When The Evil Dead invaded movie theaters in 1983, it detonated an atomic bomb on a stale horror-film genre overrun by masked killers and teen slashers. Made on a tiny budget, sporting Stephen King’s personal seal of approval and released unrated for its violence, the movie launched the careers of actor Bruce Campbell ( Burn Notice), director Sam Raimi ( Spider-Man) and producer Robert G. Tapert (TV’s Spartacus: War of the Damned). Watching it in a theater was a riotous experience: The audience screamed and laughed and gasped in shock at the situations these unknown filmmakers had conjured up, making Freddy and Jason and Michael seem like schoolyard wimps.
Now comes the remake, more plainly titled Evil Dead, which ups the violence and gore and craziness but still feels strangely quaint. This is not merely another rip-off reboot of an established classic, like the recent A Nightmare on Elm Street and Texas Chainsaw Massacre redos. Campbell, Raimi and Tapert were all closely involved with the project, and first-time director Fede Alvarez, who hails from Uruguay, has a strong visual style and a taste for the gruesome. He knows how to compose beautiful, nightmarish visuals. He pays clever homage to the original without imitating it slavishly, and he has higher production values and a bigger budget, which means all the more blood to splash across the screen.
So why isn’t there a single good scare in the entire film? This is not a matter of being overly familiar with the first film: Alvarez has made enough changes to make the movie his own, beginning with an actual premise other than good-looking college students partying in the woods. Mia (Jane Levy) is a drug addict trying to get clean, so she invites her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) and some of their friends to her parents’ cabin to support her as she goes through the painful process of withdrawal.
Soon, though, Mia is looking like Linda Blair in The Exorcist and telling her pals they’re all going to die there. They think she’s going through some scary jonesing and lock her in a cellar. Curiously, Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) forgets to tell anyone he found a book bound in human skin, sealed with barbed wire and illustrated with demonic drawings which he opened and read out loud, even though it wasn’t even written in English, summoning some ancient evil force.
If you saw last year’s genre-deconstruction The Cabin in the Woods, Eric’s book-reading will make you think of Sigourney Weaver. You will think of her several times after that, too, which doesn’t help Evil Dead in the fright department. The characters are interchangeable and don’t even seem to like each other much, which makes it hard to care when they start dying.
The main selling point of the 1983 version was the incredible gore, the over-the-top acting, the ingenious effects and its warped sense of humor. But the new Evil Dead contains none of those things. It’s a dour, humorless movie, and although it’s 100 times bloodier, it still got away with an R (even the squeamish ratings board wasn’t impressed). Evil Dead isn’t actively bad, like so many current horror remakes are, and it contains images that stay with you (including one long shot near the end involving a chainsaw). But the movie is low on energy and thrills. It lacks the exuberance of the original, and it doesn’t creep you out, either. It’s a horror movie made by a director who obviously loves the genre, but can’t do much other than imitate. The Evil Dead was an absolute blast. Evil Dead is just a well-made gross-out.