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:
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.