Prior to taking in director Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead, a friend of mine went out of his way, in a brief summary of his experience seeing the film, to say, “Wait ‘till you see what happens to the teacher.” This bit of caution came after my asking whether the film itself had enough gore-gasmic moments to spare when held up against the highlight reel that had already been dished out in its liberally splattery red-band trailer (to which I was assured there were plenty). The teacher made mention of is Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), and after enduring a bout with a hypodermic needle, withstanding a barrage from a nail gun and becoming inhabited by a demonic entity all in the course of one day, he turns to his friend David (Shiloh Fernandez) and utters, “I don’t want to be the Devil’s bitch.”
In Alvarez’s reimagining of genre wunderkind Sam Raimi’s 1983 original classic, that exasperated line works on two separate levels, one considerably more effective than the other. In the most basic sense, the desire not to be “the Devil’s bitch” is Eric’s literal reaction to the very obvious threat of evil he has summoned upon reading the contents of the Book of the Dead, while staying in a backwoods cabin with David, Olivia (Jessica Lucas), Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), and David’s sister Mia (Jane Levy). To say Eric is dragged through the mud in this film is an understatement that grossly neglects the amount of blood, pus, and grime his tattered body soaks up right along with it. But when attempting to plumb the depths of Evil Dead’s intermittent narrative thoughtfulness, Eric’s dialogue speaks to a through-line sustained for at least half of the film’s running time – that is, Mia’s very real inner turmoil, a byproduct of the process of withdrawal from her longtime heroin addiction. Horror owns a stable full of subgenres, but never has a major studio remake attempted to tackle “detoxploitation.”
Levy’s go-for-broke performance as Mia lends itself exceedingly well to Evil Dead’s exploitation of the fine line between toxic-induced behavioral issues and pure, unadulterated evil, and for a good stretch of the way, her brother and friends find themselves overwhelmed when trying to make the distinction between the two. (Even after Mia starts activating multiple vocal chords when speaking and pukes copious amounts of blood and God-knows-what-else onto Olivia’s face, David still insists that Olivia give her another shot as treatment for withdrawal symptoms). For some, this serious illness/otherworldly evil dichotomy might play out a bit like The Exorcist-lite, but Alvarez’s kinetic pacing behind the camera gives life to Evil Dead’s earnest attempt to capture the frenzy of Mia’s psychotic episode, just before breaking off into all-hell-breaks-loose terrain.
Of course, such terrain is what self-proclaimed Deadites will come to trek through, and if this is your goal, bring a canteen, a raincoat and lots of gauze. Yes, the exercise of questioning the criteria for MPAA ratings is generally boring and prudish, but the amount of red-tainted grotesquery in Evil Dead is alarming for even the most jaded of genre aficionados, and the fact that Alvarez managed to wrap this movie and walk away with an R-rating is something of a minor miracle. That Evil Dead wastes no time getting down and dirty and snaking its way through the ins and outs of its supernatural mythology (which decidedly dissents from that of Raimi’s film) allows its proceedings to break free from all their pretenses of psychological intrigue and into total visceral surreality – for gorehounds, that means total satiation. Much has been made of the fact that Alvarez, who has worked with an array of special effects toolkits at his disposal prior to Evil Dead, delivers all of the film’s visual illusions with practical effects, and little to no CGI. This is certainly worth noting – if not to worship at the altar of life-like prosthetics, then to acknowledge the resounding cringes elicited by the many scrapes, slashes and severances each of the film’s characters seems to absorb like plasma-oozing sponges.
I mentioned earlier that the thoughtfulness of Evil Dead’s narrative is intermittent, which, I suppose, is because I believe it’s possible the film could have teased out the tension between genuine psychotic symptoms and inexplicable terror longer for optimal impact. After all, for many battling drug addiction – especially Mia, who resolves to go cold turkey on the outskirts of society – the concept of a haunting alternate personality (here embodied by Randal Wilson, as Abomination Mia) is an intrusive fact of life. In part, it’s what makes David’s refusal to kill Mia and “free her soul,” as the Book of the Dead insists he must, so impossibly difficult; as Mia continues to suffer violently and heap that suffering upon others, David can’t help but blame it all on his inadequacy as a brother, and their late mother’s troubled history of mental disorder.
And yet, equally as difficult is audiences’ ability to empathize with David’s struggle. At the screening I attended, David’s failure to kill Mia provoked jeers, while his eventual burying her alive brought on uproarious applause. Such reactions are a testament to Evil Dead’s proficiency for staging the possessed Mia’s unhinged nastiness, and a backhanded slap toward its shortcomings as a half-baked detoxploitation feature (yes, I Googled it, and it turns out I’ve coined that phrase, so I’m sticking to it).
At any rate, Evil Dead hits mostly the right notes. Evil Dead 2 is undoubtedly in the works, and in Alvarez’s hands, expectations can at least be managed to a level of well-reasoned anticipation, rather than instantaneous eye rolling. It’s clear that, aside from making a certain Slayer song a cinematic reality, his top priority was to create an alternately freakish and fun communal experience. On that account, he’s succeeded in giving Dead new life.
– By Max Weinstein