Review of Evil Dead 2
by J. Beranelli
What do you get when you cross George Romero with The Three Stooges by way of the director of A Simple Plan and The Gift? Something offbeat, to be sure. Something grotesque, without a doubt. Something… groovy.
Long before Scream came along to simultaneously parody the horror genre while participating in it, there was Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy (the third entry into the series, Army of Darkness, was released in 1993). Equal parts suspense, camp, comedy, and over-the-top gore, the first two Evil Dead movies didn’t take long to attain the status of cult classics. Today, while relatively few mainstream movie viewers have heard of these movies (not to mention having seen them), they have garnered a small but loyal gathering of fans who can recite every one liner delivered by the ultra-cool hero, Ash.
To say that the Evil Dead movies are not for everyone is an understatement. A strong stomach is required. If you can’t take copious amounts of blood and gore, this is not your movie. Both The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II have enough vile colored liquids to fill a small swimming pool. Plus, there are assorted body parts (decapitated heads, bodiless hands, etc.). Of course, the extreme nature of the gore isn’t beside the point – it is the point. Raimi goes so far over the top in presenting these displays that they take on a campy, almost humorous appearance. It’s impossible to take all this blood seriously. So, instead of being sickened, we’re strangely amused – and this is all intentional. (In general in horror films, it’s the little displays of blood – like a fingernail being pulled off – that cause the most discomfort. The more outrageous a display, the less likely it is to be taken seriously.)
Evil Dead II can be seen as a sequel to Evil Dead, a remake, or a little of both. The first movie follows the ill-fated expedition of five twentysomethings who decide to spend a weekend at an isolated cabin in the middle of the woods. They are Ash (Bruce Campbell); his girlfriend, Linda (Betsy Baker); his sister, Shelly (Sarah York); and his friends, Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) and Scotty (Hal Delrich). At the cabin, the five discover a strange book whose pages are made out of human skin and whose writing is done in human blood. This is the Necronomicon, or the “Book of the Dead”, which “speaks of a spiritual presence – a thing of evil – that roams the forests and dark bowers of man’s domain.” It also includes incantations to raise demons – spells that are invoked when a tape recording of a man reading them is played. Soon, Ash and his compatriots are the unfortunate targets of an implacable force that lurks in and around their little cottage and, one-by-one, they are possessed or killed.
Rather than starting off where its predecessor finished, Evil Dead II goes back to the beginning – sort of. The first ten minutes of the second film essentially recap what occurred in The Evil Dead. Ash heads up to the cabin, although, in this movie, his only companion is Linda (played here by Denise Bixler). The two discover the Necronomicon, and, in no time, Linda is a zombie and Ash is forced to chop her up to save himself. Before long, Ash is possessed, but he manages to fight off the demonic influence. He is joined by a group of four additional characters: Annie Knowby (Sarah Berry), whose father owns the cabin; her boyfriend, Ed (Richard Domeier); a redneck named Jake (Dan Hicks); and his girlfriend, Bobbie Joe (Kassie Wesley). Predictably, these characters are dispatched one-by-one, leaving Ash as the last one standing. The ending of Evil Dead II leads directly into Army of Darkness, although numerous details were changed when the third film was released.
Although The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II share numerous plot similarities, the tones of the features are significantly different. While both movies contain elements of satire, the first is much more of a straightforward horror endeavor than its sequel. The Evil Dead contains little in the way of overt comedy – its humor comes through accentuating traditional elements of the thriller/horror genre, including drenching the screen in copious amounts of fake blood, allowing the actors to give over-the-top performances, and intentionally placing characters in positions where they do stupid things. Evil Dead II, on the other hand, raises the stakes by introducing outright slapstick and one-liners into the mix. Consequently, the “scare level” of the movie drops a notch. It is still possible to be unsettled by Evil Dead II, but far less likely than by its predecessor.
One of the most remarkable things about The Evil Dead is how much it was able to accomplish on such a small budget (reportedly around $50K). Of course, it could be argued that many of the best horror films, including Halloween and The Blair Witch Project, have come cheaply, with the lack of funding forcing the filmmakers to rely more on innovation than special effects. The Evil Dead is at times genuinely creepy, due in no small part to the imaginative camerawork devised by Raimi and cinematographer Tim Philo. The so-called “shaky cam” (in which the camera gave us the point-of-view of the demon rushing through the woods) became a staple of the Evil Dead series, and was “borrowed” by the Coen brothers for Blood Simple. (The Coens and Raimi have been long-time friends and collaborators. Joel Coen is credited as the “assistant film editor” for The Evil Dead.) Also, the evil force inhabiting the forest is never shown in The Evil Dead, leaving all the details to our imagination. In Evil Dead II, when it finally makes its appearance near the end, the result is inevitably disappointing.
Gore provides a key component to both films. Raimi uses it in such copious quantities that the sheer volume of fake blood often becomes humorous (especially in Evil Dead II, where red is not always the color of choice – there’s black blood, green blood, and yellow blood). Heads and arms are frequently severed, but it’s all done in such a good-natured and over-the-top manner that it’s difficult imagining any horror aficionado being remotely distressed by the amount of gore. (It is equally difficult imagining anyone who doesn’t like horror films coming within viewing distance of any Evil Dead movie – the pictures are intended for those who appreciate the genre.) In The Evil Dead, we get to see a partially dismembered body quivering around on the ground. In Evil Dead II, a bodiless head tries to chew on Ash’s hand; later, he is attacked by the headless body. And, in what is unquestionably the most amusing moment in either film, an eye pops out of its socket and flies through the air to a waiting receptacle. With the Evil Dead movies, Raimi successfully illustrates that gore can be used for purposes other than grossing out an audience.
The makeup in The Evil Dead is rather crude – just globs of goo slathered on the faces of the actors playing “Dead-ites” to make them look like revived denizens of the crypt. With the higher-budgeted Evil Dead II, Raimi had more money to play with. Consequently, he was able to use latex applications, specially designed suits, and even some stop-motion animation in his quest to make the appearance of the “Dead-ites” more outlandish. Indeed, they are more convincing in Evil Dead II, but they never lose the cartoonish appearance that is in keeping with the overall tone of the film. Raimi’s goal is to frighten us a little, not to scare us out of our wits.
And that brings us to the Three Stooges. Raimi is on record as being an avid Three Stooges fan, and his appreciation of the old-time comics shows clearly in a variety of slapstick homages that appear throughout both Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness. While the Stooges’ routines might not seem to be ripe for incorporation in a horror movie, Raimi’s use of this material works, primarily because the tapestry into which it is woven already has a highly satirical/comedic aspect. It’s also interesting to note that, while the role of one of the Stooges is occasionally played by the human Ash, there are occasions when a zombie takes on the part of Larry, Curly, or Moe. (There are no obvious Three Stooges tributes in the more straightforward The Evil Dead.)
Neither The Evil Dead nor Evil Dead II will win any acting awards. Aside from Bruce Campbell, who has forged a nice career in offbeat productions, the films are populated by a cast of unknowns, many of whom list their respective Evil Dead movie as the only acting job on their resumes. It’s understandable why – the performances are uniformly bad, being either wooden and stilted or over-the-top. My assumption, based on the evidence at hand, is that this is intentional – another way for Raimi to raise the level of parody a notch. Good acting would not have served the material well, since it would have diluted the comedy quotient and made the campy elements seem cheap and cheesy.
It’s interesting to note the way Ash changes between The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II. In the former, he’s a geeky guy who ends up being a reluctant hero of sorts. In the sequel, he’s a none-too-bright macho dude who’s out to get the “Dead-ites”. By the end of Evil Dead II, he has an impressive arsenal of weapons, including a sawed-off shotgun and a chainsaw (which has replaced the hand he hacks off partway through the movie). Campbell’s performance shifts to match the needs of the script. In the first film, he could almost be described as low-key. In the second, he’s all swagger, spitting out one-liners and taking on the forces of darkness.
In the years following the release of the Evil Dead trilogy, Sam Raimi’s career has taken off. His work on films like A Simple Plan and For Love of the Game have earned him the opportunity to helm a major Hollywood superhero movie (Spiderman). But, for die-hard fans, the Evil Dead films will be Rami’s legacy. They will remember him as the maverick director who pioneered the comedy/horror road a decade before Wes Craven popularized it with Scream. For those with a taste for outrageousness and an appetite for horror, there’s no jucier meal than the Evil Dead movies.