urgency.
Other members of the self-appointed and completely undemocratic moral majority contributed to this worthy effort by providing further recommendation for emerging titles from the burgeoning extreme horror scene. Geriatric censorship campaigner supremo, Mary Whitehouse, was getting her gargantuan beige apple-catchers into the mother of all twists, and the top cause of the twisting appeared to be the barely post-pubescent Sam Raimi's low budget horror roller coaster, The Evil Dead. Indeed, so impressed was silver-haired Christian Mrs Whitehouse by this underground bloodfest that she propelled it to the top of her 'video nasty' hitlist, bestowing it with the dubious honour of being 'the number one nasty'.
The fact that Whitehouse considered The Evil Dead as the number one nasty of the period is a stark illustration of the level of disconnect which existed between the pro-censorship campaigners and the actual content of the movies themselves. The moral panic surrounding the emergence of the so-called 'nasties' was spawned from a fear of the new technology which would propel cultural material previously only available at the cinema directly into the family home, and in contrast to the planned scheduling of the television stations, with its respect for the 'watershed ' in line with the supposed bedtimes of children, the availability of movies on VHS meant that films could be viewed at any time, and at any place, equipment providing. As such, nasties would, the argument went, fall into the hands of the immature and the weak minded, and would corrupt society and trigger a descent into the immoral mire. Yet the rampant censorship and in many cases, outright banning of movies seemed to suggest that the censors were not assessing the impact of the films with any sense of balance, watching the films with a patronising level of simplicity, or, perhaps, not watching the films at all. For why The Evil Dead, with its over-the-top splatterfest of fantasy (and often comic) gore, should rank number one on Whitehouse's list above a movie depicting extended scenes of exceptionally cruel rape (I Spit on Your Grave), a movie featuring a psychopathic drill-wielding killer (The Driller Killer), or a movie revelling in scene after scene of explicitly documented torture and killing of animals and humans (Cannibal Holocaust), is beyond comprehension. That's not to suggest that those three other nasties are without merit, yet on a sensible scale of what could be negatively influential, the positioning of our movie in question seems bizarre.
There can't be many horror aficionados who are unaware of the plot premise of The Evil Dead, but for those who aren't, this Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Blu-Ray release of the 1981 shocker (originally entitled The Book of the Dead, before release) lends you the opportunity to discover it in all of its gory glory, and you may be surprised to find that what would ultimately become a highly regarded and influential slice of underground horror is based upon a formulaic template. For inside this book of the dead, we have a clutch of naïve and party-hungry youngsters, a deep and threatening forest location, a dilapidated old cabin, and a gradual 'picking off' of our unfortunate subjects.
What makes this horror juggernaught such an exciting, engaging, and thoroughly enjoyable experience is not any plot complexity, character development, or compelling subtext, but rather the supreme quality of the delivery. Jangling our fragile nerves as we move from one exhilarating horror set piece to another, we revel in the thrill of each new shock; inside the rotting timber of the foreboding cabin, we have walls, and plug sockets, which spew jets of crimson blood, bloody heads which fly off of the sharp end of the decapitator's shovel, the levitating possessed that torment the terrified victims, and arms which pass through walls and floors to grasp their shaking prey. Yet it's not just the sumptuously black horror that provides such murky pleasure; the tangible creativity of the filming demonstrates the enormous promise of the young director and his dedicated team. Raimi delights with a camera that moves from room to room tracking the different activities of the holidaying youngsters, a wall mounted mirror which seamlessly transforms into evil-laced water, a cleverly placed shot of our endlessly abused protagonist, Ash (played by the indefatigable trooper Bruce Campbell), from behind a pendulum as time grinds to a halt, a rapidly moving camera that tracks Ellen Sandweiss with remarkable precision as she tears through the forest in abject fear of the ire of nature, or, most impressively of all, the POV shots of the meandering, malevolent spirit which courses effortlessly over huge expanses of the murky, foggy forest – stunning stuff even by today's standards, yet executed with such aplomb as to feel effortless and natural.
If Whitehouse did ever watch this horror flick from start to finish, it would have been Sandweiss's violation at the hands of the sadistic trees that rankled her devoutly religious sensibilities the most. The premise upon which the segment is built is frankly absurd, yet even video nasty devotees are likely to find the scene disturbing; such is the quality of the presentation that a ridiculous concept becomes one of the most controversial scenes during a period of unprecedented controversy. Raimi has since reportedly regretted the inclusion of the scene, and it is indeed an unpleasant moment, yet its removal would deprive the movie of the full context of the original release, and it's important to note that the film you are seeing here is the original, unadulterated picture as created by Raimi and his loyal team.
As The Evil Dead reaches its stunning conclusion with a relentless tirade of fantasy violence against the poor, abused Ash, viewers are left with an indelible memory of dark, absorbing, and thoroughly exhilarating horror. After Sam Raimi travelled to the UK amongst the video nasty furore, and, in a legal setting, demonstrated why the picture should be separated from the supposedly obscene slew of banned nasties, some sense prevailed and the movie was released with some cuts. As the British censors matured over time, the film eventually made it through the BBFC machine without any cuts, and its horrific pleasures have been enjoyed on successively improving formats over the years, from the original fuzz of the early VHS releases, through to the Blu-Ray release under examination today. The energy and creativity of the filming continues to excite and inspire viewers today, and despite the future successes of the director, the endless development of the horror genre, and the raised expectations of the modern horror viewer, The Evil Dead still makes for an incredible visceral experience today, and like Mary Whitehouse said all of those years ago, justifiably makes an excellent choice for the top of your hitlist.
For all of the controversy surrounding The Evil Dead upon its release, the controversy surrounding this all region Sony Pictures presentation will be the selected aspect ratio. The late August American release of this horror classic featured two presentations, one at the original aspect ratio of 1.33:1, and another at the Raimi-approved aspect of 1.85:1. Here, you only have the 1.85:1 version, presented in 1080p, and whilst the movie looks great, there does appear to be a slight trimming of the picture, with characters framed inside the shot rather tightly, and the overall appearance feeling a little cramped.
For all of that, viewers of this movie from the early days will be delighted with the picture quality on offer here. Don't go expecting a seamless and super-sharp image; graininess is an inevitability with a film shot on 16mm and approaching 30 years in age. Yet its difficult to see how this could have looked any better, and the graininess simply suits the character of the presentation. Colours are suitably strong and rich, and the quality is consistent for all but a couple of minor moments where a little fluctuation creeps in. The darks generally look great, and don't swamp the definition to the level you may expect.
The MPEG-4 AVC encoding is decent, and results in a file size of approximately 24.5Gb. The total disk size is approximately 32.9Gb, and the frame rate is 23.976.
Bearing in mind the limited audio quality of the original, it seems hard to see how the audio presentation here could have been any better. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack is delivered without distortion, and with clear separation between the sounds. Voices are clear and distinct, and the various music and shocks are delivered cleanly and without distortion. It's fair to say that bass impact isn't going to be huge here, as the source recording would have been lacking in this area, yet the often rich mix of sounds does its job in overwhelming your senses as the rivers of horror build momentum throughout the film.
There is a generous allocation of extras, although fans may find that they have seen some of the material before.
The Commentary with Sam Raimi, Robert Tapert, and Bruce Campbell is engaging and good fun, and the informal nature of the discussion proves that the guys are still good friends all these years down the line. Some may be disappointed about the fact that the chat seems largely disconnected to the flow of the movie; the guys chat about the film yet rarely comment upon the scenes you are watching.
A particular highlight for UK viewers is the discussion surrounding the amazing reception the film received in the UK, where it was treated like a major motion picture, and was treated with extreme respect and reverence by Palace Pictures. The three discuss the importance of the International reception, which propelled the movie into the stratospheric realm that it would eventually inhabit for good.
A strange moment is at the end, where Raimi discusses the original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and how it is available in both ratios on this release. It seems that the commentary was originally produced for the US Anchor Bay version, which does include both versions.
If you've enjoyed the movie, and watched it again with the commentary, you can revel in The Evil Dead once more with the Picture-in-Picture: Join us! The Undying Legacy of The Evil Dead version, which runs the film with insets featuring comments from a variety of horror names, including Alexandre Aja (director of Switchblade Romance), Brain Yuzna (Reanimator producer), Stuart Gordon (Reanimator director), and Dan Myrick (The Blair Witch Project director), amongst others.
One By One We Will Take You: The Untold Saga of the Evil Dead is a 53 minute 2006 documentary about the film, and features interview snippets from Eli Roth and others, plus many of the cast and crew (although not Bruce Campbell nor Sam Raimi), and also shows some revealing behind-the-scenes shots, plus an analysis of the video nasty moral panic. There is a satisfying sense of gaining a real insight into the mythology behind the picture, and despite being a few years old, it's still an engaging piece.
Treasures from the Cutting Room Floor makes for an unusual viewing experience. Showcasing a collection of deleted scenes, the segment is 59 minutes and devoid of narration, and as such makes for a piece that is suited for the more hardcore of Evil Dead fans. That said, if you can't make it through the entire hour, you can whiz to the end of the featurette and catch the amusing moment where the camera moves in rapidly to Bruce Campbell's face.
At the Drive-in is very strange indeed, capturing some of the cast and crew at a Chicago film convention, handing out DVD copies of the Anchor Bay release. It doesn't lend an insight of any particular interest.
By contrast, Discovering Evil Dead is a 13 minute section from 2002 (presented as The Palace Boys Meet The Evil Dead) featuring Stephen Woolley and Nik Powell of original distributor Palace Pictures, and the enthusiasm of the partners shines brightly as they discuss the work they did to move the film out to audiences, taking the rare step of releasing the film to cinema and VHS simultaneously.
Finally, the Make-up Test is short at just over one minute, yet still worth a watch, featuring a shot of dripping blood and the disintegration of a face using the stop motion effects employed in the movie.
Raimi's horror carnival comes to the UK market on an all region Blu-ray with an effective transfer, lending existing and new fans alike a bright new presentation of the eighties shocker. The selection of aspect ratio is approved by the director himself, but may prove a little disappointing to purists of the movie, yet this isn't enough to stop me emphatically recommending investment in a clean and powerful release of a movie which continues to stand tall amongst its horror rivals today.