“Evil Dead” is probably the most honored cult classic in the horror genre. Sure you got legends such as “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “Night of the Living Dead,” but those were all huge successes. “Evil Dead” bombed at the box office but found new and prolonged life at the video shelves in stores across America. There is something to be said for such longevity and a film like this proves it. Shot near where I grew up and still reside, I have an affinity for the film that might go a little further than your average critic, so forgive me if I’m a little biased in my review here.
The plot, as with most horror films, is very simple. The film takes place in the backwoods of Tennessee (Morristown, to be precise), and features five friends in search of good times and a nice long weekend in a backwoods abandoned cabin. After the group finds an old, crumbling book-the Necronomicon-and a tape recorder with the voice of an old professor reading the haunting, illegible words inside, the demons controlled by those forbidden words are let loose and the fun begins.
While “Evil Dead 2” remade this film with a bigger budget and better actors, rest assured that the original is no slouch when it comes to bang for the buck with great gags and gore. Sam Raimi directs this feature with a flair not normally found in super-low-budget horror films, and Bruce Campbell’s Ash, whose wackiness came into fruition with the brilliant “Evil Dead 2,” steals the show with some of the best over the top comic performances this side of Groucho Marx. The other performances aren’t as notable save perhaps Betsy Baker’s brazen portrayal of Linda, Ash’s Girlfriend, with the rest filling the screen with atrocious line readings and awkward stances who are thankfully killed off quickly, only to come back later a bit more…demented.
Most of the detractors on this film find it stupid, so campy that it stops being funny or even enjoyable because it’s so wacked out. Though I don’t agree, I can certainly see their point. From pushing pencils through ankles, buckets of blood and pus to a rape involving wicked tree vines (don’t ask), there is a lot about “Evil Dead” that will shock and offend. PC it ain’t and this wild romp will have you howling with laughter or lunging for the Stop button. Made at the end of the horror boom of the late 70’s, there is a lot more substance here than your average horror film, but some won’t get the joke. You have been warned.
VIDEO ^ In this brand spanking new 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen transfer, I can’t help but be underwhelmed. Sure it’s nice to have an Anamorphic print of the film, a first in all the digital incarnations of “Evil Dead,” but the fact remains that it was filmed on 16MM at an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and there is some information that was lost in the process, evident in a few chopped shots. Grain is at the forefront and edge enhancement almost gets out of hand while contrast is blurry and uneven. Blacks are nice and deep but everything else is shaky and loose, colors are dull and the whole picture looks sub-par compared to Anchor Bay’s previous release, a rehash of Elite’s Special Edition from a few years ago. Though this is a director-and-THX approved transfer I don’t know how close Sam Raimi or THX was looking at it, considering the obvious, glaring flaws. It’s not a total wash, but it’s certainly not an improvement.
AUDIO ^ “Evil Dead” in DTS ES 6.1, who would’ve thunk it. Also presented in Dolby Digital 6.1 EX, these are some really fine soundtracks from some truly rancid sources. The limits of the original soundtrack are evident including some shrill screams, badly recorded dialogue, and clunky vehicle sounds. Regardless, these tracks feature some nice pan effects and neither of which is “better” than the other though I’d give the edge to DTS for smooth bass and some nice imaging.
No subtitles are included while a French 5.1 track is offered, as well as an English Dolby Surround 2.0 option.
EXTRAS ^ First let’s take a moment to acknowledge the regular edition of this new “Evil Dead” DVD and the Limited Edition reviewed here. The regular edition features the original artwork as well as a nifty painting of Bruce Campbell in full a*s-kicking mode. The Limited Edition is a rubber-molded replica of The Book of the Dead, i.e. the Necronomicon, and is a sight to behold. Inside it houses the original artwork from Tom Sullivan, the designer of the original prop from the movie, as well as a 24 page booklet “Bringing Dead Home for Dinner” detailing the long journey of rights and releases to this new DVD edition by Anchor Bay’s Michæl Felsher. These details make it a highly valuable piece of history and though it’s a bit pricey at $49.95, the extra features included only on this Limited Edition, Bruce Campbell’s “Fanalysis” and “Discovering Evil Dead,” as well as two Easter Eggs and the wonderful packaging make it a great collector’s item.
Screen-specific commentary by Bruce Campbell ^ Welcome to one of the best commentary tracks ever recorded, period. This is a total ham-fest, a tongue-in-cheek take on a tongue-in-cheek film. The stories, the jokes, and the memories are all very vivid and will have you on the floor howling. This is one of my favorite tracks of all time, one that I’ve listened to multiple times (it was also included on the Elite Special Edition Laserdisc and DVD of “Evil Dead”) and I have yet to tire of it.
Screen-specific commentary by director Sam Raimi and producer Robert Tapert ^ While nowhere near as funny as Bruce’s track, this is a more serious affair chronicling the trails and tribulations of getting “Evil Dead” in existence. It’s certainly not humorless, with Sam lavishing in beating up Bruce in various scenes as well as forcing him to do as much damage to himself as possible, along with Robert’s funny and ironic producer tales of woe. This track is fascinating for the nostalgia factor and what kind of effort was put into making this film as good as they could possibly make it on such a low budget.
Fanalysis Bruce Campbell wrote and directed this 26 minute short on geeks and their abnormal lives. If you’ve seen “Trekkies” you’ll be in familiar territory with such colorful topics as the “Five Levels of Geekdom” discussed. Guests such as Harry Knowles and other geeks wax philosophic on what makes a geek and why, for example, someone would spend 4 months on a costume to be on stage for four seconds. We have the casual to the obsessed, name-changing plastic-surgery-utilizing nut, and they are all hilarious in their own way. Campbell’s funny and sharp way of altering the word “fan” (from Fantasyland to Fanatic) to introduce each segment is a great touch and the personal moments within, such as a father and his son bonding through Boba Fett to Bruce sitting back and reading his fan mail in his living room, are worth the price of admission. Campbell fanatics will have no problem shelling out $49.95 for this Limited Edition, because the regular DVD release does not have it.
Discovering Evil Dead The other Limited-Edition-Only feature, this is a groovy, albeit short, rundown of Palace Video and their efforts in getting “Evil Dead” on video back in the early 1980’s. Nick Powell and Stephen Woolley reminisce about the trails (judicial and otherwise) required in bringing such a cult classic home. Funny enough, Nick just begins talking about “Evil Dead 2” when the 13 minute feature abruptly ends.
Rounding out the rest of the disc are 4 TV Spots, a full-frame mono Theatrical Trailer that’s a real hoot, a couple hundred great photos in the Still Gallery, and the usual Talent Files. There are also a few Easter Eggs on the Limited Edition (not the regular edition) that are truly worth finding.
OVERALL ^ “Evil Dead” was a film that rose above its $20 budget (actually $875,000) to become a classic in both horror storytelling and over-the-top goofiness therein. This film has been released on DVD more times than I can count and this great edition is almost definitive. The only thing not included was the “Within The Woods” short that secured financing for the film. The short was originally announced as a feature but pulled from the disc at the last minute because of legalities. While I can just imagine another version later on down the road, this is as good as “Evil Dead” will get for a long time. Though the image quality is lacking, the audio is amazing and the extras are worth their weight in gold. The Limited Edition packaging is a sight to behold and quick to become a centerpiece in any DVD fanatics’ collection. This superb disc is highly recommended.
OVERALL (DVD): * * * * ½ – 4.5 Stars ^ MOVIE: * * * * ½ – 4.5 Stars ^ VIDEO: * * * – 3 Stars ^ AUDIO: * * * * ½ – 4.5 Stars ^ EXTRAS: * * * * ½ – 4.5 Stars