Anchor Bay // 1981 // 85 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // August 31st, 2010
One by one we will take you!
In the late 1970s, young wannabe filmmaker Sam Raimi and his buddies Rob Tapert and Bruce Campbell decided to take a stab at making their own drive-in horror movie. Cobbling together a shoestring budget from investors made up primarily of family, friends, and business owners from their hometown in Michigan, Raimi, Tapert, and Campbell set off to the woods of Tennessee to film their terror opus. Raimi would direct, Tapert would produce, and Campbell would star and produce. Their planned six-week shoot stretched to 12 weeks, and the trio spent another year and a half perfecting their movie with pickup shoots. Given the circumstances, The Evil Dead should have been a disaster. It should never have seen the light of day. Instead, it found distribution in 1981, just as VCRs became the hot consumer electronics item. The Evil Dead became one of the first cult hits of the home video era. Its fanbase is now legion.
On its surface, The Evil Dead reads like a typical teenage slaughter fest, but the movie is anything but typical. Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell, My Name is Bruce), his girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker), sister Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), friend Scotty (Richard DeManincor), and Scotty's girlfriend Shelly (Theresa Tilly) head out to a cabin in the woods for a little relaxation. Once there, they discover a creepy book bound in human flesh called the Necronomicon and a reel-to-reel tape containing incantations that call forth Kandarian demons. All hell breaks loose as the demons take possession of the kids one by one. Eventually, Ash is the last man standing.
Like nearly all teenagers in the 1980s, my entertainment diet consisted of regular doses of horror flicks -- primarily movies that were more silly than scary, like Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street. A handful of these movies -- such as Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes -- genuinely creeped me out. And then there was Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead. Mixing genuine terror, buckets of gore, nail-biting suspense, and an inventive visual design that was downright fun to watch, it was in a class by itself. It managed to be as fun as the fancifully murderous adventures of Jason Voorhees, yet as truly terrifying as Leatherface's redneck perversions. It seemed to have been made with a spirit of impish glee, yet there was also something forbidden about it, as though it had crossed so far over the line of bad taste that its excesses had become artful. I wasn't quite sure what to make of The Evil Dead the first time I saw it, but I knew I had to see it again. I was almost disturbed because its ghastly imagery didn't disturb me as much as it seemed it should. Among the movie's many excesses is a scene in which Ash cuts off Linda's head with a shovel only to have her neck hole spew blood all over his face. But that scene was almost as amusing as it was terrifying -- not outright funny, mind you, but amusing.
The Evil Dead is an example of high style winning out over base substance. The movie doesn't have an original story (honestly, it doesn't have much story at all); the performances are nothing to write home about; and the seams in the make-up effects are often obvious (that's no slight on the work by effects artist Tom Sullivan, who did the best he could with a miniscule budget). None of that matters, though, because the youthful energy and playful ingenuity with which the movie was made is apparent in every single frame. In nearly any other director's hands, The Evil Dead would be a (deservedly) forgotten little piece of horror exploitation. But Raimi and his crew of young pirates shot the hell out of the flick. Raimi's sweeping demon's-eye-view shots, for instance, have been copied in countless other horror and suspense flicks (in one of the documentaries in this set, Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright correctly points out that Francis Ford Coppola lifted the shot in Bram Stoker's Dracula). But The Evil Dead doesn't stand above its horror peers merely because of its superior compositions and inventive camera movement. The playfulness with which it was shot allows it to be a straight-up, unrelenting, ultra-violent horror show without crossing the line into trashy video nasty because the fun that Raimi and his cohorts had in constructing their scares somehow peeks through the gore and grue we see onscreen and tempers the movie's tone. The Evil Dead isn't a horror-comedy like its sequel, Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn, but it's not nearly as mean as its bloody, relentless content would indicate. In fact, it's as sweet and earnest as a picture about a quintet of youths beings bloodily slaughtered by demons can possibly be.
Also, it gave us the one and only Bruce Campbell. That's reason enough to sing its praises.
The Evil Dead makes the leap to high definition with not one, but two versions of the flick. Gorgeous 1080p/AVC transfers of the movie are offered in both the open-matte 1.33:1 aspect ratio that fans who grew up watching the movie on videotape are used to, as well as the 1.85:1 ratio that Raimi prefers. The cropped widescreen presentation of the movie on Anchor Bay's Book of the Dead Edition DVD gave purists heartburn for its sometimes cramped compositions. The presentation on this Blu-ray is an entirely different beast. Raimi supervised the transfer, ensuring that the matting rendered balanced compositions (you can even see the tin of Band Aids floating in the pool of blood Ash walks through in the cabin's basement -- a gag cropped in previous widescreen versions). Personally speaking, I like the full frame presentation for nostalgia's sake, but find the widescreen version entirely satisfying (some of Raimi's aggressive camerawork just plays better in the wide format). Whatever your preference, the transfers are stunning. Colors are perfectly rendered, and detail is relatively strong given that the movie was shot on 16mm and then up-converted to 35mm. Most surprising is how tight the film grain is, despite the almost complete absence of digital noise reduction. The Evil Dead isn't anywhere near as grainy as the Blu-ray version of Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (also shot on 16mm). The transfers also achieve fully saturated blacks without losing detail to crush. In Anchor Bay's previously released DVDs, there were obvious matte lines around an optically composited shot of a full moon above the cabin; the Blu-ray's deep blacks hide those matte lines entirely.
One of the things that distinguishes The Evil Dead from most low-budget horror flicks is its aggressive and inventive sound design. That design comes across beautifully in the Dolby TrueHD track on this disc. Every scream, trickle (or gush) of blood, pulpy crunch of flesh and bone, and swoosh of fast-approaching demons makes full use of both the front and rear soundstages. The Evil Dead has never sounded better.
This Limited Edition Blu-ray release of The Evil Dead packs a BD-50 containing the two versions of the movie, as well as a DVD loaded with a collection of extras ported over from Anchor Bay's multitude of DVD releases of the flick. The only extra on the Blu-ray disc is a brand new commentary by Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert, and Bruce Campbell (the dual commentaries featuring Raimi and Tapert on one track and Campbell on another, which were included in Elite's 2000 DVD as well as Anchor Bay's Book of the Dead and Ultimate Editions, did not find their way onto the Blu-ray). The new track is informative but low-key, with much less joking between Raimi and Campbell than I expected. It's still an enjoyable track that, by virtue of the ground it covers, makes the previously recorded commentaries obsolete.
The extras on the DVD consist of nearly everything included in Anchor Bay's Ultimate Edition DVD from 2007:
One by One We Will Take You: The Untold Saga of The Evil Dead (53:46) is a thorough retrospective deconstruction of the making of the film, built primarily of the recollections of those involved. Interview participants include Tapert, make-up effects artist Tom Sullivan, second unit director Josh Becker, actresses Ellen Sandweiss, Theresa Tilly (aka Sarah York), and Betsy Baker, transportation captain and cook David Goodman, special effects make-up guru Greg Nicotero (Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn), and schlock movie expert Joe Bob Briggs. Notably absent from the proceeding are Raimi and Campbell. It's still a strong documentary that traces the history of the movie from casting, to production, to release.
The Evil Dead: Treasures from the Cutting Room Floor (59:24) is a remarkable deleted scenes reel that includes extensions and alternate takes of a huge number of shots from the movie -- too many to count, really. The hour-long piece gives you a feel for how diligently Raimi worked to get exactly what he wanted, despite his small budget.
"The Ladies of The Evil Dead Meet Bruce Campbell" (28:55) is a sit-down interview with Sandweiss, Tilly, Baker, and Campbell in which they recount the making of the movie (particular the grueling physical challenges).
"Discovering The Evil Dead" (13:06) is a featurette produced by Blue Underground in which Palace Pictures raconteur Stephen Woolley talks about how he discovered The Evil Dead, bought the distribution rights, and came up with the idea of releasing it simultaneously in theaters and on videotape. Bill Warren, author of The Evil Dead Companion, offers additional background information on the movie's release and impact.
"Unconventional: The Ultimate Discussion of Grueling Horror" (19:09) is a casual roundtable discussion with Campbell, Sandweiss, Tilly, Baker, Richard DeManincor (aka Hal Delrich), and Ted Raimi. Hosted by Anchor Bay and shot at a fan convention, the group spends less time talking about the production of The Evil Dead than about fan reaction and their (often humorous) experiences working the convention circuit.
"At the Drive-In" (12:04) finds Tilly, Sandweiss, Baker, DeManincor, Campbell, Ted Raimi, and Tom Sullivan doing a Q & A and handing out promotional DVDs at a drive-in presentation of The Evil Dead in Chicago.
"Reunion Panel" (31:19) is a Q & A with the same group from the drive-in featurette. It was shot at the Flashback Weekend Horror Convention in Chicago in July of 2005.
"Book of the Dead: The Other Pages" (1:57) is deleted footage of Ash thumbing through the Necronomicon, giving us a more detailed look at its pages.
"Make-Up Test" (1:08) is a brief snippet of a prosthetic zombie head rapidly decomposing.
Also archived on the disc are a theatrical trailer and four TV spots, as well as photo gallery with 40 promotional and production stills.
For my money, The Evil Dead is the finest B horror movie to come out of a decade distinguished by its B horror movies. With two high definition presentations of the film, as well as an entire DVD full of supplements, this Blu-ray is enough to melt a Kandarian demon's face. If you love The Evil Dead it's worth the cost of an upgrade...even if you've already bought half a dozen different versions of the flick on DVD.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Full Frame
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 85 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes
* Make-Up Test
* Photo Galleries
* TV Spots