The “Evil Dead” franchise is a mess in terms of its timeline and continuity. So, it’s truly wild that, amidst all the corporate nonsense regarding rights and whatnot, we’ve got five feature films on our hands that are truly awesome. At the time of writing this article, I’ve already watched “Evil Dead Rise” three times in three days and will watch it a hundred more times if it’s feasible. Naturally, there’s a recency bias, and the urge to state that, yes, the latest one is the best one out of the lot. Maybe it is. But we can’t say for sure unless we do a little rundown of the first three films done by Sam Raimi and the 2013 follow-up to the maestro’s work by Fede Álvarez. I won’t be getting into the TV series because I never got around to it, and since I think “Evil Dead” should always be a theatrical outing. With that out of the way, let’s start shooting some Deadites.
Major Spoilers Ahead
The first movie in the franchise was “The Evil Dead,” which followed such a simple premise that it became instantly iconic. Five students went on vacation to an isolated cabin in the woods. Out of them, Cheryl got possessed first and foreshadowed the emergence of the Book of the Dead/Necronomicon Ex-Mortis/Naturom Demonto. Then Ash and Scott found the book itself, along with a voice recording of archaeologist Raymond Knowby’s attempt to interpret it. Since they didn’t heed any of the warnings, they summoned an evil that promised to consume them all by dawn. Despite their best efforts to keep this entity at bay, four of them fell prey to this ancient evil’s tricks. Although it seemed like Ash had made it out alive, the ending of the film insinuated that even he became possessed. “The Evil Dead” had a distinct sense of humor because of the mean-spirited way in which Raimi treated his characters. He ensured that it was apparent that this entity didn’t have any sense of morality. Nothing was off the table for it, and it could go to any extent to lure humans into its version of Hell.
Apart from the incredibly physically demanding performances of the cast, the movie’s highlights were its use of practical effects and visual effects. Yes, they can seem a little crude by today’s standards. But that crudeness lent a sense of authenticity to it that’s missing from CGI-heavy movies to this day. In addition to that, Tim Philo’s cinematography and Edna Ruth Paul’s editing birthed a whole new style of visual storytelling that went on to inspire generations of filmmakers. As mentioned before, due to some copyright issues, Raimi was unable to make a direct sequel to “The Evil Dead.” That’s why “Evil Dead II” (or “Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn”) ended up being a partial reboot as well as a sequel. Because in its extended opening, the film showed that Ash visited the cabin with his girlfriend, not with his three friends and sister. He played the recording of passages from the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, and Linda got possessed. So, Ash had to kill her and bury her. Like the ending of the first film, Ash did get possessed as well. But the Kandarian demon’s hold over him dissipated when the Sun rose.
While trying to escape the woods, Ash was attacked by the spirit, and his hand was bitten by Linda’s severed head. As per the rules of the franchise, if a Deadite bites someone, attacks someone, or transfers their bodily fluids onto someone, they’ll turn into a Deadite too. Therefore, Ash chopped off his own hand with a chainsaw. While all this was going on, Knowby’s daughter, Annie, and two other individuals reached the cabin, thereby giving more souls for the demon (or spirit) to feast upon. They managed to figure out that they had to manifest the entity in its physical form and then banish it into a black hole. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, Ash got sucked into the portal and was transported all the way back to the Middle Ages.
“Evil Dead 2” deviated from the tone of the first film by a huge margin as it exchanged the relatively darker tone for full-blown camp. But since Raimi and his team didn’t skimp out on the megaliters of blood, puke, and gore, nothing about it felt off. The ease of getting in line with this shift in style was also made possible by Bruce Campbell’s insane level of commitment to portraying Ash’s descent into total insanity. Until the rest of the characters arrived at the cabin, it was a one-man show, and the physical comedy that he displayed could rival that of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. By the end of the film, you definitely felt the exhaustion of the ordeal, only to find out that fate had more in store for Ash Williams.
You can say that, for a movie that kept its supernatural shenanigans to just possessions, showing a massive demon made of wood that’s so massive that it can’t fit its head through a regular door in the sequel is taking things too far. However, that thing looks so impressive that you can’t help but applaud the craft on display. Also, Raimi trademarked a bunch of things with this film, e.g., the gearing montage, the chainsaw and shotgun combo, and phrases like “groovy,” “I’ll swallow your soul,” and “dead by dawn.”
The third film was “Army of Darkness.” Well, the title reveal made it look like the movie’s name was “Bruce Campbell vs. the Army of Darkness.” But do you know what the actual name of the movie was going to be? “Medieval Dead.” You know, because it was set in the Middle Ages, and it made the “eval” in “Medieval” sound like “evil.” Always remember what the suits took from us. Anyway, “Army of Darkness” was a direct continuation of “Evil Dead 2,” and the plot centered around Ash’s efforts to get back to his timeline. He had to retrieve the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis while uttering the phrase “Klaatu barada nikto” to avoid raising the dead. Due to his ordeal with the evil spirit, where he ended up birthing his evil twin, he probably forgot about the spell and just picked up the Book of the Dead. This led to the rise of the titular undead army, which was being helmed by Evil Ash, and they marched towards Lord Arthur’s castle to get the Necronomicon and Princess Sheila.
Evil Ash succeeded in getting Sheila, but Ash prevented him from getting his hands on the Necronomicon. In addition to that, with the help of Arthur and his army, Ash succeeded in defeating the army, killing Evil Ash, and returning Sheila to her human form, thereby fulfilling the prophecy from the second film. Even though he returned to his own timeline, he didn’t say the spell correctly, thereby unleashing the curse of the Deadites on the humans again. “Army of Darkness” further strayed away from the tone of the original while increasing the scale and scope of the film. Apart from a massive fountain of blood right in the beginning, Raimi kept the gore and killings a little comical in nature. Bruce Campbell even went on to say that the film was so light on the senses that you could get a 9-year-old to watch it and not worry about them suffering from nightmares. I think that Bruce is partially true because, even while watching it as an adult, I found the sight of Evil Ash quite frightening. But, yes, it was funnier than the previous two, with the comedy being a great balance between slapstick and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it jokes. The action was off the charts and felt truly epic due to Joseph LoDuca’s score. The practical and visual effects (largely relying on stop-motion animation) went toe-to-toe with all the adventure epics that were released at the time; on top of all that, Campbell delivered yet another memorable performance and set the template for all the Star Lords and Tony Starks that you kids see nowadays.
Due to the box-office failure of “Army of Darkness,” the franchise went on hiatus for over two decades, and then the 1981 film came back in the form of the reimagined “Evil Dead.” The story stuck closely to that of the original, but there were some key changes to give the film a sense of emotional weight. The names of the characters were changed. So Ash became David, Scott became Eric, Cheryl became Mia, Linda became Natalie, and Shelly became Olivia. In the original, the cabin that the group went to was on rent, and it was the place where an archaeologist had died trying to contain the evil that he had unleashed from the Book of the Dead. In the reimagined version, the cabin was used for ritualistic practices, and a Deadite was burned to death in its basement. The group went there for Mia’s detox session, thereby making her possession and the fight to prevent her from succumbing to the evil spirit of drug addiction. Álvarez and co-writer Sayagues also streamlined the rules of the Naturom Demonto by showing all the things the book needed to unleash an abomination on the world of humans. Unlike the first film, where Ash was the “final boy,” and his sister died, this film’s survivor was Mia, while the final soul that the evil entity killed was that of her brother.
Given that this was my introduction to the “Evil Dead” franchise, it still holds a special place in my heart. And after I went back and watched the originals, I realized how heartless “Evil Dead” was towards its characters, and that too in an extremely relentless fashion. The movie hit the ground running, did some 27 minutes worth of setup, and then just took off, ending with that epic blood rain. The amazing performances from the cast also increased the anxiety I felt while watching because it all seemed so real. What also made it seem so real was the fantastic blend of visual effects and practical effects for all the ruthless kills. I mean, it gave me a lifelong fear of syringes, box cutters, and nail guns. However, I was kind of surprised to learn later on that people didn’t like it and that the reimagining wasn’t as funny as the originals. I, on the other hand, laughed while watching David resort to duct tape for every injury or hearing Deadite Mia talk about performing fellatio on David. But, yes, I can understand if people were too disturbed by the Deadites’ manipulative tactics and the gore. I am a fan of all that; hence, I loved it.
“Evil Dead” was a success, and that was why the franchise ventured into a TV show and quite a few video games before returning to the big screen with “Evil Dead Rise.” The Lee Cronin film isn’t a remake or anything else, but it does follow the concept of the first two films and “Evil Dead” by confining its central characters to a single location. While those films prevented their characters from leaving the woods with a flood, Cronin does the same with an earthquake that renders the elevator useless and crashes the stairs connecting to the floors below. What about the emergency stairs? They’ve got to access it through an apartment whose door has been bolted shut. I don’t know about anybody else, but I love how simply Cronin boxes Ellie, Danny, Bridget, Kassie, and Beth into that crammed and soon-to-be-demolished building. Talking about the characters, this one has the most emotional weight because it’s a family. Not just any family but a family that’s going through a tumultuous time. Ellie, Danny, Bridget, and Kassie are dealing with the fact that the father of the family has bailed on them, and Beth is trying to grapple with the notion that she’s pregnant in this economy. So, if you have a heart and a soul, you easily latch on to them and pray for their wellbeing. But then you remember that it’s an “Evil Dead” movie, after all, and there’s nothing but pain in store for them.
In my humble opinion, “Evil Dead Rises” is as meanspirited and heartless as “Evil Dead.” If you look at it from an objective perspective, you can even come to the conclusion that “Evil Dead” is way more unforgiving than “Evil Rises.” However, the involvement of the three children is what sets apart “Rises” from its predecessors. I know that horror movies usually have very annoying child characters played by inexperienced child actors. Danny, Bridget, and Kassie are not only being played by amazing actors, but they are also sweet, innocent, curious, and inspiring (before they turn into Deadites) as characters. Therefore, it’s soul-crushing to see them go through all kinds of Hell.
The adults are also pretty grounded. None of them are annoying, judgmental, or cocky, even in the slightest. They are surprisingly well-written and performed, which is why when every aspect of the apartment is used to kill them in the most creative ways possible, it hits quite hard. It’s fun but hard-hitting too. In addition to all that, what potentially puts “Evil Dead Rise” above the rest is that it gives all the spotlight to the women. By doing so, it delves into the topic of motherhood and how an evil entity, like the one from the Naturom Demonto, can bastardize it. The reason Beth wins is due to her skill with the gun and the chainsaw, of course. That said, her compassion and empathy towards the children and her adamancy towards keeping the last promise she made to her sister play a huge part too. She beats the living dead by being human.
So, does that make “Evil Dead Rise” the best film in the series? In my opinion and me alone, yes, it does. However, it doesn’t mean that the rest of the “Evil Dead” movies are bad. All of them have five out of five stars in my book. But if we are talking about sticking to the ethos of the franchise, being mean-spirited, using copious amounts of practical and visual effects, and featuring amazing performances from not just one actor but the entire cast as well, “Evil Dead Rise” bakes its cake and eats it too. Since what I’ve said isn’t written in the Book of the Dead, please feel free to go through the franchise if you can handle all the blood, puke, and gore. And once you are done forming your opinion, do share it with us so that we can celebrate horror together.