Filmmakers don’t often get the chance to remake themselves, but Sam Raimi basically did just that when he made Evil Dead II. Raimi’s original vision for a medieval set story, which would eventually form the basis of Army of Darkness, was put aside at the insistence of producer Dino De Laurentiis who wanted something a little closer to the original, but with a bigger budget. Instead, what Raimi did on Evil Dead II with its rock and roll mix of slapstick and splatter would shape his career for decades, but in terms of white-knuckle panic, the original Evil Dead still stands above.
Despite the inexperienced cast, the ultra-low budget, and a crew struggling to hone their craft (is that a gaffer just to the right of the car as it’s crossing the bridge?), The Evil Dead is still immensely watchable, the rare instance where directorial ambition is not held back by the limited means of the budget. In the end, what is the nightmare creature chasing five campers around the woods of Tennessee? Trees? Fog? In the hands of a lesser director, it might all be humorous, and not in the way that Raimi would take things for his Evil Dead reboot/sequel.
“[…] many horror movies are set at an isolated cabin in the woods, but how many truly stand out from the pack?”
The “splatter-stick” of Evil Dead II is what would set it apart. Neither horror nor comedy are as easy to make as people might think, and to combine the two is a high wire act that is more likely to fail than succeed unless the balance is right. Still, the act of combining funny and scary would typify the majority of this franchise’s output after Evil Dead II. From the sequel Army of Darkness, the TV series Ash Vs The Evil Dead, ancillary comic books, and even the whole persona of Bruce Campbell as a media figure was built by Evil Dead II, and there’s only one exception that looked to the original for influence in tone and style.
In 2013, Raimi, along with Campbell and their long-time collaborator producer Rob Tapert, supervised the remake of Evil Dead under the direction of Fede Álvarez. While the budget was bigger, and the mythology was a little more refined, Álvarez and his crew understood what made the first film work so well: sheer, inhuman brutality.
Consider Ash in the first Evil Dead, he’s more studious, sympathetic, and withdrawn. He’s only incidentally the survivor of part one because the more alpha Scott acts recklessly and tries to flee the forest on foot after all their traveling companions are killed and possessed. It’s also Scott who is more unphased about all the killing and dismembering, even when he has to chop up and bury his girlfriend Shelly after throwing her in the fireplace. The brutality rolls off him like water off a duck’s back, and it’s doubly noticeable when Ash buries his own girlfriend Linda with care and compassion.
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In short, Ash in The Evil Dead is not the type of person who’s likely to chop off heads, fights with his own demon-possessed hand, chops it off, and replaces it with a chainsaw. The horror on Ash’s face as he watches Scott take Deadite Shelly apart with an axe in the face of a man having trouble processing the absolute horror in his midst. It’s a feeling easily translated to the audience because of all the close-ups and mid shots that Raimi uses, not to mention the over-the-top gore and careful sound design. The Evil Dead is built to unsettle you.
“Mia is the rare horror character who is both monster and final girl…”
Álvarez understands this, and employs similar methods in the remake. The most obvious replay from the original is the POV shot of the evil racing through the woods chasing our main characters, but Álvarez also understands that getting you in tight with the action can discombobulate you, especially if you’re trying to gross people out with projectile vomit, or the image of a woman cutting a Glasgow smile into her own face.
The most interesting angle brought to the newer Evil Dead is our so-called hero Mia, and even though she has a name with three letters in it like Ash, Mia brings her own demons to the cabin as opposed to that more simplistic take on the Campbell character. In the 2013 Evil Dead, the point of the trip is not a few days of drunken fun in the woods, but a last-ditch effort to get Mia to go cold turkey before her next overdose leads to a permanent death.
Also of note that Mia spends a big portion of the film possessed. Like Cheryl in the original, we get an excruciating scene where Mia is literally raped by the surrounding woods, and becomes the first person in the group infected by the evil. Like Cheryl, Mia ends up the root cellar and plays demonic cheerleader as the others tear themselves apart, but unlike Cheryl, Mia’s brother sacrifices himself to save her in the end, overcoming his own demons rooted in his abandonment of Mia and their dying mother.
Mia is the rare horror character who is both monster and final girl, and it may be a small club that only includes Mia and Regan from The Exorcist. The Evil Dead remake is explicitly a survivor’s tale; Ash may live at the end of the original, but Mia is triumphant having overcome not only the evil unleashed by the Necronomicon, but the evils of drug addiction that was consuming her. The remake left the door open for a sequel, but maybe it’s best for the Deadites to leave well enough alone when it comes to Mia.
“[…] dare we say that the outlook in the Evil Dead remake is the more optimistic?”
If Mia does indeed walk into the sunset, then dare we say that the outlook in the Evil Dead remake is the more optimistic? Ash never gets to walk away from the life, even in the original where its implied that the living forest kills him even after all the Deadites are vanquished and the Book of the Dead is burned to ashes. The end of the two sequels, and the series, indicates that Ash is now a soldier in a never-ending war against evil. Poor innocent Ash gets drafted, while Mia gets to walk away, albeit with likely guilt about being the sole survivor and being now one-handed with no chainsaw prosthesis. It’s hard to tell who has it worst.
In considering legacy of The Evil Dead, its easy to overlook it’s more straightforward opening chapter, but it’s only natural that the remake would follow that lead versus the well-worn path of Ash and the original sequels. Comedy is subjective, and Raimi set an extremely specific tone with his series, but the goal of making the most brutal horror movie possible, Raimi’s original intent for The Evil Dead, is much more replicatable. In the end, many horror movies are set at an isolated cabin in the woods, but how many truly stand out from the pack?