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Evil Dead (4K Ultra HD), The
Lionsgate Home Entertainment // Unrated // October 9, 2018 // Region 0
List Price: $16.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
"I believe I have made a significant find in the Candarian ruins: a volume of ancient Sumerian burial practices and funerary incantations. It is entitled 'Naturom Demonto'. Roughly translated – 'Book of the Dead'. The book is bound in human flesh and inked in human blood. It deals with demons, demon resurrection, and those forces which roam the forest and dark bowers of man's domain. The first few pages warn that these enduring creatures may lie dormant but are never truly dead. They may be recalled to active life through the incantations presented in this book. It is through recitation of these passages that the demons are given license to possess the living."
Five friends. Hopelessly remote cabin in the woods. Book of the Dead. One by one, the living are claimed.
With as propulsive and brutally efficient as The Evil Dead is, there's little need for a plot synopsis more detailed than those few words. There are no rambling backstories for Ash (Bruce Campbell) and his pals, who, aside from a couple of yokels they pass briefly on the road, are the only characters appearing on-screen. Most all of its lore associated with the Necronomicon is excerpted above. Writer/director Sam Raimi never cuts away from the havoc in and around the cabin. No whodunnit element is to be found. No romances blossom. No new friendships are forged. Neither escape nor salvation can be hoped for. All that exists is the certainty that those you love will be possessed by this demonic force – torturing, tormenting, and reveling in your suffering until it decides to seize hold of you as well.
It's lean, it's savage, it's unrelenting, and it works. Once the gates of hell are flung open, The Evil Dead never really stops to catch its breath. Whereas its sequels would slosh around buckets of blood with a smirk on their face, this first installment is indescribably more vicious. The first attack – newly-possessed Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) skewering Linda's (Betsy Baker) ankle with a sharpened pencil – never fails to make me squirm, no matter how many times I see it. Eyes are gouged out. Legs are shredded with demonic claws and gnawed on. A hand is gnawed off at the wrist. Bodies are dismembered. And what Cheryl suffers in the woods before any deadites rear their hellspawned heads...? There aren't words.
The Evil Dead is an accomplished work, and that's all the more astonishing given that it was crafted largely by a group of barely-twentysomethings with little money and next to no experience as professional filmmakers. As gruesome as so much of the film is, The Evil Dead successfully generates looming dread before so much as a single drop of blood is spilled. Its camerawork may be most memorable for being inventively nimble and violently soaring across the cabin, but it shouldn't be ignored how artfully – beautifully, even! – composed so much of The Evil Dead is. The production design and practical effects are remarkably ambitious. The best of it – the Candarian dagger, the blood-inked pages of the Necronomicon, and the extensive stop motion animation at the end, in particular – still looks phenomenal these many decades later. Others haven't aged quite so well, from the crustier deadite makeup to the dummies occasionally standing in for demons. Although the seams can't help but show at times, that doesn't detract from what a grueling, unnervingly intense experience The Evil Dead remains after some 35 years. Rightfully revered as an enduring classic and Highly Recommended.
While basically every other studio supporting Ultra HD Blu-ray has forgotten that All Hallow's Eve is a thing, Lionsgate has delivered outstanding releases this season of two stone-cold classics – Halloween and, yes, The Evil Dead – and at an irresistible price point to boot. Indications are that they'll have Evil Dead 2 on store shelves before the year's out as well.
When news of this Ultra HD Blu-ray release first broke, I could practically hear the eyes roll on my cult cinema Facebook groups and message board haunts. "But 16mm doesn't even have enough resolution to benefit from 4K!" "C'mon, it's a low-budget horror flick from thirtyhowevermany years ago: what's the point?" And, yeah, Anchor Bay's 2010 edition is as singularly perfect a release as I've come across. Out of the literally thousands of Blu-ray discs that have passed through my hands since the launch of the format, precious few have so throughly impressed me the way that remaster – carried out by Sony nearly a decade ago from the original 16mm negative – has. Giving that 2010 disc a spin today, I continue to be dazzled by its clarity and detail, eclipsing what I once assumed 16mm could possibly deliver. So, yeah, I understand the arched eyebrows about whether or not there's meaningfully further to go from there. And I'm happy to report to the cynics and skeptics out there that the answer is yes: that The Evil Dead is indeed worthy of an Ultra HD Blu-ray release.
Lionsgate has returned to the immaculate 2009 remaster, though what we see here is not quite the same as what was issued on Blu-ray eight years ago. Some of the digital tweaks remain in place, most memorably the steadying of the mattes for the moon effects. Others have not. For instance, when Scotty is first strolling through the cabin, there's a shot where he's standing between a clock on the left and a window on the right. Here, you can clearly see the reflection of a crew member in that window, while he was digitally removed on the earlier Blu-ray release. A few similar instances are scattered throughout the film. I can't speak with any authority as to whether or not Sony scanned The Evil Dead in 4K and we're just seeing the results of their work before the final round of adjustments were made, but whatever the case, this is certainly not a straight upconversion of what you've had on Blu-ray for so many years now.
Strictly in terms of definition and clarity, the improvements are admittedly subtle. Film grain strikes me as more finely resolved, thanks at least in part to such skilled authoring. The weight and persistency of that filmic texture must've been quite an ordeal to encode, but Lionsgate has pulled that off masterfully, and they accomplished it without filtering or processing the image. After a couple dozen A/B comparisons, my takeaway is that The Evil Dead does seem a touch crisper and ever so slightly more detailed in Ultra HD, though I would consider it a refinement rather than something truly revelatory.
Lionsgate hasn't pulled out the HDR crayons that famed film restorationist Robert Harris decried, instead offering a respectful Dolby Vision grade. After repeatedly switching back and forth between the previous Blu-ray edition and this UHD release, the hues and saturation generally strike me as very similar across the two discs. The differences I spot feel as if the presentation's exposing more of what was originally there rather than revisionism for the sake of revisionism. There are some, admittedly, that surprised me. Our first glimpse at the cabin exterior after dusk has deep yellow light coming through the windows on Blu-ray, and that yellow is softer and less forceful in Dolby Vision. When Cheryl is drawn towards the woods and the moon is filled with an inky black, I can readily discern more of the forest in Ultra HD, although the night sky is more of a noisy gray compared to the previous Blu-ray release. As Ash looks up from the cabin floor to a deadite in its final moments, I marveled at the way his blood and sweat caught the light in HDR, with the caveat that the shadows on the left of the frame looked less substantial than they do in 1080p.
While The Evil Dead has no interest in being a wall-to-wall HDR showcase, there are still plenty of overtly impressive moments: the impact when Scotty first flips on the switch in the cabin, the headlights of The Classic in the dead of night, and the interior of the cabin's searing glow as the rest of the gang heads back inside after the Williamses attempt to take off, to rattle off a few. Hell, even something like the highlights on Ash's belt as he pulls that necklace out of his pocket manage to look astonishing.
The Evil Dead has long had a problematic relationship with widescreen. This is a film that was always intended to play in theaters, and since The Evil Dead wasn't made in the '40s, Sam Raimi and company knew that the full 1.33:1 image they were capturing on 16mm would have to be matted. At least according to The Evil Dead Companion, Raimi and company composed for an aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Reportedly, the only time during its original theatrical run that the full frame was exposed was its premiere at a grand movie palace from the 1920s that could still accomodate 1.37:1. Of course, 1.66:1 wasn't exactly a common aspect ratio on these shores when The Evil Dead was hacking its way across the country, so I'd imagine it was far more frequently matted to 1.85:1. As Anchor Bay's Book of the Dead DVD set showed, a straight 1.85:1 matte winds up being oppressively tight, which is why the widescreen version that debuted in 2010 was recomposed scene-by-scene.
I don't know if it comes down to the elements available or simply a lack of space on this BD-66 disc, but Lionsgate has elected to only present the full-frame version on Ultra HD Blu-ray. While retaining the choice offered by the previous Blu-ray edition would've been preferable, if Lionsgate had to choose one, this is certainly the presentation that makes the most sense. The 1.33:1 version has been a fixture on most home video releases, including special editions in which Raimi and the gang participated extensively. This is how we've seen The Evil Dead for most of our lives, and it's also the presentation with the fewest compromises. Interestingly, I believe The Evil Dead holds the distinction as the first film with this aspect ratio to arrive on Ultra HD Blu-ray.
Well, that went longer than anticipated. I guess the short version is that while The Evil Dead isn't an essential upgrade on Ultra HD Blu-ray, longtime fanatics are certain to find this refined presentation rewarding just the same. And if you're widescreen-or-die, at least you still have that option with the Blu-ray disc in this set.
The good news...? If you loved the 16-bit Dolby TrueHD audio from Anchor Bay's Blu-ray release, here it is again*. On the other hand, if you were keeping your fingers crossed for an Atmos spit-and-polish, or if you're a purist hoping for the original monaural audio to once again resurface, you're going to have to keep waiting.
Still, The Evil Dead's 5.1 remix does sound incredible. The stereo effects up front are consistently impressive, whether it's the pounding porch swing bounding from right to left or the Delta 88 tearing off towards what passes for civilization 'round these parts. Claps of thunder, chirping crickets, howling wind, and ominous drips in the cellar make for some robust atmospherics. From haunting voices to hellish screams to crashing trees, this is such an immersive remix with an ear towards directionality. The Evil Dead is far from an unrelenting low-frequency assault, but a number of effects do make an impression, particularly the hellish roar of that unseen demonic force. I'm floored by the clarity of so many of the Foleyed effects, and I can't get over how phenomenal Joe LoDuca's score sounds when the full instrumentation kicks in. Dialogue doesn't belie the film's age, sounding a bit on the thin side, but it doesn't suffer from any unwelcome clipping or distortion. Indeed, every element in the mix is clean, clear, and well-balanced. Not in quite the same league as the visual end of this remaster but an astonishing effort just the same.
The language options are a bit different than what Anchor Bay delivered back in 2010, swapping out the old disc's French stereo surround track with a Dolby Digital 5.1 dub in Spanish. There are also two English subtitle streams – one traditional, the other captioned for the deaf and hard of hearing – as well as Spanish subs. And, it's The Evil Dead, so you know there's a commentary, but I'll dig into that in a minute.
- Audio Commentary: Carried over from Anchor Bay's 2010 Blu-ray release is this commentary with writer/director Sam Raimi, producer Rob Tapert, and – you know it! – Bruce Campbell. This is a feature-length conversation rather than a screen-specific commentary, but that makes sense given Raimi, Tapert, and Campbell's approach. They're not really interested in discussing what you're seeing on-screen, exactly; they want to tell you how it got there in the first place.
The emphasis is squarely placed on navigating the murky waters of independent filmmaking in the late '70s and early '80s: the business end of crafting a limited partnership, lining up investors, landing distribution back in the days when films tended to play regionally rather than roll out coast-to-coast all at once, the budget-busting discovery that a Super 8->35mm blowup wasn't in the cards, figuring out how makeup effects actually work, shouldering the Foley recording themselves, Irvin Shapiro saving their bacon time after time in prepping The Evil Dead to actually reach audiences, and the list keeps going from there. The track is peppered with low-budget filmmaking war stories, from the agony of glass contact lenses to Bruce Campbell wishing a good morning to a hillbilly he thought might've just murdered Sam Raimi. Whether they're talking about subsisting on $1.39 a day in New York to losing their rental house to prostitutes, it's one phenomenal story after another. The commentary starts off kind of dry and lethargic, but the energy picks up as it goes along, and it's pretty infectious after a short while. If you haven't heard this commentary already, do yourself a favor and give it a listen.
And, yes, this track is on the Ultra HD Blu-ray disc, which should be a given but too often isn't the case with so many other studios shunting commentaries on Blu-ray only. This is Lionsgate, though, so they've got you covered.
No, I didn't accidentally delete half the review. Just one lonely bullet point this time around, so you're gonna have to keep clutching those old special edition DVDs and bonus discs. At least the cover art and slipcase are stylish as hell, more faithfully honoring the original one-sheet – complete with fold creases! – than what we were treated to the last go-around. The set's digital copy code redeems on Vudu and Fandango Now. The accompanying Blu-ray disc is bit-for-bit identical to Anchor Bay's from nearly a decade back, only with updated art.
The Final Word
Since Evil Dead 2's splatter-comedy and the slapstick adventure of Army of Darkness play more to my usual tastes, I sometimes forget just how lean, wickedly efficient, and visually stylish The Evil Dead really is. Despite not having aged nearly as well as the rest of the trilogy, it stands strong as a hell of a horror flick, and Lionsgate's Ultra HD Blu-ray release reminds me just how much I adore it. Though far from a definitive release – given its single aspect ratio, near-total lack of extras, and limited audio options – the opportunity to rediscover a longtime favorite with such a striking 2160p presentation is cause for celebration just the same. Highly Recommended.