Much ink has been spilled in regards to 1981’s The Evil Dead, and for good reason. It’s not only one of the most innovative and influential horror films of all time; it introduced the world to a singular talent in its director, Sam Raimi, and gave horror cinema a set of new icons in both the character, Ash, and in Bruce Campbell, the square-jawed, larger-than-life actor who portrayed him. This little film, shot by a group of friends for a meager $350,000 dollars, shocked both audiences and critics alike with its gruesome gore effects, clever camera work, and sheer ingenuity. Raimi and Campbell would follow up with two decidedly more humorous and insanely popular sequels - 1987’s Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, and 1992’s Army of Darkness. While I love all three, The Evil Dead holds a special place in my heart as it is one of the last movies I saw at a drive-in theater, and the memory of seeing that film on a huge screen under an eerily moonlit sky is one I’ll carry with me forever. It is, after all, the quintessential drive-in movie; the sort of gory, gruesome, and ever-so-scary flick that all but assures you and your date will be huddling together in fear and anticipation. Of course, seeing as how I was thirteen at the time, and sharing a car with three screaming dudes and my friend’s father (who didn’t speak a lick of English, but seemed to enjoy himself anyway), it wasn’t the ideal drive-in experience, but I had fun just the same. And, unlike a lot of folks who were parked there that night, I actually got to watch the whole thing.
In terms of story, The Evil Dead is an exercise in simplicity. A group of friends head into the Tennessee woods for a weekend retreat at a remote cabin whereupon they discover the ancient Sumerian “Book of the Dead”, and awaken vengeful spirits who possess/kill them. Why such a book now resides in the basement of a rundown cabin in the southern United States is neatly explained by a collection of recordings found alongside it (a professor and his wife had been studying the materials there, “far from the distractions of modern society”), thus aiding in the suspension of disbelief. Cheryl (played by the absolutely gorgeous Ellen Sandweiss, who I’ve had a crush on since 1983) is the first to succumb to the spirits, after Ash (Campbell) and Scott (Richard DeManincor) play back one of the tapes in which the professor recites a “Candarian” phrase that summons the demons into our world. The group trap Linda in the basement, but it’s not long before the demons find new host in Scott’s girl, Shelly (Theresa Tilly) and Ash’s love, Linda (Betsy Baker), and, before you know it, all hell breaks loose, leaving Ash alone to contend with the evil dead.
I seriously doubt that anyone reading this site hasn’t seen the film, but, if you haven’t, you’re in for a real treat with Anchor Bay’s Blu-ray release of The Evil Dead. Presented in both the film’s original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, as well as an “enhanced” 1.85:1, the film looks and sounds absolutely stunning. I’m usually a purist when it comes to aspect ratios, but I actually prefer the 1.85:1 version (as does Raimi, reportedly) and Anchor Bay’s done a fine job making sure that we don’t miss any vital visual information in the process. One will notice some cropping in close-ups (most notably in the reaction scene and subsequent scream after Linda gets stabbed in the ankle by Cheryl), but, otherwise, I find this enhanced version more visually appealing than the original full-frame transfer, especially when viewing on a widescreen monitor.
Once the film started I was immediately struck by just how sharp and vibrant the image appeared. Colors are rich and bold, blacks are inky and true, and contrast levels are spot-on throughout. While I did notice a hint of DNR in some of the darker sequences, the film’s grainy, inherently grungy look is preserved marvelously – something I feel is a necessity and lends to The Evil Dead’s rustic charms. It’s something of a minor miracle that AB were able to effectively remove nearly all signs of artifacting and print damage without compromising the image as a whole. Too often I’ve seen older films – especially low-budget horror offerings – tweaked to the point where they look artificial, overly soft, or borderline cartoonish. Here, the image is crisp and brimming with fine detail, yet still sports that vintage look and style we all love.
Anchor Bay goes all out with the Dolby 5.1 TrueHD soundtrack. Fans of this film (as well as its follow-up) know that Raimi put a great deal of thought and effort into the sound effects, and they play an integral part in not only setting up the scares, but maintaining a general sense of unease throughout the film. Creaks and groans, Candarian recitations, and all manner of creepy and unsettling noises emit from all corners of the room, providing a truly immersive aural experience. The film’s eclectic score, ranging from Bernard Hermann-esque violion crescendos to pulsating synth riffs hits crystalline highs and gut-rumbling lows, while dialogue is perfectly mixed front and center. There’s a noticeable lack of “oomph” in places where one would expect it (trees collapsing in the path of the dead, the slamming of the cellar door), but, overall, it’s a wonderful mix and a fantastic accompaniment to the near-flawless transfer.
The Evil Dead is presented on two discs – a Blu-ray featuring both versions of the film, as well as a vital and extremely informative new commentary track with Raimi, Campbell, and producer, Rob Tappert (with all of the incarnations of the film on home video, you’d think they’d have run out of things to say, but, quite to the contrary, this is the best commentary yet). Also featured on the Blu-ray are an assortment of HD trailers for other Anchor Bay releases.
The real meat and potatoes are stored on a separate DVD, which hosts a sort of “greatest hits” collection of supplements culled from earlier releases (and, of course, presented in standard definition). All in all there’s well over three hours of supplemental materials, here, including the fantastic featurette, One By One We Will Take You: The Untold Saga of 'The Evil Dead', a collection of alternate takes and unused footage entitled The Evil Dead:' Treasures From the Cutting Room Floor, and several shorts covering all aspects of the production, from casting to special effects work. Rounding out the extras are the film’s theatrical trailer, radio spots, and a stills and ephemera gallery. It’s a great collection of goodies and make this set a tremendous value, especially seeing as how I’d have been willing to buy it for the Blu-ray alone!
The Evil Dead stands amongst the all time horror greats, and Anchor Bay’s done an incredible job bringing the film to Blu-ray. The film has never looked or sounded better, and, even without the generous assortment of extras included on the DVD, this one would get my highest recommendations. Go out and get this sucker! You won’t be disappointed!