The Evil Dead Remake Is Still Better than You Think

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The Evil Dead Remake Is Still Better than You Think

When I first saw Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead, on a rented VHS tape sometime in the early 2000s, my overriding sensation was of being overwhelmed. At that point I’d never seen another film like it, even among its many imitators and descendants, and its sheer velocity swept me away. It hit me like an avalanche of sound and light, gushing blood and swooping cameras. It became one of those benchmark horror films for me in terms of the sheer experience of it all, and it still is. 

I won’t go so far as to say that Fede Alvarez’s 2013 reimagining, Evil Dead, overwhelmed me in the same way that Raimi’s film did years earlier, but I was still overwhelmed the first time I saw it. Alvarez’s version of Raimi’s kinetic camerawork and over-the-top gore effects was there, as was the auditory assault of the dark forces unleashed through the story, and I was reminded then just how influential that first film truly is across our whole cinematic landscape. 

Of course, not everyone was a fan. Though it definitely earned acclaim for its focus on practical gore effects and for things like the full-on blood run at its climax, Alvarez’s Evil Dead also proved divisive among horror fans, and I personally know more than one devoted genre viewer who will still name it as one of their most frustrating viewing experiences ever. There are a lot of reasons given for this, from a predictable plot to characters who don’t make wise choices to the sheer onslaught of gruesome sequences, but while the film has plenty of defenders a decade after its release, the naysayers are still very much out in force.

With that in mind, and a new Evil Dead film on the horizon, I went back to the 2013 installment looking for answers. Was I right to be bowled over by the film years ago? Did its critics have a point that I could see more clearly with the benefit of hindsight? How has the film aged after a decade of trauma-informed horror movies, many of which have tackled the same subjects with more subtlety? What I found by the time those blood showers were over and the credits rolled was a film that still retains a certain primal potency after 10 years, and a horror journey that deserves more credit than it’s gotten over the years, even from its defenders.

You know the story of the film, even if you’ve never seen it, and while some people would call that a bad thing, I call it the launch of an exercise in executing a critical horror formula. Five friends head out to a cabin in the middle of the woods to get away from the outside world, then accidentally unleash demonic forces by reading an incantation from a creepy book. It’s a deliberate mirror of the original Evil Dead film, but with a key twist: The central figure in this journey, Jane Levy’s Mia, is trying to kick a heroin addiction, and her brother and three friends are on hand to make sure she makes it through the darkness of withdrawal without giving in to the temptations of the outside world. 

Right away, Alvarez and his co-writer Rodo Sayagues layer tension based on this premise, beginning with the idea that Mia is the only one who can smell the overwhelming aroma of decay coming from the cabin’s basement. Her friends think it’s the withdrawal talking, but there actually is a collection of dead animals down there, along with the book and a recording that Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) promptly gets into. In true Evil Dead fashion, once the dark words are read, there’s no turning back, and soon the residents of the cabin start self-mutilating and transforming into demonic malformations of their human selves.

The mutilations that follow—featuring everything from an electric carving knife to a box cutter to, of course, a chainsaw—are satisfying gnarly for those of us who crave a good splatter with our horror, and the effects are backed up by Alvarez’s devotion to the same crazy zooms and wild pans that made Raimi’s filmmaking style so refreshing back in the early ’80s. It’s a much more grim version of the horror running through The Evil Dead and its much funnier sequel, Evil Dead II, but there’s a sense of wild-eyed enthusiasm running through the whole remake that lightens even its darkest moments, as the characters spiral further down into a madness they don’t understand and can’t control. 

Crucially, the key to all of this, and the center of the horror at both the beginning and the end, is Mia. The film is built around her arc, and elevated by Levy’s relentless pursuit of every horror height she has to climb in this film. As the walls start to close in on the quintet, she’s the one who first knows something is wrong, but she’s dismissed because she’s in heroin withdrawal, and her friends have already established that she will compulsively exaggerate and lie in order to get her way out of the seclusion they’ve prepared for her. So, even as the terror ratchets up and her friends get worried, everyone around Mia is convinced it’s all rooted in her own delusions, her own fears about what she can’t control, her unwillingness to let go of the narrative that she’s the one who’s suffering. Then, the film literalizes that suffering and spreads it through the whole cabin, as each of the group in turn must face demons, including some that wear Mia’s face.

Where this all works, if you’re able to ride the particular vibe Alvarez establishes here, is in the marriage of these dark metaphors with the unhinged violence of a classic Evil Dead scenario. The film’s not trying to simply be a trauma metaphor, but neither is it pushing that trauma aside in favor of a creature feature steeped in gallons of blood. The two march forward together, which contributes to the grueling sense of being overwhelmed that persists in the remake. Is there a clear message behind it, or a moral? Maybe not, but by the time Mia is using a chainsaw to cut a demon who looks like her in half while blood rains down from the sky, it doesn’t matter.

Which brings us back to that sense of formula, of mirroring and echoing the original film, which itself made its own mirror with Evil Dead II a few years after it was released. Yes, Evil Dead plays by a certain set of established horror movie rules, merging the classic with the popular horror concerns of the early 2010s, but that’s exactly the point. To me, Evil Dead plays like Alvarez deliberately boxing himself into certain key tropes and ideas, building a narrative challenge that must play by Raimi’s rules while also bringing an updated horror aesthetic to the party. It’s a lot to ask of any film, and if one ingredient feels off to the viewer, it starts to tank quickly. But if you allow yourself to get sucked into the elements Alvarez is playing with, and buy into the enthusiasm he has for them along the way, you’re rewarded with an ambitious, audacious film that swings its chainsaw in a wide, very bloody arc across the horror landscape. That sense of reach, and the pure sensory overload that comes with it, makes the Evil Dead remake still very much worth the ride a decade later, and cements it as one of the most brutal and fascinating horror efforts of its era.

Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.

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