a.k.a. Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn
****/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras A+
starring Bruce Campbell, Sarah Berry, Dan Hicks, Kassie Wesley
screenplay by Sam Raimi & Scott Spiegel
directed by Sam Raimi
by Walter Chaw More a remake with yuks than a sequel, Sam Raimi's astonishing Evil Dead II is a kitchen-sink splatter flick inspired by the drive-in spam-in-a-cabin tradition and leavened by an unhealthy fascination with The Three Stooges. Leading man and crash-test dummy Bruce Campbell (Bill Chambers referred to him once as "brick-jawed," and I can't improve on that, literally or figuratively) turns in a legend-making, career-defining performance, re-imagining his shemp Ash as a man of stage-melodrama, white-hat resolve who comes of age upon discovering his knack for slaying the undead. The great unspoken peculiarity of siege classics like George Romero's Night of the Living Dead is that there is somehow always discovered a hero who's biologically hardwired for the task of staying alive in the face of great demonic hordes. The crux is that it's unspoken no longer in Raimi's "Dead" trilogy (the third instalment the out-and-out comedy Army of Darkness), which, by the end, becomes a rags-to-rags fable about a retail clerk repelling an army of Harryhausen skeletons laying siege to a medieval castle. In its way, this is as canny a satire of the consumer/clerk relationship as anything in Dawn of the Dead.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Evil Dead II returns Ash and his girlfriend Linda (Denise Bixler--Betsy Baker in the first film, Bridget Fonda for two seconds in the next) to that cabin in the woods where a tape is played, the Book of the Dead is opened, and a portal to Hell is nudged ajar. Horror-film conventions are played with: the car that won't start (but does); the floating P.O.V. of the invisible watcher in the woods; the dead granny in the basement; and the backwoods hicks poised to ruin the whole thing. A severed hand, possessed by spirits living in an enchanted mirror, is trapped beneath a bucket and a pile of books--atop which is A Farewell to Arms, of course. And so defines the goofy humour of the piece, the kind that finds Ash breaking dishes over his own head before strapping a chainsaw to his freshly amputated stump and rigging a contraption that stands as the most twisted homage to Taxi Driver in history. The moment the film unfolded for me, though, is the moment where Ash, waking from an evening possessed (his flight through the treetops still a marvel for its invention and fury), surveys his surroundings in one, long, uninterrupted subjective shot that turns out--hilariously--not to be from Ash's point-of-view. Evil Dead II is a film about filmmaking on the one level, and proof of the things that people with genuine inspiration can wreak without the technology that budget can buy on another.
It's even possible to read it as a critique of the Reagan administration along the lines of Dan O'Bannon's less-successful The Return of the Living Dead from two years earlier--locating as it does a pair of sweater-and-ascot yuppies (Sarah Berry and Richard Domeier) to play against the aforementioned hicks (Dan Hicks and Kassie Wesley), with blue-collar folk represented by our Ash and Linda. When the lower classes eat a flying eyeball, it's something like a horror-flick literalization of Marie Antoinette's suggestion of how to appease the masses mixed mysteriously with the great Illuminati eye. Perhaps it's a stretch to bring sociology into it, but at the least Evil Dead II inspires dissection--by the theorist, by the stylist, by the fan of The Stooges and the Marx Brothers (who, with their appearance in Rob Zombie's films, seem to have inspired a lot of discomfort in their barely-contained anarchic explosions), and by the legion of fanatics who treat public screenings with the enthusiasm reserved for The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Big Lebowski. More than just a splatter film (though as a splatter film, it's one of the best), Evil Dead II is joy and aptitude coming together in a wondrous alchemy to produce a classic, nigh-unclassifiable slapstick/gorefest.
Anchor Bay presents a sequel of sorts to its own Book of the Dead Limited Edition release of The Evil Dead by reissuing Evil Dead II--which nevertheless sports a fresh, Raimi-approved (though no longer THX-certified) HD video transfer--in another Tom Sullivan-sculpted "Necronomicon Ex Mortis": a rubber replica of the book used in the picture. It smells exactly as I imagine Gomer Pyle's overalls smelling (opening the envelope successfully melted my eyebrows), but my life wouldn't be complete without it just the same. The thought occurs that since this thing is obviously made of gasoline, besides its innate collectibility amongst dorks of a certain nature, the price of fuel being what it is today, it's probably worth a fortune. The mock-up contains fifteen heavy-parchment pages of art from the book (a few of which made it into the movie's prologue), while Sullivan, an animator on the film, contributes the only bonus feature new to this presentation, a seventeen-minute "Evil Dead II: Behind-the-Screams" slideshow in which he narrates a series of photos he and others took on the set. It's not that informative, yet it's not completely without merit, either, reaching its highlights in Sullivan's recounting of some of the mechanics of the stop-motion armatures and makeup effects.
The vaunted HD-sourced, 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is, indeed, pun intended, eye-popping. It reduces the minimal flaws--slight motion-blurring, occasionally splotchy shadow detail, and unobtrusive edge-enhancement--of Anchor Bay's previous transfer while simultaneously pumping up the film's mid-Eighties palette to a pleasing level of saturation. Look at the green glass of the lamp lighting the reel-to-reel recorder in the film's opening minutes--and fall to pieces. DD 2.0 audio is provided along with a DD 5.1 remix, the latter the preferred option as an astonishing degree of care was obviously expended to fill the discrete channels with all manner of obscenity. God bless America. Meanwhile, the classic commentary track featuring Campbell, Raimi, co-writer Scott Spiegel, and makeup artist Greg Nicotero--the only real major roommate on this dual-layered disc now that the full-frame version of the flick's been jettisoned--resurfaces; if you're unfamiliar with this track, it's one of the few must-listens of the yakker era--not for its information (which is pretty good, actually), but for the camaraderie and off-the-cuff wit of those involved. They're as agile as the film would imply.
Also making a comeback is an Anchor Bay-produced featurette, "The Gore The Merrier" (32 mins.), that's good enough to not require any updating. Through "new" interviews with the F/X team behind Evil Dead II (essentially the heart of KNB studios), we're walked through the genesis of the film from the perspective of its often-brilliant special effects work. A beautifully-buffed trailer, extensive poster and still galleries, and Anchor Bay's trademark bios for Raimi and Campbell round out the documentary supplements. Trailers for The Evil Dead, Man with the Screaming Brain, Dead & Breakfast, and the new video game Evil Dead: Regeneration play upon insertion of the disc and are accessible through the "extras" menu. Note that pressing on the left "eye" of the packaging produces a bloodcurdling scream. Originally published: September 20, 2005.