Long before he was a big time Hollywood director, Sam Raimi took a bunch of friends out into the woods and shot a low budget 16mm horror film entitled The Evil Dead - the rest is history.
The plot is simple - a group of five friends, Ash (Bruce Campbell), Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), Scott (Richard DeManincor a.k.a. Hal Delrich), Linda (Betsy Baker) and Shelly (Theresa Tilly a.k.a. Sarah York) - travel together to a remote cabin the woods that they've rented for a little getaway vacation. When they arrive, the play a tape that they find where a professor tells of a Necronomicon, or, a Book of the Dead, that can unleash untold horrors from the spirit world into the physical world. Of course, by the time the tape finishes playing, the magic incantation has been spoken aloud and the demons soon begin possessing everyone in the cabin save for Ash, who is left alone to fight off the creatures who were once his friends or become one of them himself.
While the plot isn't particularly complex (and it's a little derivative of Equinox), Raimi's first feature film works thanks to some clever camera work, creative make up and gore effects, a (b-movie) star making performance from Bruce Campbell and an undeniable sense of manic energy and enthusiasm. Raimi's camera rarely stops moving and the film is so completely determined and insane that you can't help but to become sucked in by it.
While Raimi's tight and quirky direction ensures that the film moves at a quick pace, the real star of the film is Bruce Campbell. While Campbell may have gone on to become a bit of a parody of himself, here he's young and brash and plays the role with enough square-jawed heroics and simultaneous baffled confusion that he really is perfect for the part. While he'd definitely ham it up more in the two sequels that would follow, here he's playing the role of Ash, which would soon become the character he is most synonymous with, a little more straight laced. The supporting cast all do a fine job with the three female performers, Betsy Baker in particular, doing a great job both in and out of make up.
If the stylish camera work and fun performances weren't enough, there are the gore effects. While this is hardly a 'gore film' in the style of nastier movies like August Underground or the campier early works of Peter Jackson, there's no shortage of on screen nastiness in the film to keep you unnerved for the last half of the picture. Highlighted by the infamous 'pencil to the ankle' scene (still cringe inducing after all these years!), not all of the effects have aged well and some of the make up looks a little chalky but for the most part, things hold up nicely considering the age, origins and budget that the crew had to work with.
The film would be marketed as 'the ultimate experience in grueling horror' and while there are certainly scarier films out there, few match the intensity and ferocity with which this picture attacks the audience. If you want to pick holes in the plot, it isn't hard but that's not the point of the film. Raimi and company didn't set out to make a particularly thought provoking film and as such, there isn't a whole lot of story to delve into but in terms of sheer, visceral thrills, The Evil Dead remains high up in the loftiest echelons of fright films.
Anchor Bay presents The Evil Dead in 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen on Disc One and in 1.33.1 fullframe on Disc Two. In regards to the aspect ratio issue, the film was shot on 16mm and matted for theatrical play. The widescreen version looks a little tight in spots whereas the fullframe version looks like it has a bit too much room on the top and bottom of them frame from time to time. Anchor Bay gives fans the best of both worlds and allows them to choose for themselves.
Keeping in mind that this is a low budget 16mm production, the transfers are pretty impressive. Colors look good and detail levels are nice and strong. Flesh tones look good and if black levels aren't quite as strong as some newer films, they're close enough. A bit of print damage does show up from time to time and the film is a little grainy, but that's to be expected. By and large, The Evil Dead looks very good on this release.
The widescreen version of the movie is presented in your choice of Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, Dolby Digital 5.1 EX Surround Sound or DTS-ES 6.1 Surround Sound while the fullframe version of the movie is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround only.
You can't really go wrong with any of the audio options here, though the DTS-ES 6.1 channel track emerges as the winner thanks to some slightly stronger bass and a more distinct sounding score. Dialogue is clean and clear across the board and there are no problems to report with hiss or distortion. Rears are used to fill in the soundscape and your subwoofer will bounce around nicely during the times that the extra bass is required.
Anchor Bay has spread the supplements for this release across all three discs in the set as follows:
Disc One starts off with a commentary track from writer/director Sam Raimi and producer Robert Tapert. Carried over from previous editions, this is an interesting discussion. Raimi and Tapert are old friends and that camaraderie definitely comes across in this commentary where they talk about location shooting, how they went way over schedule and over budget and how and why certain people were cast in the parts that they were cast in. It's a very informative and tight discussion and the two participants play off of one another very well.
Disc One also contains an interesting all new featurette entitled One By One We Will Take You: The Untold Saga Of The Evil Dead (53:21). Presented in anamorphic widescreen, this documentary features some interesting interviews with those involved in the film and those who appreciate it. There's a wealth of behind the scenes footage here as well as thoughts on the pictures from Joe Bob Briggs, Eli Roth, and Robert Tapert who, along with effects artists Tom Sullivan, explains how Raimi got together with a few friends to start making movies in hopes of getting a film into drive-ins to make some money. The female cast members show up here and talk about their experiences on the film, with Ellen Sandweiss talking about working on Within The Woods before everyone talks about their experiences shooting the film in the cabin out in the middle of nowhere. From there we learn about the film's theatrical run and how it proved to be, as Joe Bob puts it, 'something fresh and new that came out of nowhere.' From there we learn about how the film ran into censorship problems in the UK, and how that lead to Raimi deciding to make the second film more comedic. The documentary winds down with the interviewees talking about how the film affected their lives, how they feel about it now, and how (and why) the film has become a classic over the years.
Disc Two also contains an audio commentary, this time courtesy of star Bruce Campbell, which has also been carried over from previous releases. Bruce starts off by talking about how the film's title was changed from Book Of The Dead to The Evil Dead and then goes on to tell his side of the story, explaining how Sam more or less put him through Hell during the production. Bruce delivers his commentary with a fun sense of humor and sarcastic wit but he also manages to relay a lot of information and to tell a few good stories along the way. Most fans will have heard this track before, but it remains an enjoyable discussion of the film and its origins from Bruce's unique perspective.
Also found on the second disc is The Evil Dead: Treasures From The Cutting Room Floor (59:00). In short, this is literally almost an hours worth of excised material, deleted scenes and alternate takes shot during the film's production. Much of it is in pretty rough shape and a lot of it has been seen before on previous releases but it's nice to have it all here in one handy location. We see Raimi with his clapboard before many of the scenes start to play and a lot of the footage here is presented with only dialogue, no soundtrack or sound effects. There are some interesting bits that show some of the effects work in a different light (the pencil into the ankle scene for one) as well as some interesting bits of dialogue included here, though none of it is really given any context and ideally a commentary explaining why this material wasn't used or what was wrong with it could have been included.
The bulk of the supplements are on the third disc, starting with the all new featurette, Life After Death: The Ladies Of The Evil Dead (14:35). This segment interviews Ellen Sandweiss, Theresa Tilly (a.k.a. Sarah York) and Betsy Baker, the three female stars of the film, who explain how initially they were rather embarrassed about the film and how they finally came around to embracing their cult status once they realized how huge the fan following was for the picture after getting back in touch with one another. From there we learn how they went incognito to learn how horror conventions were run and whether or not they should jump in, and then eventually how they starting doing appearances together. Most of this featurette is made up of interview footage but there is some fun convention footage in here including some clips which document the first Evil Dead cast reunion.
The Ladies Of The Evil Dead Meet Bruce Campbell (28:22) is a nearly half hour long featurette in which Bruce sits down with the three ladies and talks about their experiences on set. We learn how Ellen started making movies with Bruce and Sam before this film came along and how making the shorts was much easier than making a feature. There are some fun stories here as well as some interesting behind the scenes pictures as well as some appropriate clips from the film itself. Bruce is his usual animated self and while some of the stories here have been told before, it's amusing enough to see the four cast members interact and fill in details for one another as they all reminisce.
Unconventional (19:05) is a documentary that reunites Campbell, Ted Raimi, Tapert and the three ladies at a convention where they sit down in front of the camera and talk about their experiences doing various horror conventions around the globe. Bruce and Ted talk about how popular conventions have become in recent years due to the growing popularity of horror and sci-fi, and the ladies talk about their experiences at the shows. There's some fun footage here of interaction between the stars and the fans, and everyone involved has a few fun stories to tell about some of the more unusual experiences that they've had, including some funny anecdotes about how easy it is to accidentally ruin valuable memorabilia.
At The Drive In (12:00) allows Chicago film critic Dann Gire to introduce a screening of the film in front of a rabid audience at the Flashback Weekend convention in Chicago where the cast show up and give out some DVDs to fans in the crowd who can answer questions about the film. It isn't particularly revelatory but it is fun to see the cast members interact with the enthusiastic fan base.
Reunion Panel (31:04) beings with Steve Propoky from Ain't It Cool News introducing the cast and crew at the same Flashback Weekend convention for a question and answer panel session. Again, there isn't a lot here that hasn't been covered in the numerous documentaries and commentaries that have been recorded for the film over the years but if you enjoy seeing fan/star interaction, or interviews done live and on the fly then this is worth checking out.
Carried over from the Book Of The Dead release is Discovering The Evil Dead (13:02), a featurette that shows how the film started off as a small project which, years later, turned into a fairly iconic horror film and how it went over when it played in England. Produced by Bill Lustig and Blue Underground, this 2002 documentary gives a uniquely British look at the history of the picture.
Rounding out the extras on the third disc are a quartet of TV Spots, some brief Make Up Test footage (1:06), a Still Gallery, a Poster And Memorabilia Gallery, the film's original Theatrical Trailer and some spiffy animated menus.
The three DVDs are housed inside some impressive gatefold packaging which, when opened up, also contains an insert replicating the two different theatrical posters used to promote the film.
The Evil Dead has been released on DVD more times than most of us are to count and with the thirtieth anniversary of the film on the horizon, it's a safe bet that this won't be the last time we see it. That said, having both aspect ratios included alongside the wealth of supplemental material makes this release a winner and for the one or two people out there who don't already own a copy, it comes highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.