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The independent The Evil Dead was one of the first horror films to be a primary success on the then-new home video cassettes. Made for nothing by a group of truly creative kids under the direction of a very young Sam Raimi, this chronicle of satanic mayhem in an isolated Appalachian woods had everything that Stephen King proclaimed was needed to make the perfect home-grown American horror: young adults, good scares and outrageous gore.
Shot on grainy 16mm, the film has suffered a fair number of awful video incarnations, but Anchor Bay has resurrected it in what has to be a definitive version: 16:9 remastered from the original negative, and brimming with the kinds of goodies fans want. For icing on a grisly cake, the packaging mimics the film's Book of the Dead central prop, complete with a rubbery 'human skin' binding.
That very unpromising storyline actually turns into one of the more frightening horror films ever made. True, the picture drips with the kind of gooshy makeup effects that can be found in any number of productions around the time. The horror 'industry', mostly from Europe, was engaged in a gorefest exploring every known way of reducing human bodies to oozing flesh, but few of them have The Evil Dead's feeling of direct viewer participation. Its assault of gruesome surprises never lets up: there's a visual or audio stimulus every second. Better yet, even though the leading players (the interesting Bruce Campbell among them) are iffy in the acting department, their actions and reactions are believably logical. Instead of being an off-putting series of ugly scenes, The Evil Dead succeeds in keeping us interested in what happens to its characters. It's intelligent enough for us not to feel used, abused, insulted or despoiled after watching.
Horror addicts already know all about The Evil Dead and its sequels and their many versions, etc. The troubled history of the 2nd sequel, Army of Darkness, has filled more than one article in Video Watchdog magazine. A very comprehensive account of the filming of this show can be found in Bill Warren's recent book, The Evil Dead Companion.
The most remarkable thing about The Evil Dead is the dedication and boundless energy of the filmmakers, who did such an amazing job with so little. Most of it was filmed at the cabin location in really trying conditions of cold and discomfort. You can see the breath of the actors in many a shot. The rule of thumb with lowbudget films is that most look as though there was barely time to set up the camera. Raimi and producer Tapert clearly inspired their crew with the quality of their work, and every shot is finely crafted. It's a model production. When I was asked to cut a horror film in the late '80s, this is the film I was sent to watch as the top of the genre.
Anchor Bay should get the P.T. Barnum award for their fun and attention-getting marketing of this limited edition of The Evil Dead. It comes wrapped in a cello box like a packet of expensive stationery: inside is an ugly brown mass of rubber. 1 For a moment I thought someone had sent me a monster mask. Inside is a creepy reproduction of the book from the film itself, with the movie disc enveloped near the back, as if just along for the ride.
The disc is handsomely mounted and packed with extras. Dolby Digital and THX logos herald the show, which comes up looking grainy but solid, and in more colors than just the green I'd seen on VHS fifteen years ago. (revision 2/22/02: However - a look at the earlier Elite DVD release shows that it looks better than this new one, even though it's not 16:9. See footnote 2.) Anchor Bay always has solidly produced extras, and with full cooperation from the principals involved (Bruce Campbell was a producer as well as the star) the docus here are authoritative. The above-mentioned Bill Warren, a solid choice for a literary perspective, can be seen in one of them. As seen in both the stills and an 18-minute selection of raw outtakes that are included, the kids making the movie seem to be having one heck of a fun time, even when drenched in sickening makeup or putrid gore. The film's prop and makeup designer, Tom Sullivan, opened his bag of tricks for this limited edition - the eye-catching packaging was his work.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Evil Dead rates:
1. A suggestion: let the book stand awhile somewhere with good
ventilation. The rubber didn't seem to be totally cured on Savant's copy, and it made
my office smell like gasoline for a day or two.
2. 2/22/02: I've revised the picture evaluation of the review, after
seeing the first Elite Evil Dead DVD, the non-special edition released before this year's. The transfer is
not 16:9, but it definitely looks better - with markedly better color and contrast that I don't
think anyone will argue with. It's even somewhat sharper. It does have more visible dirt, but my previous report that the
new transfer was a big improvement just isn't so - all I'd seen was the 80's cassette. Many
apologies for giving a false impression.