‘Evil Dead’ returns to scare a new generation

In 1982, The Evil Dead was one of the countless low-budget, no-star horror pictures that are screened at the Cannes Film Festival, hoping to land distribution.

Directed by a 20-year-old unknown named Sam Raimi, with a cast and crew made up primarily of his friends, The Evil Dead might have gone unnoticed in the flood of festival films.

Except that Stephen King happened to catch a screening and later, in a review in Twilight Zone magazine, famously called it “the most ferociously original horror film of the year.” A movie with a low asking price, adorned by a priceless blurb from one of America’s most popular writers, suddenly became a hot commodity. New Line Cinema snagged the U.S. distribution rights; other companies distributed the movie around the world. Released in 1983 in an unrated (now NC-17) version, the film grossed $2.4 million worldwide and millions more when released on video. In 2010, a limited edition two-disc Blu-ray special edition sold out almost immediately.

“King’s quote did two things,” says Robert G. Tapert, who produced both the original and the remake. “It drew the attention of fans, and it made distributors think, ‘Well if we can use that quote in the ad, we can sell the movie.’ ... It was a ready-made piece of advertising material that you could put on a poster or TV spot. It literally changed the destiny of the film.”

Like so many other horror classics from the last few decades ( The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, etc.), The Evil Dead had enough popularity to be ripe for the remake treatment. But the new Evil Dead, which opens Friday, isn’t just an attempt to cash in on a dusty classic by adding more gore and better-looking actors. This outrageously bloody, violent picture really is one from the heart — a spiked, thorny, bleeding heart.

The feature debut of Uruguayan filmmaker Fede Alvarez, Evil Dead follows the original’s template of stranding five young people in a cabin deep in some haunted woods, where one of them finds a creepy book wrapped in barbed wire that, not surprisngly, unleashes demons that possess the characters and turn them against each other.

There are minor deviations: Instead of Ash (Bruce Campbell), the star of the original Evil Dead and its two sequels, the central character this time is Mia (Jane Levy), a young woman with a drug habit who asks her brother (Shiloh Fernandez) and several other friends to accompany her to the remote family cabin and help her detox. But the movie, which runs a lean 91 minutes (only six minutes longer than the original), doesn’t waste much time in getting to the gruesome stuff.

“We knew that fans were going to be very concerned about a remake, because most of them turn out so bad,” says Campbell, who is currently shooting the sixth season of Burn Notice in Miami. “But I want them to know that we, the original filmmakers, were even more concerned. This was the movie that got me into this business, so I didn’t take it lightly. This isn’t a case of producers exploiting their rights to a film. We’ve been vouching this entire production from the start to make sure people get what they paying for, especially Evil Dead fans. This is for them.” Alvarez, 35, landed the job of director by accident. Originally, he had been been meeting with Raimi’s production company about turning his five-minute short thriller Panic Attack, about an invasion by robots, into a feature film.

That project never got made. But in one of their meetings, Alvarez let slip that he saw The Evil Dead on video when he was 12 and it remained his favorite scary movie of all time. Raimi, who had long wanted to make another Evil Dead movie but was too busy making giant films ( Spider-Man, Oz the Great and Powerful), asked Alvarez if he’d be interested in a remake.

The script he and writing partner Rodo Sayagues turned in landed them the job.

“The story that they came up with is much more serious than the original’s,” Tapert says. “Audiences today are much more educated about movies. The first Evil Dead is still a hard-hitting horror film, but audiences had never seen anything like it and didn’t know how to respond to it, so they laughed as a protective device. Plus the relationships between the characters were very sketchy. Since then they’ve seen so many outrageous movies, so the drama in this movie supports itself. The audience takes the story about a brother and a sister seriously. In the first Evil Dead, they were just waiting for something crazy to happen.”

Another sign of the times: While the original film received the equivalent of an “X” rating for its violence and gore, the new version — which is infinitely more violent and grotesque — passed with an “R” after the removal of three or four frames, never an entire scene.

“The ratings board has changed over the years,” Campbell says. “What once might have been an R is now a PG-13. We were concerned with this one, because two of the three Evil Dead movies went out unrated. But the ratings board understood our concept that some carnage and mayhem can be exuberant and not depressing. It’s so over the top, you can’t help but laugh. We’re not showing you a guy with a drill drilling into someone’s eye for two hours. This is not one of those movies where you feel like going home and hanging yourself.”

Evil Dead is hitting screens just a week short of a year after The Cabin in the Woods, the deconstruction of the horror film genre by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard that seemed to guarantee no one would ever be able to take one of these kids-alone-in-the-woods thrillers seriously again. But Alvarez, who says he loved Cabin, thinks that movie actually did the genre a big favor.

Cabin is such a fun movie, made by people who really understand horror,” he says. “There are a lot of things in that film that echo things in our movie. But I don’t think it hurts us on any level. If anything, Cabin makes you want to go out and see a real horror movie. And we’re not kidding around with ours.”

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