Sam Raimi’s masterful follow-up to the grungy low-fi splatter-fest success of his own feature debut “The Evil Dead” (‘the Sequel to the ultimate experience in gruelling terror!’) is a very revelatory watch in 2013. One approaches it, having not seen the film in almost a decade, certainly with very strong memories of its subversive comic take on the reputation of Raimi’s original work, which, by 1987, remained a cause célèbre in the UK thanks to its association with the hysteria surrounding the Government fuelled “Video Nasties’ media campaign of the early-eighties, when it became a media byword for everything that was ‘extreme’ and ‘morally rotten’ about this supposedly corrupting collection of forbidden works. But perhaps we’re not always quite so cognisant as a result of just how traditional and lovingly steeped in the history of the horror genre this second outing actually is. The opening prologue hints at a lighter tone with its breezy, Tom Sullivan animated, self-writing Necronomican introductory sequence; but the accompanying voice-over, and Joseph Lo Duca’s music, lend the film the feel of something that harks back to the 1960s, and maybe even the lush style associated with Hammer Films (the prologue to Terrence Fisher’s “Dracula Prince of Darkness” seems like it could have been used as the role-model for this opening) rather than echoing the gore-soaked grittiness that’s mainly associated with the ‘Nasty’ era. Over the course of the following 84 minutes the film reveals itself to be a nostalgic love letter to classic era horror and Ray Harryhausen period monster flicks, marinated in the surreal wackiness that’s indicative of a living Warner Bros. cartoon, with its deranged Muppet-like puppetry and its Three Stooges culled slapstick -- served up in a soup of gushing gore rainbow of black, green and yellow blood-flow.
Raimi’s real innovation came with the way all of this was combined in the editing with a frenetic pace and a breathless kinetic restlessness: “Evil Dead II” is the very definition of the ‘roller-coaster ride’ movie; a clichéd phrase, much over-used for sure, but entirely applicable to this compact, precision-arranged, non-stop concatenation of sensory stimulating thrill sequences; the camera – famously -- literally often behaves like the audience has been placed in the front seat of a runaway vehicle: bashing down cabin doors as it pursues Bruce Campbell from room to room, or coursing through the back window of a car and out through the windshield; seizing the hero and whiplashing its way through the forest with Campbell held aloft before us by a supernatural maelstrom: If this film ever pauses once this demonic, Lovecraftian force that’s living in the woods is unleashed once again on its soul-stealing, demonic possessing mission of destruction, it’s only in order to establish a beat for the next nerve-crashing ‘scare’ sequence.
Few comic horror films manage to do what Raimi does so expertly and assuredly with “Evil Dead II”: somehow, through an innate understanding of the codes of genre, the director is able to manipulate his audience’s responses with a finely honed tightrope walk that deftly treads the thin borderline between horror and absurd comedy with assured dexterity: scene after scene starts off with a jump scare or a conceptually horrific image, only to subvert it almost immediately with a well-placed comedic overdub on the soundtrack (Ash’s skittering severed hand’s high-pitched burbling) or with Bruce Campbell’s perpetually tormented everyman hero being forced into the next riotously hilarious spasm of broad physical comedy (the sight of Ash flailing around the cabin with his girlfriend’s severed head affixed to his hand, or that very hand’s subsequent demonic possession and the crazy plate-smashing-over-head kitchen episode it leads to). Even when the horror threatens to become truly intense, Raimi defuses it with a joke (the weighty volume of ‘A Farewell to Arms” used to hold down the wastepaper basket that’s imprisoning his demonic hand never fails to provide a tension dissipating groan; as does the demon’s eyeball which is propelled through the air at one point, straight into the screaming mouth of one of the other unfortunate visitors to the cabin). The film is the ultimate riposte to those who seem forever unable to acknowledge or even comprehend how cinema is entirely built on nothing but illusion: the opening 15 minutes is chock full of the sort of material that was sending the UK media into crazy palpitations during the early-eighties (dismembered bodies; a man slicing his own hand off with a chainsaw, etc.) and yet it’s done here with such a sense of comic mischievousness and Joie de vivre that the exact same material becomes transformed a series of comedy sketch classics, and as a result, a master class in the manipulations of filmmaking.
What impresses itself upon the viewer when re-watching the film now, though, is just how much it respectfully takes from the cinematic horror and fantasy heritage that had been built up beforehand; Raimi’s assured use of simple classic cinematic camera trickery makes this film in particular feel like something of a homage to the methods, movies and skills of Mario Bava. Raimi’s innovative camera rig lash-ups, which allow for the hyper-kinetic POV shots mentioned above, are also accompanied by shots that seem to mimic precisely some of those which appear in, say, “Black Sunday” (the slow 360 degree pan around the forest or the spiralling reverse camera zooms into or out of Bruce Campbell’s demon made-up face); and the inventive use of forced perspective tricks which are used to incorporate miniatures into shots, etc., not to mention the inspired use of matte paintings, all give the movie the feel of being a throwback to Bava’s era of inventive shoestring ‘60s and ‘70s productions. These were the kinds of movies which, nevertheless, were always able to conjure a sense of fantastical atmosphere from limited means, just as Raimi is able to do here. The stop-motion animations that make use of movable armature models in the style of Ray Harryhausen, and the traditional optical blue screen effects employed alongside them, are as ubiquitous as the then recent emphasis on sculpted rubber monster make-up masks and hand-operated models which became the dominant style of effects in the mid-eighties, resulting in the film getting to showcase a macabre menagerie of ‘Heinous Horror Hags’ and evil ‘Deadites’ to complement the more traditional methods on display. These state-of-the art horror effects were overseen by Mark Shostrom who was employed at the head of a team which included Howard Berger, Robert Kurtzman and Gregory Nicotero: the creative kernel of what later became K.N.B. EFX Group.
But the ground-breaking manner in which the film is put together now seems to point the way towards much that typifies contemporary fantasy cinema, particularly in the modern superhero comic-book genre Raimi himself was instrumental in forging with his Spiderman trilogy. The privileging of sensory stimulation above all else, which is beautifully engineered here through a use of snappy editing techniques, bombastic sound design and relentlessly energetic pacing (all tendencies which are placed centre stage in lieu of plot or character development) has resulted in a numbing, uniform regularity pervading the tinnitus inducing efforts of the modern film era. When the inventiveness and versatility of the effects and filmmaking expertise seen in “Evil Dead II” are replaced with standard CGI, and the tight running times of old are forgotten as modern superhero films are increasingly allowed to rumble on for hours (with all the flabby, portentous writing such indulgence inevitably brings to the fore), the result is invariably dullness rather than the vice-like grip on the attention that this film is still able to command even nearly thirty-years after its first release.
The characters who join Ash after the first half-hour of carnage (which amounts to a paraphrasing of the entire first film, with Ash being forced to dismember his own girlfriend and then bisect her demonic head with a chainsaw in a workshop vice!) are very sketchily drawn but very effective for the movie’s simple purposes: a heroine is provided in the form of Sarah Berry as the feisty archaeologist Annie (daughter of the Cabin’s owner: a Professor who has translated the demon-summoning incantations from the Necronomican and suffered the consequences as a result) and her chub of a boyfriend & colleague Ed (Richard Domeier), who obviously isn’t destined to last very long. Then there’s the cowardly backwoods hick (and dungaree-sporting) workman Jake (Dan Hicks) and his unfeasibly pretty girlfriend Bobby Joe (Kassie Wesley DePaiva), who get hired to guide Sarah and Ed along an alternative trail after the bridge to the cabin is destroyed, only to find a half-insane, blood-soaked, one-handed Ash already in residence at her father’s home, which is also now host to Henerettia, the demon witch hags in the cellar who used to be Sarah’s Mom, and any number of other madness inducing horrors which the rest of the film lovingly throws at the screen in one feverish rush for the next hour. This film is a true 1980s classic which still stands up today and feels at once both nostalgic and modern in its usage of a style of filmmaking which is now very common, but which has never been exercised more effectively than it was when it was combined with classic techniques in what is still, for my money, Sam Raimi’s finest film. The decidedly over-serious looking remake that’s about to hit our screens has an awful lot to live up to.
This UK Blu-ray release from Studio Canal UK is without doubt an easy recommend. The HD transfer is excellent, managing that always difficult negotiation which has to take place between remaining true to the feel of the grain structure and visual feel of the original 1987 release and offering the increased definition and clarity which is the expected hallmark of high definition. This transfer manages the trick with aplomb and offers a superbly immersive 5.1 DTS surround sound audio track to boot (2.0 DTS stereo is also included). The commentary, featuring co-writer & director Sam Raimi, co-writer Scott Spiegel, actor and executive producer Bruce Campbell and special makeup artist Greg Nicotero, manages to provide a fairly detailed overview of the making of the film while remaining irreverent and frequently amusing, but the real revelation comes in the brand new ninety-eight minute ‘making of’ that’s also included. “Swallowed Souls: The Making of Evil Dead II” features contributions from over twenty of the people involved with the making of the film, including all of the cast, co-writer Scott Spiegel and many of the special effects crew. About the only person notable by his absence is Sam Raimi himself, but this film goes into much more detail than any other special feature I’ve ever seen that relates to this film including the commentary, even incorporating clips from the crazy self-made films Mark Shostrom’s crew of makeup effects men spent their spare time indulging in behind the scenes, as well portions of Greg Nicotero’s six hours of behind-the-scenes video footage which are used to illustrate the comments of some of the participants. Every aspect of the filmmaking process is covered in exacting detail, from origins of the film’s conception after the flop that was “Crimewave”, to the experience of shooting the movie itself, which took place in North Carolina for the exterior shots of the cabin and a disused Michigan high school gymnasium for the cabin interiors. The creation of all the key animation, model miniature and makeup effects is covered as well as the hell Ted Raimi’s was put through when wearing the Henrietta full-body suit. This really is a superb, hugely comprehensive extra which will delight the movie’s many fans.
“Road to Wadesboro” is a another new eight minute featurette in which Tony Elwood (who was responsible for preparing the special effects props for the film) goes back to the original locations, finding the cabin used for the exteriors still standing, with even the fake tree that was placed outside it by the3 effects crew still standing!
“Cabin Fever: fly on the wall behind the scenes” is a featurette which consists of 30 minutes of footage from Greg Nicotero’s video collection, which showcases the creation of the set-piece monster makeup jobs the effects crew designed for Henrietta, Evil Ed, Linda and Ash, documenting the process from making the initial head cast from the actor involved to the actual on-set shooting of the scenes in which the finished makeup appeared. In addition Nicotero also captured the filming of several scenes that never made it into the film, including the dismemberment of Evil Ed with a chainsaw and the possessed Ash on a rampage through the forest during which time he chomps on a squirrel!
As well as these new special features, the disc also gathers together all the previous standard definition features from the older Anchor Bay disc in what it terms ‘archive featurettes’. This includes a ‘Behind the Screams’ photo gallery in which animator Tom Sullivan relives his experiences on the set while commenting on his collection of behind-the-scenes snaps; “The Gore the Merrier: the Making of Evil Dead II” in which the KNB trio of Kurtzman, Nicotero and Berger talk about their work on the film and the experience of working with Sam. Then there’s a theatrical trailer and an extensive photo gallery section divided into ads and memorabilia, behind the scenes, special makeup effects and stop motion animation sections. All of this material adds up to a treasure trove repository of every piece of information and gossip about the making of this film anyone could wish for. Together with the pleasing transfer, fans are provided with what must be a near definitive release of this modern horror classic. Groovy!!
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!