Horror remakes justifiably strike fear into the hearts of genre fans, with bad remakes outnumbering the decent ones by a significant margin. A remake of Sam Raimi's 1981 cult classic The Evil Dead is particularly sensitive territory, as it had the potential to be a brainless PG-13 rehash made purely for easy box office returns. How surprising, then, that 2013's Evil Dead falls into the win category; it's an imaginative, chilling horror movie which retains its predecessors' proclivity for gleeful R-rated absurdity. It had the full support of both Raimi and star Bruce Campbell, showing that this is less of a money-grab and more of an attempt to continue the long-dormant Evil Dead series. Calling it a reboot or a remake is not exactly accurate; it can easily be considered the fourth instalment in the series, as it doesn't deny that the events of the prior movies ever took place.
Struggling with her heroin addiction, Mia (Jane Levy) retreats to an old family cabin in the woods to go cold turkey for a weekend. Joining Mia for support is her estranged brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), David's girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), and friends Olivia (Jessica Lucas) and Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci). As night falls, the gang discover the cabin's cellar, which has been the site of horrifying witchcraft. Although unnerved, they are determined to stay put in order to help Mia. Before long, Eric carelessly reads out some of the evil chants contained within the Book of the Dead, unleashing malevolent supernatural forces determined to possess everyone and turn them all into horrific zombie-ish demons intent on killing and mutilating.
In spite of the basic setting and a few set-pieces, Evil Dead is not a slavish remake of Raimi's film, as it plots its own course and does a few novel things, subverting expectations at every turn. The fact that Mia is a recovering drug addict makes for a nice new narrative angle, plus David is hesitant to believe in the demonic stuff as he just assumes that Mia has lost her mind. The climax is also inventive, contributing something fresh to the franchise mythology. With that said, though, the story does remain fairly standard-order, and it's hard to take these types of plots seriously after last year's The Cabin in the Woods. The biggest misstep of this new Evil Dead is retaining the rape of Mia by the forest - Raimi himself regrets using the tree rape in the original film, hence it's surprising that a similar scene exists here. It's a repellent and unnecessarily macabre moment, and while it does serve the purpose of showing how the demonic spirits get inside Mia, something more creative would've been appreciated. Also, it's a shame the film doesn't give us a better sense of who the characters are. The pre-carnage stuff is strong, but there isn't enough dimension to these people. Then again, this is a horror film we're dealing with, and we're paying for the bloody stuff.
Although the 1981 film rustles up huge laughs amid the gore and terror, apparently Raimi wasn't actually aiming for comedy-horror, eventually embracing the comedic possibilities of the franchise with Evil Dead 2. With the benefit of a better budget and improved technology, Alvarez goes for the type of extreme intensity Raimi was initially aiming for, and he hits the bullseye. Evil Dead is one intense exercise in terror, with its shrieking musical score, loud sound effects and punishing gore enough to send chills down the spines of even the most jaded horror buffs. Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues have a palpable understanding of the appeal of this franchise, orchestrating numerous set-pieces involving bodily dismemberment, in which any tools or objects in sight are used to make a big bloody mess.
Evil Dead is a supremely brutal picture, gleefully R-rated, and it's no surprise that the MPAA slapped it with an NC-17 at first. Skin burns under boiling water, blood is vomited up, people are set on fire, and limbs are torn off. The climax, meanwhile, literally paints the whole world red. It feels more gleeful and fun than "torture porn" films like Saw and Hostel, too, making it easier to digest. Best of all, Alvarez and his team were determined to use in-camera effects, with only minimal CGI being employed for minor touch-ups. It's an outstanding creative decision which will definitely be appreciated by those who detest CGI-laden horror pictures, and the technical achievements here are phenomenal. Apparently 70,000 gallons of fake blood was used during filming, which sounds like an accurate figure. Everything from the cinematography, the editing, and especially the sound design is top-notch here, making great use of the modest $17 million budget.
Instead of attempting the impossible task of re-casting Bruce Campbell's iconic Ash role, Alvarez simply created a whole new slate of characters for this version. And what's interesting about the movie is the way it toys with expectation, leaving us trying to figure out who exactly will emerge as the protagonist. The most notable performer here is Levy as Mia. She nails it, transforming from meek girl to sinister human doorway to Hell. Levy never hits a false note, and it's a bonus that she's likeable and beautiful. Fernandez lacks charisma as David, and is a bit bland on the whole, but he's serviceable. Fortunately, Pucci is better, full of zest and charm. And when the shit starts to hit the fan, Pucci sells the intensity extremely well. As the rest of the token females, meanwhile, Lucas and Blackmore are strong if unremarkable.
The best thing which can be said about this new Evil Dead is that it justifies its own existence without having to be either an empty fan-service tribute or a bland, gritty reboot. It's a solid movie on its own terms, and a welcome antidote to the lame, watered-down excuse for horror movies that we have endured for much too long. For the right audience - that is, the type with a strong stomach and who aren't easily scared - this is the purest horror entertainment in recent memory. Though even if you like this type of gory horror, it's best not to watch it on a full stomach.