DVD - Image A Sound A+ Extras A+
4K UHD - Image A Sound A- Commentary A-
starring Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Richard DeManincor, Betsy Baker
written and directed by Sam Raimi
by Walter Chaw The Evil Dead defies wisdom: It's an ultraviolent horror film made on a nothing budget (rumoured to have been in the neighbourhood of three-thousand dollars) that still manages to produce an enduring and brilliant performance and demonstrate (like a Dario Argento shocker) that gore, if it's perverse enough, can be the beginning and the end of horror. The product of Bruce Campbell's hilariously physical turn, of Sam Raimi's genius in fashioning dazzling camera moves, and of an uncredited Joel Coen's flair at the editing table, The Evil Dead bristles with life and joy. It is a testament to how bliss and the spark of inspiration can elevate a film of any budget in any genre from routine to sublime.
Ash (Bruce Campbell) is a schmuck whose only talent appears to be killing zombies, thus making The Evil Dead a coming-of-age film in an odd sort of way. He takes his girl Shelly (Sarah York) and three of their pals into the woods for a romantic weekend. Before long, artist Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) channels a mysterious force that compels her to sketch a book with a face on the cover, a "Book of the Dead" (the original title of the film) bound in flesh and residing in the cabin's cellar with a reel-to-reel recording of an archaeologist translating the text therein. The idiots of course play the recording, summoning the titular dead to possess each of them in turn.
Using mostly ambient noise, The Evil Dead opens with a riotous near-accident that sets nerves on edge before segueing into a long tracking shot of a car driving towards an ominous structure. Comparisons to Kubrick's The Shining are extremely interesting, particularly in the usage of sound in the banging of a porch against The Evil Dead's cabin as set against the rumble of Danny's Big Wheel in The Shining. As jock archetype Scotty (Hal Delrich) first examines the interiors of the dusty cabin where the film will find its setting, Raimi makes the interesting choice to allow his silent reactions to the Texas Chain Saw Massacre-esque interior to carry the establishment of dread. The reserve of the first act of The Evil Dead is a marvellous counterpoint to the unfettered bombast of its final hour and speaks to the first-time director's cinematic competence.
As the supernatural events escalate after a relatively sedate half-hour (including a simply fantastic sequence involving playing cards), The Evil Dead finds a hyperkinetic rhythm that continues through to the last shot. Although mainly remembered for its gore, The Evil Dead spends fully half its running time in presenting the isolation of the cabin while inexplicable point-of-view shots announce the presence of an invisible voyeur. When the bloodletting commences (and it does commence in earnest), The Evil Dead has already demonstrated that it's a far cannier suspense vehicle than appearances would first suggest.
Throughout this blood-dimmed haze, there remains a spark of wit, a dry sense of humour that revolves around Ash's tendency to get pinned beneath bookshelves as the ghoul slouches towards him. (In one inspired scene, Cheryl says, "I know the car won't start! It won't let us get away!" just prior to the car roaring to life.) The Evil Dead is not so much indulging in its charnel as commenting upon it. More than a decade before Kevin Williamson's Scream made that kind of reflexivity passé in regards to the slasher picture, The Evil Dead provided that which remains the definitive auto-analysis of the splatter picture.
The image that stays with me from The Evil Dead is of a movie projector flipping on to the accompaniment of a ragtime ditty blaring from a phonograph, a grue-smeared Ash framed in its blank glare as blood drips over the lens. Here The Evil Dead encapsulates its visceral horror, its sense of absurdity, and its visual genius. The film is intelligent, scary, and funny, never underestimating or belittling its audience and providing what is possibly the most influential American independent since George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Decidedly not for every taste, The Evil Dead is one of the smartest and best movies of the Eighties.
After Elite's The Evil Dead: Special Edition DVD of a couple of years ago, it seemed as if the door had finally closed on Sam Raimi's opus for the format. When Anchor Bay announced that it had licensed the title and was preparing its own limited collector's edition, however, I met the news with a great deal of excitement: Anchor Bay is the horror cultist's best friend, a company that treats euro-horror and low-budget splatter classics to first-rate AV transfers, an astonishing depth of special features (not the least of which spectacular filmographies), and a laudable dedication to completing libraries of obscure, sometimes impossible-to-find titles. Anchor Bay's The Evil Dead: Book of the Dead Limited Edition is destined to be the most sought-after DVD incarnation of the film.
The packaging is a 6"x 8" rubber and latex-paint number created by Tom Sullivan (the designer of the books used in the film trilogy) that simulates the "flesh-bound" hell tome with a gaping face on the front and a disembodied ear on the back. The interior features ten heavy-bound pages that beautifully reproduce the blood-inscribed drawings and Sumerian text glimpsed briefly in this film (and at the beginning of Evil Dead II), as well as a twenty-page inset booklet written by Michael Felsher detailing the many home video releases of the film. It smells like a gas station, but it looks amazingly nifty and has a place of high geek honour on my bookshelf.
This disc's 1.78:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer is wonderfully bright and well-contrasted, remastered from the original 16mm negatives. The film looks as good as modern technology will allow without actually corrupting the nature of the source elements and, given their decidedly low-fi origins, the quality of the picture is astounding and free of digital artifacting. Crucially, black and shadow levels allow for a clear platform for all of the nocturnal shenanigans. The THX-certified surround remix, in 5.1 Dolby Digital EX and 6.1 DTS-ES options, is the real star of the show, expanding the audio domain of the presentation into an immersive and startling environment. The LFE channel gets a rumbling workout and the rear speakers chime in with rustling leaves and other ambient effects.
The Book of the Dead LE provides jovial and entertaining full-length commentary tracks from Raimi and producer Robert Tapert, and then Campbell in a separately recorded track (which is disappointing because Raimi and Campbell's co-yak tracks for Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness are classics). The commentaries are transplanted from Elite's special edition DVD--worth the revisiting, but collectors take note. In addition to an 18-minute outtake reel (misleadingly named as it's more composed of B-reel footage than gaffes), also transplanted from that same version, Anchor Bay offers two new documentaries: Bruce Campbell's 26-minute "Fanalysis" and the fascinating 13-minute "Discovering The Evil Dead". Campbell's documentary follows the actor as he muses on the nature of fandom during his recent book tour. Its funny, if nothing we haven't seen in stuff like Trekkies. "Discovering The Evil Dead" traces the early days of the film as it was shepherded by Palace Entertainment (Nik Powell and Stephen Woolley). Public outcry, brief "video nasty" status, and a sterling Stephen King endorsement are also covered.
The handsome and superlative package is rounded out by a nice new trailer, four vintage (meaning "grainy") thirty-second television spots, an extended stills gallery, the THX Optimode test, and then there are those edifying Anchor Bay filmographies provided by Jay Marks and Mark Wickum that go far above and beyond the call of duty. Must reads, all, they go into such stunning depth (complete with pithy quotes and hilarious anecdotes) that they are themselves indispensable to the DVD. Originally published: February 21, 2002.
THE 4K UHD DISC
by Bill Chambers The Evil Dead had a moldy appearance on VHS and some prefer to remember it that way, as if grindhouse schlock should be held to an inverse standard because of how formative those early sub-par dubs were for legions of fans. It's usually not a sign of artistic integrity for a film to seem dispassionately neglected, no matter the budget, and there's no reason The Evil Dead shouldn't receive the Cadillac treatment it finally has in 4K UHD. Actually, it received the Cadillac treatment when it made its revelatory Blu-ray debut on the Anchor Bay label in 2010; the 4K platter, from Lionsgate, is a step beyond. It does do something controversial in presenting the movie at 1.37:1, the full-gate aspect ratio of the 16mm negative, with no 1.85:1 alternative like the Blu-ray. Although the latter, as I understand it, is director Sam Raimi's preference, or at least was circa 2000, it's likely that Lionsgate, not wanting to spend the money on a new scan, decided to recycle the preexisting 4K scan of the 16mm elements carried out by the wizards at Sony in 2009, the cropping of which would've sacrificed valuable pixels. (This wouldn't have had any impact on the Blu-ray because the number of vertical pixels would still be over 1080.) The Sony master also incorporated CG fixes that would've been prohibitively expensive for Lionsgate to recreate, though they or someone has sprung for a new HDR pass (or "trim" in industry-speak). My thanks to our own Bryant Frazer--who in his day job writes for STUDIO DAILY--for attempting to set me straight on the terminology and other matters.
It's generally considered overkill to scan 16mm at anything higher than 2K, but scanning 16mm at 4K can yield more precise detail, partly by better resolving film grain, and of course a 2K scan uprezzed or upscaled won't stand up to scrutiny the way a native 4K image will. The Evil Dead's 2160p transfer tightens up the grain structure considerably, so that you can see it's contributing picture detail rather than obscuring it. More often than not, I was reminded of how good 16mm can look before the grain-amplifying steps necessary to get a movie into theatres, and while I suspect that Raimi and co. may have counted on a touch more obfuscation to hide the crudity of their effects, the truth is I was only more impressed by the filmmakers' ingenuity in this slightly unforgiving light, which also, for what it's worth, throws focusing inconsistencies into starker relief. Speaking of "light," the presentation includes both HDR10, to which this review refers, and Dolby Vision, and the highlights add a lot of dynamism to the image. Sometimes they can be piercingly bright (as is the case when Ash turns on the high beams at night), and they can overemphasize the harsh lighting inside the cabin as well. Like a lot of student-level filmmakers, Raimi wasn't much for diffusion. But when Ash is caught in the glare of a bleeding projector, the light from the bulb is so uncanny in evoking heat while simultaneously betraying no warmth, colour temperature-wise, that it sincerely took my breath away. (It's a particularly good advertisement for HDR, because one almost never notices the quality of the light in SDR.) The overall palette is in fact cooler and more naturalistic compared to the 2010 HD transfer, which now looks garishly oversaturated to me, with everybody suffering from clownish red lips. Black level hasn't changed much and remains well-managed, although the depths sink a little deeper.
Aside from the lack of a 1.85:1 viewing mode (except on the attendant 2010 BD), a couple of things threaten to knock this edition off its pedestal. First, the original mono soundmix remains absent in next-gen. Second, this is, as I mentioned above, a digitally-corrected version that removes visible C-stands, hairs in the gate, and rogue crew members from certain shots, stabilizes the mattes, and cleans up the climactic stop-motion animation. It's not offensive revisionism since it's not altering aesthetics, yet the purist in me wishes there were an option to watch it without these changes; for many, these shortcomings have become part of the text--canon. That being said, the 5.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtrack is a lossless rendition of a years-old but still effective and even expressionistic remix. The demonic shrieks are bloodcurdling and basically every diegetic sound is disturbingly loud. Some of the unsweetened effects sound a bit thin but voices don't and neither does the music. While I'm sure the lack of Atmos will bum out the Dolby faithful, the audio is gratifyingly immersive.
There's only one extra in this package, but it's a good one: a feature-length commentary recorded on the Sony lot in 2009 reuniting Raimi with actor Bruce Campbell and producer Robert Tapert, the three of whom completely ignore the film on screen in favour of recounting the production from genesis to release--not necessarily in that order. In exhausting detail, they reflect on lessons they learned at the start of their intertwined careers. (For a long time, we discover, they stubbornly intended to shoot the picture in super8!) Somewhat surprisingly, the joking is kept to a minimum, but the stories amuse, such as the one about the woman who, without any kind of authorization, tried changing the title to House of the Dead--from what was then Book of the Dead--because she had data showing that movies with "house" or "dead" in the title always make money and figured why not double their chances. As Raimi notes ruefully, someone did eventually capitalize on that tip. When the trio reminisces about seeking out advice from a variety of people as young men, it foreshadows a generosity of spirit that comes through in The Evil Dead and is integral to its charm. Detroit/Michigan natives might get even more out of this yakker from the litany of local names and places referenced. Rounding out the slim package is a voucher for a digital copy of the film.