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. Having gone on to become an undisputed classic of modern horror, 'the ultimate experience in grueling horror' has been released on DVD more times than most of us care to think about. Whether it's the old Elite fullframe edition or the various Anchor Bay releases (be they bound in a smelly, latex 'Book of the Dead' or adorned in a fancy 'Ultimate Edition' box), this new limited edition Blu-ray release from Anchor Bay really ups the ante in terms of audio and video quality and, to use a cliché, almost makes it like seeing the film again for the first time.
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. The film wastes absolutely no time, benefitting from a remarkably quick pace which starts almost as soon as our characters get to the cabin and literally does not let up until the end credits hit.
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 and the movie is better for it. 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 makeup, particularly once the demons take over and give the ladies a chance to really delve into their parts. They may initially seem vapid and unnecessary to the plot, but once the evil kicks in, they make for some pretty memorable foes.
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. You've also got to appreciate the creativity behind the carnage, whether it's a flamboyant decapitation, a chainsaw attack sequence or some absolutely wild stop motion effects used to show the rapid decomposition of a certain character (complete with extra icky worms and bugs!) every penny of the film's effects budget made it to the screen.
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 both 1.33.1 fullfame and 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen, both transfers benefiting greatly from the 1080p high definition AVC encoding making this release, visually a speaking, a pretty substantial improvement over the various standard definition offerings that have come and gone over the years from Elite and then Anchor Bay. While the film's grain structure is wholly intact, there are no problems with anything but the minutest instances of print damage. The film shows its age and doesn't look like a high budgeted blockbuster made yesterday, but the increase in detail, texture and color reproduction is very impressive and will be noticeable immediately by those familiar with the film. Skin tones look far more natural, never showing any waxiness while detail in the foreground and the background as well is much improved. Colors look very nice for an older low budget film - the scene where the blood drops onto the film projector which bathes Ash in red being a perfect example, as the reds look bold and bright without appearing over saturated or artificially boosted at all. Black levels are strong and deep but not at the sacrifice of shadow detail, which also remains strong. A few shots that have always looked soft and slightly out of focus continue to do so, but the film has always had that going for it and you can't expect HD to fix something inherent in the film elements. Overall, regardless of which aspect ratio you opt for, you're likely to be quite impressed by Anchor Bay's efforts here as the movie really does look very, very good.
There are two audio options supplied for this release - an English language Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 and a French language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo option, while subtitles are supplied in English SDH and Spanish. Purists may lament the fact that there's only a 5.1 track available in English, but the one that is here sounds quite good. Those scenes where the camera flies through the woods and chases the different characters throughout the film have a nice, enveloping sense of impending doom to them thanks to some strong, though not overpowering, bass and a hefty low end in the mix. Dialogue is always clean and clear and there are no problems to report with any noticeable hiss or distortion. Directional effects are plentiful and well handled, creating a fairly immersive experience, the kind you don't always get with an older, low budget picture like this one. The screams and guttural sounds made by the possessed characters sound creepier than ever while higher sounding bits like the 'we're gonna get you' lines have some added impact and never sound too shrill or high pitched. Lots of great ambient noise, like creaking wood, dripping water or howling wind, help set the mood well and really this mix doesn't leave a whole lot to complain about.
Anchor Bay has spread the supplements for this release across two discs in the set (Disc One being the Blu-ray disc and Disc Two being a standard definition DVD) but before we get to that, let's get one thing straight - while there's a lot of good stuff here, there are some extras missing from various previous releases and that's going to annoy some fans. The most obvious omissions are some of the alternate commentary tracks that have been recorded over the years and a few featurettes (Life After Death: The Ladies Of The Evil Dead being one example). Now, most of the goodies that fans have seen over the years have been ported over, but most isn't all. With that gripe out of the way, here's what you will find:
Disc One starts off with a brand commentary track from writer/director Sam Raimi, star Bruce Campbell and producer Robert Tapert and this is the only new extra on this release (the rest appeared on the previous The Evil Dead - The Ultimate Edition release that Anchor Bay put out in 2007). Those expecting the humor that has been so prevalent on the other commentaries that these guys have recorded for this film over the years might be a bit disappointed that they play things much straighter here. That doesn't mean that there isn't a ton of information here, because there is, but they almost seem a bit bored with the track. That said, if their enthusiasm has waned a bit, they still deliver a lot of interesting trivia about how and why they set out to make this film, casting it, stunts work, effects work, and most interesting, how they marketed it and how that marketing played such a huge part in its success.
The rest of the extras are on disc two, starting with a 2006 featurette entitled One By One We Will Take You: The Untold Saga Of The Evil Dead (53:43). 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.
Also found on the second disc is The Evil Dead: Treasures From The Cutting Room Floor (59:20). 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.
From there, dig into a few mores featurettes like The Ladies Of The Evil Dead Meet Bruce Campbell (28:53), 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.
Discovering The Evil Dead (13:05) is 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 with input from Stephen Woolly.
Unconventional (19:08) 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 (12:03) 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 (31:17) 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.
Rounding out the extras are some brief Make Up Test footage (1:08), a quick piece called The Book Of The Dead: The Other Pages (1:57 worth of alternate footage of Ash looking at some Book Of The Dead illustrations), a Still Gallery, the film's original Theatrical Trailer (1:54), quartet of TV Spots, and some spiffy animated menus.
The Evil Dead looks and sounds better than ever on Blu-ray and while the omission of some of the previous extras (and where's Within The Woods already?) keep it from being one hundred percent definitive, the major upgrade in the transfer department alone will be reason enough for most fans to pick it up and this is otherwise a pretty stellar offering from Anchor Bay. The film itself remains as exciting and intense as it's ever been and it really holds up well decades since it first amazed horror fans around the world. 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.