Evil Dead, The Review
Of the major horror film series of the 1980s and 1990s, the Evil Dead series is unique in two respects. Firstly, it was the only one that had the same central character who wasn't the source of the evil; secondly, it was notable for also turning the horrific bloodshed of the first film into absurdist comedy in the two sequels. It's certainly not difficult to see the first film as being one of the most influential low-budget horror films ever made; however, it's also considerably less enjoyable than its two sequels, due to its attempts at taking itself vaguely seriously. However, it has a strong cult following, many of whom prefer the darker, more horrific tone adopted here.
The plot is simple. A group of young people, including Ash (Campbell) travel to an isolated cabin in the woods. Once there, they discover a mysterious book, as well as a tape recording left by the previous occupant. Unsurprisingly, all hell soon breaks loose, including some of the most horrific gore ever put on screen in a legal film (and seen here for the first time in completely uncut form), along with an infamously shocking scene of rape by a tree. Unlike the sequels, there's little humour to make things more entertaining.
As a technical exercise, the film is a masterpiece. Working from a tiny budget, Raimi works wonders with camera movements, managing to create a great sense of terror and evil, and the gore effects are superbly done for such a low budget film. It's also very effective on a purely visceral level, with some of the more unpleasant moments creating a real sense of unease, despite the somewhat dated aspects of it all. However, it really isn't the most entertaining film to watch, unlike its two sequels. The endless gore and horror does get somewhat tiresome, and it's also very hard to keep track of which characters have been murdered/decapitated/turned into undead zombies, which rather spoils the surprise effect when one of them returns from the dead.
As you'd expect from a semi-student film, the acting isn't up to much. Campbell is probably the best actor here, but his performance is nothing like as good as it was in either of the sequels, with Ash more of a helpless Everyman than the reluctant hero. The rest of the cast are fairly terrible, with some of the props having more animation than the performances given. However, if it's subtly modulated performances you're after, I'd recommend watching Ingmar Bergman; if it's buckets of blood, then this is about as good a place to start as any.
Doubtless most people reading this review will already like the film, and may well already own the DVD. It's not a film that it's necessary to love or hate, and the skill with which it's done means that a great deal of credit has to be given to it; however, as enjoyable film watching experiences go, the subsequent films in the series leave it high and dry. Still, worth a watch if you liked the DVDs of the two sequels.
This was a source of some controversy for two main reasons; firstly, because it was said to have appalling picture quality, given its status as a low budget film, and secondly because the aspect ratio has, in a neat reversal of Warners' policy on family films, been cropped from full screen to widescreen, although this was apparently done under Raimi's instructions.
At first glance, the quality is highly disappointing; the transfer is very soft, with little detail, and an excess of grain, as well as a very dark look to the transfer that makes many of the nighttime scenes hard to watch. However, bearing in mind that the film was originally filmed in 16mm, repeated viewings indicate that the quality isn't that bad, although it's nowhere near the standards of most modern films, or even restored films of a similar age. That said, it's still better than a VHS version of the film, and it's perfectly watchable.
The croppping is slightly more problematic. According to Anchor Bay, it wasn't cropped as such, but reframed, and the anamorphic enhancement of the widescreen certainly helps the picture quality. On the other hand, the picture frequently looks as if it's missing the top and bottom of the frame, with some scenes looking rather squashed as a result. In practical terms, it doesn't make a huge amount of difference, but it's still an irritating change, and one without a great deal of apparent benefit.
A 5.1 remix is provided, which is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the score and sound effects sound clear and strong, with no noticeable harshness or tinniness, and some good use is made of surrounds. However, the sound occasionally feels as if it has been postdubbed a long time after the film was made, more noticeably with the DTS track, as some sound effects simply feel too elaborate for the film. The dialogue also sounds flat and harsh, obviously a relic of the mono track. Not bad, but certainly not as good as it could have been.
Two commentaries are provided, one by Raimi and his producer, and one by Campbell. Raimi is surprisingly dry and humourless, with most of his remarks being very technical in nature, and his observations on how to create extreme gore do occasionally smack of bathos. Campbell's track is much better, with a far more lively sense of humour and some fine cracks at Raimi, but neither track is as amusing as the commentaries on the sequels. A very gory trailer and some biographies are provided. Unfortunately, the R2 version is missing a short collection of outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage from the R1 disc.
Love it or hate it, it's impossible to deny that the Evil Dead was one of the most...exuberant horror films ever made, and one with (literally) guts. The DVD is an adequate effort, although inferior in most respects to the Elite version that can be bought in R1, with the reframing of the picture a slightly bizarre artistic choice that doesn't really seem necessary. Recommended if you liked the film...