No one expected “The Evil Dead” or its wunderkind director Sam Rami to explode in popularity the way they did when they first burst onto the horror movie circuit in 1981. Rami, along with childhood friends Robert Tapert (producer) and Bruce Campbell (star), gave audiences a paranormal scare-fest whose genuine fun-house horror thrills curtailed in by Rami’s raw filmmaking prowess that existed on a plane somewhere between terror and fun that established “Dead” as a modern horror cult classic while catapulting Rami and Campbell to stardom. Its legacy looming large 32 years later, the horror genre has gone through some vast changes, favoring psychological terror and extremely graphic and serious-minded “splatterporn” over tongue-in-cheek blood and guts. “Evil Dead”, the 2013 re-imagining directed by neophyte Fede Alvarez, seeks to have its blood-splattered cake and eat it too, attempting to re-tell the original story with more modern sensibilities while retaining the gleeful sense of dread the series is known for. With Rami, Tapert, and Campbell all serving as guiding lights in producer’s chairs, “Evil Dead” is a worthy, if not exactly excellent, successor to the original, a stylish and blood-soaked horror fun-house that revels in its silliness while maintaining its contemporary horror composure.
Friends Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), Olivia (Jessica Lucas), Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), and David (Shiloh Fernandez) take a trip to a cabin in the woods in order to help their mutual friend and David’s sister Mia (Jane Levy) go cold turkey and kick a smack addiction. As they begin to explore the cabin, the group comes across a basement filled with disemboweled cats carcasses hanging on hooks and the good ol’ Necronomicon, the Book of The Dead, which Eric proceeds to un-wrap from its barbed wire bindings and read from, resulting in the possession of Mia and the eventual summoning of a demonic Abomination if she isn’t “cured” before the Necronomicon claims 4 extra souls.
It all smacks very much of Rami’s original story of demons in the woods, and Alvarez’s film does share many similarities with its precursor; the characters are just as intrepidly moronic, deliberately walking into problems that are unavoidable when you recite a passage from a book bound in human flesh marked with “DO NOT READ THIS” in blood; the basic story beats are still here, though the film plays fast and loose with who the next Ash Williams analogue will be, toying with your expectations of who the real Deadite killer is at the end. The film also occupies (to a less successful degree) the same tonal space that Rami’s “Dead” did, the plane of existence right between carnival fun-house spooks and a macabre walk through abandoned woods; a morose and utterly pointless story involving insanity and familial trust issues immediately interrupted by gleefully graphic acts of facial disfigurement, loss of limbs, and exchanged bodily fluids not seen on screen since Rami’s own “Drag Me To Hell” back in 2009. Because Alvarez’s “Dead” is bathed in the modern super serious-minded “gore-nography” affect, as some call it, it’s difficult to tell when the movie’s tongue is piercing through its cheek or simply suffering from a schizophrenic identity crisis.
Alvarez and the producing dream-team he’s working with are smart enough to know that contemporary horror, forever affixed to the grimy gloss of “torture-porn” brought about by the “Saw” and “Hostel” films, is steeped in an affect that doesn’t leave much room for the same kind of gonzo wackiness seen in the 1981 “Dead”; they’re also smart enough (and see their audience as such) to simply play into the conventions, both old and new, that modern horror has saddled on its back, minus the meta acknowledgment; think of it as an antithesis to Drew Goddard’s meta masterpiece “The Cabin In The Woods” from last year, essentially a joke premise that isn’t in on the joke and is all the more fun for it. By nature, this makes “Evil Dead” an incredibly divisive film; people are either going to love or hate this one, and the film doesn’t really care which side you choose.
From a purely cinematic perspective, however, “Evil Dead” is much more solid and assured. Aaron Morton’s sepia-toned cinematography is a once both grimy and crisp, the gore (all accomplished through makeup, inspired camerawork, and buckets of blood with minimal CG touch-ups) is hilarious and shocking in that how-will-they-top-themselves-next? kind of way, the performers all all fine, conveying the right amount of schlock terror and stupid decision making that is the heartbeat of splatterporn like this (see above) and the contemporary horror roadmap is put to inspired use (Mia’s initial possession being looked over by her friends as just another withdrawal freakout escalates tension in a truly unnerving way). Where will the horror genre go next? It may not have the answer, but “Fede Alvarez’s “Evil Dead” is a flawed yet shamefully enjoyable minor treat of contemporary gore-nography that, for better or worse, channels the spirit of Rami’s cinematic staple.