With his micro-budgeted The Evil Dead, then-tenderfooted director Sam Raimi entered into a game of spry one-upmanship with American cinema’s certified masters of horror. Briefly legible on the cellar wall of the film’s dilapidated Tennessee cottage is a tattered poster for The Hills Have Eyes, at once a respectful nod toward Wes Craven’s strangers-in-a-strange-land spooker and bratty bit of cheekiness, saying, basically, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
There are no equivalent winks to modern horror cinema in Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead. To what would he humbly pay homage? Alexandre Aja’s lousy remake of The Hills Have Eyes? Hostel: Part II? Instead, the figurative poster on the wall is Raimi’s own The Evil Dead, which Alvarez reveres as much as he reworks, with gestures that scan as persuasively loyal, and insolent, as Raimi’s own inter-genre indexing. The setup (five friends locked away in a remote backwoods cabin) and geography (cabin, cellar, toolshed, impassable bridge) are consistent with the original, though the film never makes the mistake of trying to rebottle the lightning that electrified Raimi’s movie. Most notably, there’s no real analogue for Ash, Bruce Campbell’s dopey everyman who would emerge as The Evil Dead’s reluctant hero, unlocking its nascent franchise potential in the process; unlike other ’80s horror franchises, it was the charisma of the hero and not the supernatural villain that carried the original film from indie-horror success story to full-on commercial property. And instead of the lost-weekend framework (contra Whedon, kids don’t road-trip to creaky old isolated cabins quite like they used to), Alvarez sets his crew of good-looking archetypes escaping in the woods in order to monitor the detox of Mia (Jane Levy), a recovering junkie with a family history of mental illness.
Most importantly, this Evil Dead, while collapsing certain elements of the first two films in the same way that Evil Dead 2 summarily restaged the beats of the original in its prologue, never makes the mistake of remaking Raimi’s in light of its present-day standing within the broader cultural memory as an irreverent genre-bender. Instead, it resurrects the original as it was: an inventive horror picture defined as much by its rickety backwoods chamber drama as its paroxysms of hyper-sticky arterial spray. (These schizoid fluctuations in tone were configured along more lighthearted, and perhaps memorable, axes in the friskily slapstick Evil Dead 2.) Alvarez understands Raimi’s The Evil Dead chiefly as a horror movie, and an exceptionally gory one, deferring any sadistic humor to his own explosions of blood, piss, vomit, and other spewed demonic goops, while never playing his excessive bloodletting explicitly for laughs.
There are requisite nods to the original film(s), of course: a gifted necklace, a character idly flipping through a deck of cards, a conspicuously placed chainsaw. But Alvarez pulls a pretty swift bait and switch in his deployment of all these wink-nudge markers, satisfying super-fan (or even casual-fan) expectations only to subvert them—and even then only to later gratify them more fulsomely. It’s a neat narrative sleight of hand that makes the film’s ultimate arrival at overtures to the original feel justly earned, as opposed to just pandering and in-jokey—save for a regrettable Easter egg tacked on post-credits, which hovers outside the text proper like a high-five hanging in the face of the hardened Deadites in the audience.
As fine a job as Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues did (re)writing The Evil Dead, the film’s more gaping problems emerge in some of their intercessions. Where Raimi used the flesh-bound Book of the Dead as a grim McGuffin, Alvarez outfits it with a more organized set of rules that never seem internally consistent. Furthermore, as a first-timer, Alvarez finds himself in the unenviable position of having to scrawl his own signature across someone else’s calling card. There are a few memorable touches (such as a lumbering, possessed body reflected in the concave screen of an old cathode ray TV, evoking the status of The Evil Dead, and films like it, as inextricable from the experience of home-video viewing), but by-and-large Alvarez’s style feels like a put-on, with gliding pans and lavish heli-cam establishing shots never feeling half as a effective as Raimi’s own hectic camerawork. It’s perhaps fitting that Evil Dead only really feels compelling when at its most Raimiesque, as when Alvarez speedily cuts through his own toolshed armament montage.
Perhaps the most compelling intervention is Alvarez’s decision to restage the original Evil Dead as a rape-revenge picture, effectively disrupting the goofball machismo that has sustained the Evil Dead/Army of Darkness legacy for 30-plus years, attributable largely to Campbell’s smart-alecky mugging. Where Raimi played one of his more notable set pieces, a grisly “tree rape” that sees Ellen Sandweiss penetrated by a creeping vine, for a kind of confused titillation calculated to excite the jumbled proto-sexuality of its presumed adolescent male viewer, Alvarez stages the same scene as an act of insemination, impregnating Levy with the demon seed she goes on to discharge on her friends throughout the film.
It all comes together when Alvarez’s film arrives at its grandest, most cathartic, fan-service gesture. Following Chekhov’s edict regarding guns on walls, the glimpsed chainsaw realizes its innate potential, becoming fully actualized in all its Evil Dead-ness, with the film’s final baddie cleaved into a palpably vaginal pool of viscera, eviscerated in an act of gnarly phallic invasion that reconfigures the Evil Dead’s unlikely hero mythos across gender lines. Because while it may not have wanted for it, if there’s one thing Raimi’s The Evil Dead lacked, it was its own final girl.