When they were kids, Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell would shoot films on 8mm, inspired by all kinds of different movie genres. Crime pictures, dramas, The Three Stooges, you name it. When they wanted to make the leap to the big screen, they opted to go for horror, simply because at the time, horror was a sure-fire sell. The result, The Evil Dead, became a cult favorite, and in 1987, Campbell, Raimi, and the rest of their gang got together to make a sequel, Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn. If the first film was a well told horror yarn, its sequel was a rip-roaring horror comedy. In the years since its release, Evil Dead II's reputation has grown to the point where it's often listed as one of the best fusion of horror and comedy yet put to film.
Bruce Campbell returns as Ash, the plucky non-hero who finds himself stuck in a cabin in the woods with the hounds of hell trying to get in and tear his soul apart. Things begin sweetly enough, with Ash taking his girlfriend Linda (Denise Bixler) to an abandoned cabin in the woods for a romantic weekend together. While there, Ash finds a tape recorder. When he plays what is on it, he finds the notes of an archaeologist, who transcribes pages from a bizarre book, the Necronomicon Ex Mortis: The Book of the Dead. As the words are spoken aloud, something stirs in the woods and takes Linda away. When Ash goes out to find her, she attacks him, and in self defense, he lops her head off. Burying her body and boarding himself up in the cabin, Ash now has to survive the night and hope that he doesn't get possessed, or killed, or worse.
Before I go any further, let's clear something up right now. Evil Dead II is not a remake of The Evil Dead. The opening few minutes retells a truncated version of the events in the first film, changing details as necessary in order to tie into circumstances that occur later in the movie. The Evil Dead all takes place in one night, and once Ash is blown into the woods by the mysterious force, we're past the time period in which the first film took place. Everything from there on out is firmly in sequel territory. I think the other reason people point to it as a remake is that there is a sequence in the film that is pretty much a recreation of the "Tree Rape" scene from the original. While there is a scene where a girl is attacked by trees, the feel and resolution of the set piece in the second film are decidedly different from those of the first. But there are so many delirious moments in Evil Dead II that aren't even hinted at in the first that I cannot see how it's labeled as a remake.
With that out of the way, let's look at the film itself. Before he toned down his haywire sensibilities for Spider-Man, Sam Raimi was considered to be one of the most kinetic and hyper-charged directors in the film business, in large part due to his work on Evil Dead II. The film barrels along, barely taking a moment to breathe. In only 84 minutes, Raimi is able to cram in more action, horror, and comedy than three other films put together. Raimi uses just about every trick in the book, from running the film backwards to stop motion animation to guys in rubber suits to achieve his vision. It's exhilarating filmmaking and more than any other film, it made Raimi's career.
But the picture wouldn't have worked without the talents of lead actor Bruce Campbell. Campbell and Raimi are lifelong friends, and the two helped each other make it in film. This is the pinnacle of their partnership, as Campbell is willing and able to take everything Raimi threw at him. Whether he's being drowned in blood, smacked by zombies, or chopping off his own hand, Campbell takes it all in stride. More than that, his take on Ash is a hilarious mix of would-be action star crossed with complete coward. He's only a hero because if he isn't, he'll die. The combination makes for some great humor, and Campbell is as home at playing that as he is the action. Probably the best example of this is the sequence where his hand becomes possessed. He's running around, punching himself in the face, slamming his hand into the wall, doing the best acting he's ever done. He slams dishes over his head, and even flips himself around in the air, all without any kind of assistance. His timing is impeccable and he's got an amazingly expressive face. Ash is and will forever be his most memorable role.
The sum total of all these elements makes for an explosive thrill ride that isn't afraid to indulge in its cheese. The film was shot on a low budget, but instead of doing their best to hide that fact, Raimi and company throw it on the screen, warts and all. And half of its charm comes from knowing that they cared more about telling the story than hiding the fact that the cabin has no ceilings, or that the zombie in the basement is Sam's brother, Ted, in a suit. The movie is so much fun that it doesn't matter that it was made on the cheap. Evil Dead II is some of the most fun that you could ever have at the movies, and its status as a cult classic is very well deserved. See the movie, but not at night, lest you find yourself dead by dawn.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Considering Anchor Bay's reputation for releasing multiple versions of the same title, it's kind of surprising to find that they've only done three releases of Evil Dead II (for those of you who think three is a lot, you don't know Anchor Bay). The first was a featureless piece of bargain-bin trash that you couldn't pay me to watch. The next was a massive step up, with better picture, a newly remixed soundtrack, and some great special features. Later, the film was re-released again, in a "Book of the Dead" edition, which had packaging that simulated the Necronomicon, and added an additional special feature, as well as providing yet another transfer. What we get on this Blu-ray release, one of Anchor Bay's first batch of six, is essentially the same as the Book of the Dead edition, without the deluxe packaging.
Anchor Bay presents Evil Dead II in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 in an AVC-encoded 1080p transfer. As I mentioned, Evil Dead II was an extremely low budget production, and Raimi clearly valued special effects over, say, a high quality film stock (not that I'm complaining, the special effects help make the movie great). But the fact is that the movie will never look spectacular. Aside from a few compression artifacts, I figured that the second Anchor Bay release of the film was about as good as it was going to look. The transfer on the "Book of the Dead" edition was actually a step back in terms of color reproduction and detail. This transfer was presumably taken from the same master as the latest release, and I have to admit, it doesn't really benefit too much from high definition. The transfer is very soft, low on detail in many shots, and it looks like Anchor Bay applied some edge enhancement in an attempt to make things look sharper. The transfer is murky, with a sharp drop off to black. A lot of noise reduction has been applied, making many scenes look flat and many of the characters seem waxy.
There are a few shots that show clear improvement over any of the DVD transfers. Raimi loves doing close-ups with lenses that distort the angles of the actors' faces, and the detail on those shots are very nice. Also, the shot where the cabin appears to have a demonic face imposed over its facade is so much more clear here than it's ever been. Colors are, on the whole, rather stable, and the greens, blacks, and red of the blood are very deep and satisfying. It's not perfect, and the edge enhancement and noise reduction bother me. Perhaps Anchor Bay will revisit this title later on and actually do right by it.
Anchor Bay offers two 5.1 mixes. One is Dolby Digital, previously available on the DVD sets, and a new uncompressed PCM track. While purists will bemoan the lack of the original audio, I really enjoyed these mixes. While the dialogue still sounds as poorly recorded as it actually was, the sound effects are fantastic. The scene where Ash shoots into the wall, attempting to kill his possessed hand, and blood starts pouring out at him sounds just fantastic. The bass goes nuts, and all the speakers go wild, and you feel like you yourself might be drowning. Similarly, the scene where the characters start to see things bending and hear bizarre creaking sounds is incredibly immersive. The sound goes a long way towards selling the picture, and these mixes, especially the PCM track, do their job very well.
Anchor Bay has included all of the supplements from the various DVD editions to date. None are in HD.
- Commentary with Writer/Director Sam Raimi, Actor Bruce Campbell, Co-Writer Scott Speigel, and Make-up Effects Artist Greg Nicotero: To give you an idea of how good this commentary is, I could tell you that it's my favorite commentary of all time. Or I could explain how all four participants are good friends and know each other so well that at times it borders on telepathy. Bruce and Sam spend most of the track baiting each other and downplaying each other's strengths, but it's all done with a light heart and a quick wit. I could go on for days going over all of my favorite sections, but suffice it to say that if you like a good time, this is the first place you should look.
- The Gore, The Merrier: A tongue-in-cheek behind the scenes documentary that focuses on three of the effects technicians. A good amount of behind the scenes footage is on display, showing Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell at their goofy best. There's a lot of great stuff here, and my only wish is that it was longer than its 30 minute running time.
- Behind The Screams: A series of on the set photographs, narrated by Tom Sullivan. As the pictures gravitate towards the creature effects, things get a lot more interesting from a visual standpoint, but Sullivan quickly becomes annoying.
- Film Fast Facts: A Blu-ray exclusive, we get a series of trivia facts that pop-up as the film progresses.
Watching Evil Dead II is some of the most fun you can ever have legally. Sam Raimi's absolutely exhilarating style of filmmaking blends perfectly with Bruce Campbell's campy acting to create the definition of a cult classic. This Blu-ray disc only offers a minor improvement in picture quality, but the sound is excellent, and the supplements include the best commentary ever recorded. If you own a Blu-ray player and don't own either of the previous two editions of the film on DVD, then you should run out and purchase this right away. If you have previously bought Evil Dead II on DVD, the improvements may not be major enough to warrant getting it yet again. Recommended.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.