Fede Alvarez's remake/reboot/reimagining of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead and Evil Dead II respects its source material in a manner that feels perfunctory at times. It flashes to references like it's ticking off a list. Sentimental necklace, check. Chainsaw, check. Necronomicon, check. Flying camera, check. Mirror scare, check. Possessed hand, check. Emotionally manipulative demons, check. Sexual assault by tree, check.
And yet, there are good reasons to revisit Raimi's goofy splatterfest, the most essential being its loose sense of demon/zombie rules. Because virtually every post-Night of the Living Dead zombie depiction has sourced its mythology in Romero's teachings, the subgenre at this point often feels rotten — it's banging up against a wall with no distinct destination. Evil Dead, on the other hand, careens all over the place – the infection is airborne, but also transmittable through bites and seemingly reversible depending, oddly, on emotions. The franchise is wild, loose, and as batty as its demons.
Alvarez's Evil Dead is more straight-faced than Raimi's horror-comedy. Its conceit -– that heroin addict Mia (Jane Levy) goes to a far-off cabin in the woods with her friends so that she can detox and that her life depends, ironically it turns out, on not leaving –- is heavier. The withdrawal/demonic possession parallel reminded me not of Raimi so much as other '80s filmmakers with (however vague) senses of social awareness— the AIDS allegories of David Cronenberg's The Fly and John Carpenter's The Thing. Evil Dead doesn't have anything to say about withdrawal that we don't already know, but its attempt to draw any illustrative parallel at all to a human condition makes it more anthropologically ambitious than most contemporary horror movies.
This is a pragmatic film. Evil Dead articulates its characters' motivations at almost every turn, and they almost always make sense. For a movie in which a sister, possessed by apparently the same demon that infected Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist, tells her brother, "Why don't you come down here so I can suck your cock, pretty boy?" Evil Dead is mature.
More gory than groovy, Evil Dead finds its deadpan humor in presenting some of the most disgusting imagery I've ever seen in an R-rated movie. Chunks of flesh give way to torrents of blood (hilariously patched up by duct tape), a needle is retrieved from just below the eyeball it missed (the way the skin gives is nauseating), a tongue is split on a razor, appendages are amputated by their owners. It's all reminiscent of free-associative/atmospheric/incompetent Italian director Lucio Fulci (and would be even more so if Alvarez were allowed to let his shots linger mercilessly, but hey, he did have the MPAA to answer to). It's so over the top, it provokes squeamish, incredulous laughter, or at least it did at the New York screening I attended last week. A few people walked out –- I guess gory-ha-ha wasn't really their thing. The film is divisive — it made a lot of money this weekend ($26 million domestically), but scored a lousy C+ on CinemaScore's exit poll. Something this extreme is bound to revolt.
By the second act, Alvarez's Evil Dead hits a real momentum and doesn't let up until its somewhat disappointing, logically bereft final moments. Still, it does enough with its source material to act as a tribute and justifiable alternate take. In cheapo horror tradition, its wooden stock characters never quite break out enough to earn our sympathy. That is to say, there is no equivalent here to Bruce Campbell's iconic Ash character from the first batch of Evil Dead films. Keep in mind, though, that Diablo Cody was brought in for rewrites and the movie thankfully never achieves the grating, five-years-stale snark that her participation threatened. For a franchise in which possessed hands help shape the drama, that Cody's is invisible is a rare blessing.