By GRACE DETWILER
Even without the recent release of EVIL DEAD RISE, 2023 was going to be a huge year for the Evil Dead franchise. The Evil Dead – which premiered in Detroit, Michigan in 1981 – was widely released to the public in 1983, a whole forty years ago. Thirty years later and a decade ago, Fede Álvarez’s 2013 reboot premiered at South By Southwest Film Festival and saw its own wide release later that year. In honor of these landmark anniversaries in horror, and in celebration of the success of EVIL DEAD RISE, join me on a journey back in time to track the evolution of this beloved horror franchise, birthed from the zany mind of the incomparable Sam Raimi.
THE EVIL DEAD (1981) dir. Sam Raimi
Despite the reputation of Evil Dead (2013), there is no doubt in my mind that THE EVIL DEAD is the most disturbing entry in the franchise. Famously receiving acclaim from the King of Horror himself, many horror fans who would never have seen this cult horror gem showed up to theaters and VHS stores to check out “The Most Ferociously Original Horror Film of The Year” (Stephen King). Among those fans was my father, my life-long tutor in all things horror, who – along with Sam Raimi and his brainchild Ash Williams – attended Michigan State University.
THE EVIL DEAD is a divisive film, with both die-hards and those (like me) who vastly prefer its sequel/comic remake. Yet, there is no denying the cinematic techniques pioneered by Raimi in his first crack at the concept. From his sentient camera zooming inexplicably through the forest, to the truly innovative practical effects that came to define the franchise, Raimi changed the game in terms of what a filmmaker can accomplish with an indie budget.
What makes THE EVIL DEAD so disturbing, is its sheer commitment to the chaos brought by the deadites, without any of the comedy of its successor. Most notably toned down in Evil Dead II is the infamous ‘tree rape,’ a scene that has ensured that I will probably never watch this film again. Raimi memorably admitted in an interview, “I think it was unnecessarily gratuitous and a little too brutal… my goal is not to offend people. It is to entertain, thrill, scare… make them laugh, but not to offend them… I think my judgment was a little wrong at the time.” The violence in THE EVIL DEAD is similarly more visceral and focuses on the pain and fear experienced by its characters, and lacks the hilarity which has become synonymous with the Evil Dead name.
EVIL DEAD II (1987) dir. Sam Raimi
If The Evil Dead is the most disturbing film in the franchise, EVIL DEAD II is undeniably the best. In this original “re-quel,” the character of Ashley Joanna “Ash” Williams is elevated from memorable final boy to full-out horror icon. EVIL DEAD II also takes full advantage of actor Bruce Campbell’s campy, comic acting style, and leans into the absurdity of its predecessor’s premise. While EVIL DEAD II dials up the gore, it is truly all in good fun, as the cartoonish bloodbath Ash survives culminates in a journey through a wormhole that drops him back in the middle ages, chainsaw arm and all.
Ash is the heart and soul, if not the brain, of the Evil Dead universe. In EVIL DEAD II, he transforms from an average college student to an undead-killing, boomstick-wielding superhero of sorts. His iconic “Groovy” is likely to get cheers at any screening, even almost a generation later. The idea of Ash transcends the three films that feature him, even becoming an archetype that future Evil Dead protagonists must come to embody.
Most notably, EVIL DEAD II solidifies the visual language of the franchise, from the appearance and demeanor of the deadites to Ash’s iconic case of alien hand syndrome. EVIL DEAD II also introduces the more phantasmagorical aspects of the story and grows the mythology of the Necronomicon. Finally, there would be no EVIL DEAD II without the tragically fated Linda, portrayed before her death by Denise Bixler, and after by Snowy Winters (credited as “Dancing Demon Linda”).
ARMY OF DARKNESS (1992) dir. Sam Raimi
If Evil Dead II is the best film in the series, ARMY OF DARKNESS is the most underrated. Sam Raimi concludes his Evil Dead trilogy with the most unusual film of the set: a medieval period piece that pits Ash against an army of deadites that he summons by accident in an effort to return to his own time. The plot of ARMY OF DARKNESS was Raimi’s original plan for Evil Dead II, but fortunately for humankind, he saved this gem of a concept for movie three. ARMY OF DARKNESS would have been a poor sequel to The Evil Dead but is a near-perfect continuation of the tone introduced in Evil Dead II.
My only quibble with this film is that whatever gender norms were subverted in the previous entries by Ash’s final boy status, are slammed back into form by the introduction of ‘womanizer’ to his list of character traits. Ash is significantly less likable in ARMY OF DARKNESS, but when the film is viewed as a horror-satire of medieval romance narratives, this characterization at least makes sense thematically. Given the small-scale and single-location nature of the first two films, the expansion of the Evil Dead universe in ARMY OF DARKNESS is incredibly impressive. And in the age of CGI, there is no understating the pure joy that is watching a film with this much stop-motion and practical effects. And as a bonus, we get to see Bruce Campbell do double duty as both Ash and the inspiringly named ‘Evil Ash.’
EVIL DEAD (2013) dir. Fede Álvarez
Of all the classic horror franchises revived in the aughts and early 2010s, EVIL DEAD is by far the most successful. The film is the feature-length directorial debut of Fede Álvarez, who – between EVIL DEAD and Don’t Breathe – has become a household name among horror fans. Even with only these two horror features under his belt, Álvarez has become well known for the cruelty and brutality of his films, an approach which hadn’t been seen in the Evil Dead franchise since its conception. Álvarez’s EVIL DEAD also strips away some of the original trilogy’s more phantasmagorical trappings, while grounding his narrative in issues of addiction and mental health, for which the plague of the Necronomicon becomes a proxy. Mean as a snake and twice as venomous, the gore in EVIL DEAD is significantly less laughable than ever before.
The highlight of EVIL DEAD is easy to identify; Mia, played by Jane Levy, is as worthy an Ash analog as is feasibly possible. Intelligently not billed under the name ‘Ash’ or ‘Ashley,’ and thus avoiding accusations of making “The Evil Dead but with a girl,” EVIL DEAD holds its cards close to the chest, only revealing that Mia will embody both the classic cellar-dweller and the chainsaw-armed hero in the film’s final third. By putting a woman’s perspective at the center of his story, Álvarez also manages to reincorporate the ‘tree rape’ scene without making it exploitative, by using it as a visual metaphor for Mia’s heroin addiction. While most of the film suffers from some stilted acting from Levy’s co-stars and the lack of physical comedy, the finale sequence is one for the books. As Mia fights for her life to prevent the rise of ‘Abomination Mia,’ a parallel to ‘Evil Ash,’ blood rains from the sky in one of the most memorable aesthetic horror moments in recent memory. EVIL DEAD retains the franchise’s snappy one-liners, and guarantees a cheer when Mia retorts, “Feast on this, motherfucker!”
EVIL DEAD RISE (2023) dir. Lee Cronin
The Evil Dead franchise reaches new heights as the EVIL DEAD RISE in Lee Cronin’s fifth installment in the series, which introduces two elements previously absent from Evil Dead narratives: a Los Angeles setting and the presence of children. EVIL DEAD RISE approaches the line and crosses it in terms of violence against children displayed on screen in mainstream horror. It appears that children are officially fair game in our beloved genre, based on the recent success of films like Doctor Sleep, The Black Phone, Skinamarink, and now EVIL DEAD RISE. Perhaps this is a reflection of the very real threat of gun violence that children face in American society, as well as the way that children’s liberties are under attack by our state legislators.
Also on the minds of RISE’s characters and filmmakers is the parallel between the deadites’ parasitic possession and the experience of an unwanted pregnancy. In our post-Roe society, the potential threat posed by being forced to carry and give birth to a child can be just as deadly to a pregnant person as the Necronomicon itself. The body horror innate to Evil Dead lends itself just as well to a pregnancy parable, as to a cautionary tale about addiction.
Ultimately, the cast of EVIL DEAD RISE is the best the franchise has to offer – with the exception of Bruce Campbell of course. Alyssa Sutherland is truly fantastic as Ellie, and she and Lilly Sullivan play extremely convincing sisters. Sutherland’s physical acting is unparalleled, making her the most memorable deadite since Henrietta. The young actors playing Ellie’s three children are also spectacular and bring a new level of emotional depth to a series that has previously been all style, little substance. Yet, style remains front and center in Cronin’s filmmaking – a true student of the school of Raimi. All in all, EVIL DEAD RISE is an instant classic and a worthy addition to Evil Dead marathons to come.