The headline of Vulture critic David Edelstein's review of the new "Evil Dead" remake asks an interesting question: "Years From Now, Will Anyone Choose to Watch This Version Over the Original?" As you might expect, Edelstein's query comes preloaded with its own answer -- no freaking way:
"In the end, who really cares? Five years from now, will you want to watch this bloody $14 million extravaganza or [Sam] Raimi’s shoestring original, which was Amateur Hour elevated to pop art? 'Evil Dead' just bleeds money."
I've seen both "Evil Dead"s in the last month -- Raimi's original for probably the sixth or seventh time and director Fede Alvarez's new version for the first -- and I don't need the five year waiting period to decide. I know "The Evil Dead"'s important place in the history of the horror genre. I count Sam Raimi amongst my handful of favorite working directors. I treasure "Evil Dead II" and "Army of Darkness" -- and I've seen both way more than a half a dozen times each. But if you put a copy of Raimi's "The Evil Dead" and Alvarez's "Evil Dead" in front of me right now and made me watch one, I know which I'd watch without hesitation: Alvarez's.
Raimi's "The Evil Dead" is iconic and clever and gory and brimming with youthful energy. It has the sort of go-for-broke atmosphere that only happens when talent meets financial desperation. Without dollies or camera tracks, Raimi and his collaborators invented their own low-rent rigs, strapping their cameras to boards and running them through the woods by hand. Raimi's improvised techniques produced unique, ethereal images, as if the camera was possessed by the same demons haunting the doomed college students trapped in that remote cabin with the Book of the Dead.
But these are flashes of inspiration in a -- let's be honest, here -- fairly amateurish movie. In some ways, that's part of "The Evil Dead"'s charms; Raimi, Bruce Campbell and Robert Tapert pushing through their own inadequacies as filmmakers to make a mondo trasho gorefest, experience, knowledge, and budget be damned. In other ways, it sure would be nice if Campbell's co-stars could act, and if the screenplay fleshed out these characters in any way at all, and if most of the effects didn't look desperately hokey.
Alvarez's "Evil Dead" certainly doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it does put a fresh pair of stylish (and quickly blood-soaked) rims on this old jalopy. On a technical level, it's light-years beyond Raimi's version, upping not only the quality of the gore, but the quantity as well -- according to Alvarez, the production went through two tanker trucks (100,000 gallons) full of fake blood. These effects are much more advanced than the ones Raimi and company had at their disposal in 1981, but they're still true to the spirit of old school horror -- eschewing computer generated images for the tactility of (100,000 gallons of) practical makeup effects.
The original "Evil Dead" billed itself as "the ultimate experience in grueling terror," a title the new "Evil Dead" more than lives up to. By the end of the film, you've watched people carve up their own faces, shoot each other at point blank range with nail guns, and saw off their limbs (that's right, guys: limbs plural). It's the ultimate experience in feeling like a wrung-out sponge. If you want an "Evil Dead" movie to scare you, gross you out, and deeply unsettle you, I think you'll be satisfied by Alvarez's version.
Which is why I'm sort of confused by the large amount of critical resistance to this movie. It might have to do with the fact that, for all its technical flaws, "The Evil Dead" has slowly entered that pantheon of sacrosanct movie texts deemed by some too iconic to remake. A lot of writers who've rejected the movie have chastised the film for hewing too close to the Raimi version, a complain that's only valid if you ignore the many ways Alvarez reconfigures the "Evil Dead" formula (replacing Bruce Campbell's Ash with a female heroine, adding a subplot about drug addiction, introducing an endgame motivation for the Deadites' possessions and murders). Compared to other more slavish horror remakes ("Psycho," "Let Me In"), it's practically a different movie entirely.
What I find most interesting about the dismissal of the new "Evil Dead" as a rehash is the fact that most hardcore Raimi fans prefer "Evil Dead II" to "The Evil Dead" -- which is a more accomplished rehash of the first movie. "EDII" so thoroughly recycles "The Evil Dead" that nerds have debated for decades whether it technically qualifies as a remake or a sequel. Once again, Ash (Campbell) and his girlfriend go to the cabin in the woods, once again they awaken the evil contained inside the Necronomicon, once again it possess and murders everyone in sight. There's a bit more plot in "Evil Dead II" because there's a second group of victims that arrive at the cabin, but mostly this is the same movie as the first one, enhanced with better acting, better special effects, better pacing, better gore, more slapstick comedy, and better direction from a more experienced Raimi.
This might come down to a personal preference: originality or innovation. There's no question that 1981's "The Evil Dead" was the trailblazer (although it, too, was indebted to earlier horror movies like 1970's "Equinox," albeit more obliquely). But there's also no question, at least in my mind, that 1987's "Evil Dead II" -- and, to a lesser extent, 2013's "Evil Dead" -- walk that same trail more effectively, with more gnarly special effects, more emotional performances, and more brutal scare sequences. So why don't the same standards apply to both films?
Primacy is important, but it's not all-important. Presumably, if Raimi thought the original "Evil Dead" was perfect, he wouldn't have set out to improve upon it with "Evil Dead II" -- or with Alvarez's iteration, which he, Campbell, and Tapert produced. That's the version I'd watch over Raimi's now, five years from now, and probably until the next director brings their own vision to the material and refines it once more.