Warning: This review contains spoilers.
In 1979, three young men began filming what would become one of the best known horror movies of all time. Their names were Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, and Robert Tapert, and their film, The Evil Dead, was finally released in 1981. It featured five vacationing college students, Ash (Bruce Campbell), Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), Scott (Hal Delrich), Linda (Betsy Baker), and Shelly (Sarah York). Their lives literally go to hell after they discover the notorious flesh-covered Naturan Demanto or Sumerian Book of the Dead in a remote cabin in the woods.
Thirty two years later, director Fede Alvarez with the help of Raimi, Campbell, and Tapert filmed a remake of The Evil Dead that was released in 2013.
In Evil Dead (2013), a new younger cast became the latest victims of the demons awakened by the evil book in a remote cabin in the woods. Instead of a vacation getaway, however, the cabin is initially the setting for a drug rehab retreat for Mia (Jane Levy), who is there with her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), his girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), Mia’s friend Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), and a nurse named Olivia (Jessica Lucas).
How did the 2013 remake hold up against the original 1981 movie? For me, it was a draw.
The Evil Dead (1981)
Over the years, The Evil Dead (1981) has garnered enough fans and critical acclaim to achieve cult status. There are some good reasons why. The movie blends together well-paced storytelling and style.
The events of the story progress naturally in a realistic scenario. Venturing down into the cellar after the cellar door flies open seems like something curious college students on vacation would do. Raimi is also good at hinting about the horror that is to come. All it takes is one look at the book and the creepy weapon Scott and Ash find in the cellar and you can tell something bad is going to happen.
Unlike the 2013 remake (which I will get to in a moment), the summoning of the demons was a believable accident. The main characters did not realize that they would awaken them by simply playing a tape recording, which turns out to be an effective way to build suspense and add an element of psychological horror to the movie. Like those old-time radio dramas that were popular back in the 1940s to the 1960s, it leaves your imagination to fill in the blanks about what happened to Professor Knowby and his wife.
Besides the book, weapon, and tape recording, I think that the concept of the forest being alive also added to the horror of the 1981 movie. While it was downplayed in the remake, the original used this concept to its advantage. It heightened the characters’ sense of doom that they were trapped with no way out. When the trees won’t let you leave, you know you are in serious trouble.
And I like the way the movie was filmed. The opening sequence where some evil but unseen force hovers toward the main characters’ car still looks eerie more than 35 years after it was filmed. The stark contrast between light and dark in some of the scenes creates a film noir feel that adds to the dark atmosphere of the movie. And then, of course, are the close-ups of the charismatic Bruce Campbell as Ash Williams. According to IMDB, Campbell is “thought by Sam Raimi and other directors to take ‘the best head shot in the business.’” Campbell’s ability to combine confidence and fear in his facial expressions is probably part of the reason why Ash Williams is still one of the most popular horror characters today.
The major shortcoming of the 1981 movie is the hit-and-miss quality of its special effects. It is sometimes hard to ignore how dated and fake many of them look compared to the special effects that can be done today. For instance, Cheryl looks pretty scary when she becomes possessed, but possessed Linda looks like she is wearing clown makeup.
Some of the special effects were not scary when they really mattered such as those in the scenes where the possessed characters literally fall apart after the demons leave them. It looks like milk is squirting out of some of them as they died, and I also thought I saw some cottage cheese during one of the meltdown scenes.
It turns out that my observations were not far off the mark. In an article about The Evil Dead, I learned that a variety of ingredients were “used to concoct the mush coming out of the melting corpse’s skull,” including “oatmeal, snakes, guts made out of marshmallow strings, and Madagascar cockroaches, which they acquired at Michigan State University.”
Evil Dead (2013)
A new generation of moviegoers was introduced to the horror caused by the Sumerian Book of the Dead in a 2013 remake. Evil Dead (2013) seems to be the flip side of the original 1981 movie. Its major strength is its special effects, which are more realistic and frightening than those in the 1981 movie. They are stunningly gory, and the film deservedly won some awards for them in 2013 and 2014. You can vicariously feel the pain of horrific wounds caused by things such as shards of broken glass and long nails embedded in body parts. And the self-inflicted trauma in the remake is over the top. I still wince when I think about Olivia slicing flesh off her own face and a possessed Mia cutting her tongue almost in half lengthwise as she licks a sharp knife.
However, its major weakness is its hit-and-miss story development. As great as the special effects are, I thought they dominated the movie to the point that the main characters are often not much better than living crash test dummies that allow director Fede Alvarez to test the limits of how much pain and injury a human could withstand. And there are other problems too.
To me, the way the demons were summoned is a forced plot device. It seems out of character that Eric, who cares about Mia enough to be part of two drug interventions to save her life, would be so reckless as to read incantations from the Book of the Dead despite numerous warnings that it would be a bad idea, including ones that are literally printed in large red ink letters on some of the pages! He even goes through the trouble of doing pencil rubbings so that he would be able to see and say the words that would awaken the demons. Later, after death and destruction have already occurred, he has an “Oops!” moment, telling David, “I read a passage from that book, and I released something evil.” Maybe Eric is the one who is on drugs, not Mia!
I like the clever plot twist in the remake that gave David a chance to cheat death and the demons, but his resuscitation of Mia is not realistic. It seems more like a scene out of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. David plunges two syringes strapped together with duct tape into her heart. Isn’t he stabbing her in the heart when he does this? And how was he able to get the syringes into her heart without hitting her sternum or one of her rib bones? I don’t think he had time to consult an X-ray before he does this.
To make matters worse, the syringes are connected to a car battery, which he sets off to create an electrical charge. Wouldn’t he be electrocuting her by doing this? I searched online for an answer. Here is the easiest to understand explanation that I could find dealing with the question, “Can defibrillation be done with a car battery?” :
In short, attaching a car battery is more likely to cook the heart (if it even gets that deep) because it is providing too much power, and it is unlikely to disrupt the heart’s electrical field because it is too low of a voltage. With this in mind, one could theoretically attach enough electrical transformation equipment to a car battery to use it as a power source for defibrillation. But there are other issues with such an idea.
Car batteries are not designed for the usage that would mesh well with a defibrillation machine. [. . . ]
I am not a medical professional, but I strongly suspect that his makeshift defibrillator would probably have killed her in real life if she was not already dead. And if I ever need emergency medical assistance, I hope David is not the one to give it to me!
Another aspect of the plot that bothered me was the Abomination of Hell (Randal Wilson). This demon looked too skinny and waifish to scare me. The Abomination may have had superhuman strength to lift a vehicle with one hand, but it did not have the brain power to outwit mere mortal Mia. You would think it would be pretty powerful if it took the deaths of five people to raise it from hell, but it was sent slinking back to the underworld after a few strategic strokes from a chainsaw operated by a one-armed girl. How pathetic!
Despite their flaws, both The Evil Dead (1981) and Evil Dead (2013) are watchable films. This leads me to reach the same conclusion that I did in my Dawn of the Dead (1978) vs. Dawn of the Dead (2004) review. Which version of Evil Dead you would enjoy more would depend on what you are looking for in a horror film.
For people who like a well-developed story and don’t mind some of the laughable special effects, the 1981 movie is for you. For people who are looking for well-developed gore and don’t mind some of the unintentionally funny plot holes, then the 2013 remake would be a better choice.