Evil Dead, the reboot of Sam Raimi’s 1981 horror classic, isn’t the abomination you might have feared. It’s respectful and technically solid, and there are stretches where director Fede Alvarez shows he possesses some of the raw skills Raimi himself was putting to good use more than 30 years ago. But none of this makes Evil Dead a necessary remake either. It’s a cut above the shit Platinum Dunes churns out but not original enough to rise to the level of something like Zack Snyder’s 2004 version of Dawn of the Dead. That film was so good it managed to cut the invisible string that ties all remakes to their predecessor, allowing it to stand on its own as one of the better horror offerings of the last decade. While the new Evil Dead proves competent, it never evolves into anything more than an asterisk next to the original film.
The story largely sticks to the Evil Dead formula with a few twists thrown in. Five twenty-somethings arrive at a beat-up cabin deep in the woods so that one of them, Mia (Jane Levy), can detox from a serious drug addiction. She’s just started hitting the rough part of the process when the group discovers the cabin’s basement is filled with dead animals, dried blood and a creepy book that’s wrapped in plastic and bound in barbed wire — all left-overs from a pre-title sequence where we see what happened to the last girl who got a bit of Deadite lodged in her. While Mia’s friend Olivia (Jessica Lucas), her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) and his girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) all focus on the task at hand, the bookish fifth member their group, Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), becomes interested in what we all know to be the Necronomicon. So interested that, despite the warnings scribbled all over the the thing, he decides to read aloud the passages he finds hidden in its pages. Cue the tree rape, demonic possession, buckets of blood, disturbing self-mutilation, multiple dismemberments and all manner of horror-movie mayhem.
I appreciate that Alvarez and the original Evil Dead brain trust — Raimi, Bruce Campbell and Rob Tapert, who all serve as producers here — attempted to create a storyline that’s not just a carbon copy of what’s come before. They were wise to avoid casting another another square-jawed kid as Ash 2.0, instead turning Evil Dead 2013 into a kind of a guessing game over which member or members of the cast are going to be left standing at the end to vanquish evil. And the detox storyline works well, in so much that it sets up some basic character motivations and conflicts and gives a clean answer to why Mia’s friends might not immediately suspect supernatural foul play when she starts acting crazy. (One constant criticism I read in pre-release reviews was that the detox stuff is quickly dropped once the blood starts flying. Uh … yeah. Of course it does. I think I’d move onto more pressing matters too once my friends started cutting up their own faces. Honestly, the detox angle gets gets as much play in the movie as it realistically should.)
Some of the design work in the film strong too. I like the new look of the Necronomicon, with its scribbled images of horror echoing the film’s plot. And though the Deadite-possessed characters may seem a little more conventional than the fantastical creatures Raimi preferred, the gruesome makeup work combined with the twitchy way the new movie’s possessed souls move their heads and bodies make for effectively creepy ghouls. The girl who ends up with so many nails driven into her head that they take on the appearance of an iron crown could pass for a well-done Cenobite in a half-decent Hellraiser sequel.
Despite all this, by the end of the movie you realize Alvarez has no grand plan for attempting the top the original film. Lots of time is spent staging callbacks both large and small to the earlier movies. (Past dialogue is repeated or alluded to. The camera tearing through the woods returns. You get a series of quick, super-zooms when one of the characters is building a makeshift contraption.) But Alvarez doesn’t seem to be interested in trying to out-Raimi Raimi. And, really, if that’s not the ultimate goal here, then what’s the point?
Instead of allowing the narrative to go batshit insane at the end of Evil Dead, Alvarez disappointingly reins things in, choosing to focus on a single demonic entity that rises from the ground for the final battle. One can only dream of the insanity a young Raimi would have thrown on the screen with tens of millions of dollars to blow on the concept of a “final boss.” (Hell, I still like the giant rubber demon thing that busts through the door at the end of Evil Dead 2.) Alvarez though just gives us … uh … I guess a “zombie girl” would be the correct description. I’m honestly not sure if she’s supposed to be a dark reflection of Mia — perhaps some kind of metaphorical manifestation of her drug addiction — or just a generic queen of the dead-type demon. But whichever it is, she pretty much sucks as an ultimate Deadite. And when she fizzles, that’s when you finally feel the gaping Ash-sized hole in the film, as there’s no one with Bruce Campbell’s goofball charisma standing around to prop the movie up.
Oh, and speaking of Campbell, the stinger after the end credits is probably the lamest bit of useless fan service I’ve ever seen. It’s pure pandering to long-term Evil Dead fans without an ounce of creativity to back it up. Or to say it another way: Not so groovy at all.