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Sunday, January 20, 2008

DVD Review: The Evil Dead Ultimate Edition

The Evil Dead Ultimate Edition
2007 Anchor Bay
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Picture yourself shacked up amongst 17 actors and film crew members in a barren section of the Tennessee mountains; no electricity, no toilets, a number of curious hicks and hunters crawling around you for weeks with random offerings of bathtub moonshine (in light of power tool theft prior to) so potent you can't imagine anyone bearing the inevitable holes in their intestines. Instead, the white lightning becomes an addition to the bare bones instruments of set design adding to the legend that is The Evil Dead.

Very few can appreciate the tortures of the damned that Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker, Hal Delrich and Sarah York (now known as Theresa Tilly) underwent to make what most horror buffs consider an indisputable gem of the genre, although you're still wont to find handfuls of neophytes and younger generations at a loss for this movie that was originally filmed in 1979 and fought until 1982 for broader acceptance. Strange to us old league horror nuts to see some goof out of our time and empathy range call The Evil Dead "crap on a stick," the same ones who turn around and glorify Eli Roth's Cabin Fever. Well, kiddies, Mr. Roth himself gets on this special edition DVD to testify that Cabin Fever is essentially his tribute to The Evil Dead. Doink, doink!

The problem with some people is they lack the ability to see past the archaic standards in which The Evil Dead and others of its day were filmed and instead take note of the painful measures by which Bruce Campbell and his co-conspirators in gore history undertook to make this thing. Campbell, who ought to be considered the Jackie Chan of horror for his relentless stuntwork, was one of many who bear the scars and toils from weeks in a freezing cold shit shack. Director Sam Raimi stretched, beat and excreted upon his life-sized action figures like little kids have historically done without mercy upon their toys. Campbell severely sprained his ankle ironically after completing a take on The Evil Dead, never mind the long night of shooting continued on and he had to bite through it all.

Despite the fact there are gripers that The Evil Dead is once again upon us in a new video format, this Ultimate Edition is worth having for the widescreen format (much less the Full Frame version with Bruce Campbell's commentary track), but more importantly, it's the behind-the-scenes access and stories of courage that you're going to want a piece of if you care anything about The Evil Dead movies. As Ash, Bruce Campbell has created a splattery pop art icon that is so endeared a story is told of New Line Cinema approaching Raimi and his gang to do a crossover film featuring Ash in a collision with Freddy Kruger and Jason Voorhees. What a travesty that would've been... Why not pit Ash vs. Leatherface for superiority dibs as supreme chainsaw hacker bandido? Hell, let's set it in the old west and have Bruce reprise his classic television persona Briscoe County, Jr. in a dual role? In the finale, Evil Ash comes in kills all three but is captured in the Necronomicon by Ashley Laurence, who has just finished kicking Pinhead's ass for the umpteenth time using the Book of the Dead after that pain-in-the-ass puzzle gets shattered for eternity...

Aside from hearing about Campbell's turmoils on the set as producer, actor and cow dung scraper on the set of The Evil Dead, we get to spend a considerable amount of time with the three women of the movie, who have of late been touring the horror con scene as "The Ladies of The Evil Dead." Consider the fact that Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker and Sarah York (Ms. Tilly if you're nasty), as well as Hal Delrich were forced to contend with sight-impairing contacts (applied by none other than Bruce Campbell himself) for lengthy bouts of time in addition to their heavily-caked demon makeup, and then being run the gamut of physically punishing stunts; it's collectively a legend unto itself.

The actresses describe the abuse they withstood while making The Evil Dead, which might as well serve as a textbook for old school filmmaking. Betsy Baker testifies to the brutal brainings the she took from props allegedly made of styrofoam and losing her own blood and skin on the floor of the cabin during the sequence where Ash drags her character Linda towards the front door. Ellen Sandweiss describes her ordeal in the frigid woods during the notorious tree rape scene, which infuriated England so much they put Sam Raimi on trial for indecency. Sandweiss, who once ducked away from her notoriety as Cheryl (Ash's "fifth wheel" sister), now embraces what she and the cast and crew created with The Evil Dead, as former schoolmate to both Campbell and Raimi and as a widely-embraced scream queen.

It's fun to watch Betsy Baker's joking shriek duels with convention fans, complete with the all-too-familiar taunt "we're gonna get you...we're gonna get you..." as it is even more fun to watch Bruce Campbell hilariously roast himself, his comrades and even the fans at a Q&A session on the DVD. The man is as much of a cut-up as Baker attests when she first met him, Sam Raimi and producer Robert Tapert in a diner for her audition in 1979. To imagine this small band of 20-something filmmakers catapaulting spoons in the air while waiting to conduct a formal there any wonder why The Evil Dead and its riotous sequels are so savagely nutty? These are the same yabbos who poked and prodded Campbell's smarting ankle because he was trying to laugh through the pain of it all, and they're the same yabbos who hysterically pulverized Campbell's face with buckets of gore. Funny to imagine this being the same director who has done three mainstream yet wildly entertaining Spiderman movies, but also remember that Peter Jackson delivered two of horror's zaniest gore romps, Bad Taste and the cult classic Dead Alive before taking on his momentous Lord of the Rings adaptation.

While the majority of horror aficianados have seen The Evil Dead more times than Rocky Horror enthusiasts used to show up at midnight on the weekends, the really haunting fact is that a small group of go-for-broke-minded individuals pooled their resources and amazingly survived an adverse-laden film shoot, then were forced to wait over two years to see their labors presented to a wider public. These people were taken to their nerve's frayed ends on The Evil Dead so much that it took them months to get over the anger from their experiences, much less speak to one another again. To think that The Evil Dead was initially faced with so much rejection that it took drive-ins and grindhouses to generate the proper interest which ultimately sent it straight to the then-new home video technology. The rest has been history, suffice it to say...

The Evil Dead and also its campy faux redux Evil Dead 2 need no touting of their greatness. Even if you're of the new school where CGI substitutes a lot of the effects ingenuity the old gore classics employed on their wits and science fair experimentalism, you have to at least appreciate where Sam Raimi, his brother Ted and the memorable cast of The Evil Dead were coming from. Yes, it requires the strictest suspension of disbelief (just tell yourself that whomever Ash and his friends rented that hellish cabin from had rigged the electricity and paid the bill regularly so you can move on with the film), and yeah, there's plenty of continuity errors, but who the hell cares? When your plot is to strand a group of friends who uncork a bunch of demons that possesses and mashes them fiercely, so much they're forced to turn on one another in bloody fantastical fashion, that's all the premise you need. You didn't come to this chop 'em up film to seek out the next Howard's End, The Aviator or Atonement. If you did, then you need to get the hell outta Tennessee...

Rating: ****1/2


dschalek said...

Goofy gore at it's best, how many teeny boppers would be shocked to learn that this is the same guy responsible for the Spiderman movies, I wonder?

Ray Van Horn, Jr. said...

Well, I can honestly say I just conducted a little interview with Brucefor Hails & Horns mag and he attests that very thing, particularly that most people just want to peg him as Ash despite a very prolific career in film, TV and for Sam Raimi, I think once the mainstream young 'uns find this film they're going to be hit over the head like any Peter Jackson fan uncorked Bad Taste and Dead Alive