1981’s The Evil Dead is a movie rooted in fame as a low-budget cult classic, making a home for itself on dozens of “best of” lists in horror. It’s the film that kicks off one of my favorite horror franchises of all time — I added Ashley onto my name for a reason.
The story of The Evil Dead starts in 1978: after director Sam Raimi finished his prototype film Within the Woods on a budget of $1,600, he showed the film around in order to generate funds for a larger project. After some time, Raimi was indeed granted his chance at a full-length feature. And thus was created the film considered one of the most violent of its time, and one of the most commercially successful independent films ever.
The plot of The Evil Dead, for those out of the loop, concerns five college students vacationing in an isolated cabin in a remote wooded area; after finding a book and an audio tape that release a legion of demons and spirits, members of the group suffer from demonic possession, and the cast is eventually whittled down to an at-the-time newcomer Bruce Campbell (as Ashley J. Williams), who must survive until morning.
Costing originally around $350,000, The Evil Dead would go on to gross a box office total of 29 million dollars; the series has continued through two direct sequels, a variety of comic books and video games, and a television series that ran from 2015 to 2018 over the course of three seasons. And in 2013, Sam Raimi came back to the series, this time as producer and not director, to Evil Dead, a film described as a remake, sequel, and reboot all in one.
Compared to the 1981 original, 2013’s Evil Dead had a comparative budget of 17 million USD and a total box office of 97 million, making it the highest-grossing film of the series so far. And the plot, at its core, is very nearly the same: teenagers in a cabin in the woods discover an audio tape and a book that release demons, and they must fight off their possessed friends to survive.
While the main cast of characters have nothing to do with the characters featured in the 1981 film, characters from that film do make brief appearances, through both voice-over and post-credits cameos, which results in the two films existing at least somewhat in the same universe. Categorizing 2013’s Evil Dead as a remake/reboot is also technically correct, as many of the events are beat-for-beat repeats of events in The Evil Dead, with only slight details altered; the setting is modernized and new elements have been added to prevent a shot-for-shot-remake situation.
It was already a daunting task to remake The Evil Dead in the first place, as so much of what makes that film unique would be incredibly hard to replicate in a studio setting. The Evil Dead was pulled together by literally begging for funding, and much of the crew consisted not of professionals in the industry, but of friends and family of the main cast and director. Several actors had also “inadvertently been stabbed or thrown into objects during production”, with conditions during filming eventually becoming so dire, the crew resulted to burning their furniture in order to keep warm. Trying to recreate that very specific dedication-bordering-on-madness production would be nearly impossible with the protections in place in modern Hollywood.
Additionally, in 2013, despite it having been 21 years since the last Evil Dead film, the franchise still had a legion of dedicated fans. And, coming off the heels of A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) and Friday the 13th (2009), remakes that were pretty universally despised, there was likely incredible pressure to get Evil Dead (2013) right.
While both Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street were series with “bad” sequels prior to their late 2000’s remakes, Evil Dead was a tight, three-film trilogy, with each of the films acclaimed and admired for their unique strangeness and tendency to genre-hop (Evil Dead II is much more of a black comedy than it is straight horror, and Army of Darkness has the least horror elements of the entire franchise, much more of a slapstick comedy/adventure).
The original Evil Dead film, the most loyal to the horror genre of the franchise, was inspired as a result of Raimi watching exploitative horror films showing at his local drive-in theaters, and this is something I find inherently obvious when observing the film. Many of Raimi’s intense low-angle shots and purposefully shaky camerawork are reminiscent of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). The gore featured in the film is all incredibly sensationalized, with an incredible level of effort going into scenes like Linda’s leg possession and the final scene of decomposition (both done through stop motion and lengthy hours of editing).
One of the film’s flaws, actually, is how far that sensationalization goes, with even Raimi later admitting he wishes the film hadn’t been so violent towards its female characters (specifically in regards to the infamous rape scene and the scenes in which Ash has to violently strike a possessed Linda). But these are elements explained (though not excused) by the films with which Raimi was influenced, and by Raimi himself being a young filmmaker, about 21 at the time of filming. The film is exploitation horror, and exploitative material rarely ages well.
When one watches Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead, the changes and updates that have been made in response to some of The Evil Dead’s most glaring faults are obvious (one being that while there is still a scene involving the imagery and intent of rape, it is maybe a third of the length of the original scene, and considerably less graphic. It isn’t dragged out and sensationalized). But there are also changes that cripple the film in some equally noticeable ways.
While most of the film is shot fairly well (standardly, for a modern horror film), there are a number of times in which they attempt to recreate several filming techniques of the original. There are a number of dolly zooms used early on, right as the scares are starting up, that are perhaps intended to create a feeling of unreality, but are done in too slow a fashion for this to be fully effective. Similarly, there are a number of attempts to recapture Raimi’s tendency to suddenly zoom in on a character or object. But because Evil Dead is shot in the way of most conventional, studio films, to suddenly attempt to use a purposely-jarring technique becomes distracting; and not in the way that might’ve been intended.
There is no sense of reference to classic horror, as Raimi had, only an attempt to mirror the action without understanding the intent behind it.
That’s not to say that all of the attempts at homage are completely flubbed. For instance, the order in which the characters become possessed are the same in both films: first the sister (Cheryl and Mia), then the girlfriends (Shelly and Linda, and Natalie and Olivia, respectively), the secondary male lead (Scott and Eric), and finally the main male lead (Ash and David).
The remake plays with this by mixing it up right at the end; while Mia is the first to be possessed, David finds a way to kill her and then bring her back to life, thus expelling the demon. It’s then that David is killed, and Mia is left as the “final girl”, a horror trope popularized in the 1980’s that the original Evil Dead and sequels did not include. Mia has become the Ashley Williams of the series in the narrative sense, as well as the literal sense, what with ultimately wielding the iconic chainsaw and losing a hand. It’s an interesting subversion on The Evil Dead’s original formula, as well as an homage to Within the Woods, wherein Cheryl had been the final survivor and not Ash.
But ultimately, focus on characters and their development is not the focus of either film. In both cases, the people we follow through the mayhem are one-dimensional at best, with Ash only becoming a more rounded character through the sequels and other materials. No, the focus of the Evil Dead franchise is primarily on gore, on the various ways a person can be mutilated and driven crazy.
In this avenue, Evil Dead (2013) is able to deliver in ways that improve upon the source material. With the exception of the opening scene, there is very little CGI of considerable note. Because of the practicality of the effects, and because of the film’s much larger budget in comparison to the source material, Evil Dead is able to display body horror in a way that The Evil Dead had neither the budget nor the technology for.
However, Evil Dead still falls short in several areas in regards to its gore, and that is primarily the fault of the lighting and editing. While several kills are gruesome and would make any person squirm, that’s only if you can see what’s actually happening.
The example of this I want to point out is the fight between Eric and a possessed Natalie: on paper, Natalie stabs at Eric’s face with a needle, and the two wrestle until Eric ultimately belugdons her to death with a piece of broken countertop. But when executed, it’s like the movie is also grossed out and as horrified as it wants the audience to be, and so it keeps finding ways to try and look away. Not only is the camera cutting frantically once the attack starts (at least 25 times in the first 20 seconds), but the lighting is at a constant, headache-inducing strobe. It’s hard to marvel at such amazing practical effects when one cannot see those effects.
That said, when you can see the effort that they put into the gore, they are legitimately disturbing in the same way that many of the best effects from The Evil Dead were. And I believe the gore and the kills were the driving force behind this remake; that’s why there’s no effort to recast Ashley J. Williams. That’s where, for example, A Nightmare on Elm Street failed in its remake. It attempted to recast and reimagine one of the most defining figures in horror cinema, and it failed horribly in doing so.
Horror, like many genres, is primarily defined by the iconography of its most prominent films: for Halloween and Friday the 13th, it’s the mask; for A Nightmare on Elm Street, it’s clawed glove; and for Evil Dead, it’s the chainsaw, and it’s Ashley J. Williams. Evil Dead (2013) was smart enough to know that no matter how they might try and put a new actor into Ash’s shoes, most people weren’t going to want Bruce Campbell replaced, much in the same way that most people don’t want an Elm Street movie without Robert Englund in it.
(One idea for a reboot of the series back in the late 2000’s was actually canceled, in part, because of an overwhelming negative fan reaction to the idea of recasting Ash with a new, younger actor.)
By not making any effort to completely retell the story with the exact same cast of characters, the filmmakers at least in some way prevented a lot of possible backlash. There was no risk of a negative fan response to a poor recreation of one of horror’s most iconic heroes.
Ashley Williams has become such an icon of the horror genre, in part, because of how outside the archetypal hero he comes across as, at least in the first film.
While Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness depicts him as a dim-witted but mostly undeniable badass, the Ash of The Evil Dead is typically the character you would expect to die fairly quickly in a standard horror film. The secondary male lead, Scott, is the one who takes the most direct action against the demons throughout the film until his death; Ash, meanwhile, often stands frozen with terror in the corner. He’s almost taken out by being trapped under an empty shelf twice.
An argument could almost be made for Ash as Evil Dead’s own spin on the “final girl”, as he mostly stays far away from traditional masculinity seen in leading men. While he eventually evolves into a pseudo-parody of traditional masculinity in later series installments, the first film gives no indication that that is the path the character is destined to take. Even his name- Ashley; not Ashton or just Ash, but very specifically Ashley- tells the viewer that he should not be looked to as the traditional leading male.
It’s not until the 2015 show that we get any sort of backstory on Ash as a character; thus, he is considerably void of any memorable traits or general personality. He’s nice, he’s dating Linda, and that’s about it.
Contrast this with the information we are given about Evil Dead (2013)’s protagonist: Mia is a struggling heroin addict, which is an aspect of her character continually brought up throughout the film and is central to the plot. Her relationship to her brother is particularly fraught as well. Although that’s really all we find out about her before the possession begins, it is still a considerable amount more of characterization than Ash gets in his initial film.
Though neither particularly focuses on characterization, the original can take claim to the most iconic, and the remake can take the most fleshed-out.
Ultimately, the Evil Dead series can of course continue forward outside of Ashley J. Williams, primarily through its gore and general violence against unsuspecting young adults. As recently as December of 2019, there has been discussion of yet another Evil Dead film; although if it will be a completely new story or a sequel to the 2013 film, or if it will ever even get off the ground at all, remains to be seen. But just as before, they have at least confirmed that there will be no effort to recast or remotely feature Ashley J. Williams.
If nothing else, it confirms my suspicions that were discussed in the previous paragraph: the people behind this franchise know that Ash is too iconic to try and change by now, and no one but Bruce Campbell can portray him. I think that long as the cultural icon is respected, and the gore is good, fans of the series will remain mostly content with movies unrelated to the story of the original trilogy.
Evil Dead (2013) was a remake that did not technically “need to exist”. But it is also a remake that knows its place within the universe canon, and does not try to overextend itself. It is not looking to retell the exact story that Raimi told some thirty years ago, nor is it looking to reimagine what is iconic and unchangeable to so many. Rather than try and be a better version of the original film, it simply exists as a story within the Evil Dead universe, one where Ash Williams certainly seems to exist, but not be directly involved in.
And the film is still better than it inherently had any real right to be; I can recommend it as a genuine experience far more than I can recommend the remakes of Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street.
Evil Dead didn’t break any boundaries like The Evil Dead (1981) did, but the intention behind the remake wasn’t ever to become a new staple in horror, I don’t think. The intention here appears to simply be having made a respectful homage inside a universe not deeply explored within the films that had been made up to that point.
The Evil Dead was about a horrible thing that happened to an unsuspecting man, and how, subsequently, it was always about him; Evil Dead opens the world up a little more than that, introduces the possibility that anyone could stumble upon a cabin and get possessed by its demons without Ashley J to come save them. There’s no Evil Dead II-style prophecy insinuated to exist.
While it’s my personal wish that the film tried to stand on its own two feet a little more, it’s not like I don’t understand why it pushed so heavily on visual references. The chainsaw, the cabin, the Necronomicon, the severed hand — there are so many visually significant moments within the original trilogy that to not include them would’ve made the film less a continuation of Evil Dead and more of a simply standard horror film. Evil Dead has never been standard, not when it was a no-budget passion project, and not when it had the full force of an iconic franchise behind it.