Expecting narrative novelty out of a new instalment in the Evil Dead series is at this point at the very least misguided. After all, you could successfully argue that – with one notable exception (Evil Dead III – Army of Darkness) – each entry in this series essentially retells the original story. Therefore, it is simply safe to assume that Evil Dead Rise – the newest addition to the growing deadite family – would follow suit.
Which it does.
Almost exactly a decade after the Fede Alvarez-directed remake of Sam Raimi’s original, Evil Dead Rise opens with familiar imagery of the camera roaming at speed through the woods and over a lake until it introduces us to a familiar setting of a bunch of young people stuck in a remote cabin. However, this is merely an amuse-bouche – a James Bond-esque cold opening aimed to establish first and foremost that the chefs have done their homework and they know exactly how to carry out the mission of keeping Sam Raimi’s legacy alive. So, even though the opening scene resolves quite quickly and expectedly and the setting changes, it is hard not to know what’s in store for us.
Evil Dead Rise introduces us to Beth (Lilly Sullivan) who is about to pay a visit to her sister Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland), as she needs sisterly help and reassurance to cope with her bottled-up problems. Having arrived at Ellie’s place, Beth finds her sister’s life hasn’t been exactly perfect either, as her partner left her to juggle raising three kids Bridget (Gabrielle Echols), Danny (Morgan Davies) and Kassie (Nell Fisher) and the fact the apartment they live in is scheduled to be demolished. However, because this is an Evil Dead movie, this is not even the half of their problems. A powerful earthquake happens to open a rift beneath the basement of the building, which is then conveniently found by Ellie’s children on their way back from a pizza takeaway. Naturally, they inspect what’s inside and find a creepy-looking book and a handful of records. One thing leads to another, and they inadvertently summon a demonic entity, which then possesses their mother… and the rest is silence.
Well, not exactly. The rest is an orgy of violent scares and gore that sees Beth trying to save Ellie’s children and herself from a seemingly invincible and indestructible enemy who uses her sister’s body as a meat-puppet capable of exacting unspeakable violence on those who come near it. But that’s – again – something anyone even remotely aware of the Evil Dead series should expect. And that’s because Evil Dead as a series is best seen as mostly a string of remakes, or – better yet – cinematic equivalents of what in music is known as a cover.
Imagine, if you will, that the original 1981 The Evil Dead was a rock song, recorded in a garage setting and released as an EP to wide acclaim within the fans of the genre. Its allure lied in the fact it had some grit and homemade shoddiness about it, but these were the qualities that endeared it to fans. It was a rough around the edges piece of music that was simple, effective and full of energy that wasn’t necessarily encountered that often in the mainstream. Imagine an early Nirvana song, but in a movie form – carried on the dirt of distorted guitars, Kurt Cobain’s emotive voice and the simplicity of the form. It was kind of wedged between what people perceived as rock and punk rock. It had its own personality. That’s more or less how Sam Raimi’s original The Evil Dead came to become a cult classic – not quite by way of revolutionizing the world and flipping the table over, but by being just a bit different from what was out there with its crash zooms, canted angles and an absurdist energy underpinning an otherwise familiar narrative template.
Now, imagine the same Nirvana song, but re-recorded in a professional studio under the supervision of industry professionals guiding the process of mixing. That’s Evil Dead 2, essentially the same movie but put together with express knowledge of how movies are made. It’s more polished, better produced, less rough. But it is still carried by the same voice with the same energy, even if the energy is now a bit more quantized, harnessed and embellished with a professional sheen. Then, imagine Nirvana going a bit off the beaten path and recording an unplugged album (which they did), or – what would be perhaps a better metaphor, though completely fictitious – a concert album with their songs re-harmonized and rearranged to accommodate a full orchestra playing alongside their iconic four-piece set-up. That’s Army of Darkness – a movie that is still very much entrenched in the Evil Dead spirit, but one that also stands firmly apart. And because of its experimental allure, it also happens to be more appealing to wide audiences as its focus lies away from intense horror, scares and violence.
And then, we have the 2013 Evil Dead, which at the time of its release arrived veiled in notoriety for its unflinching approach to violence and gore, which arguably appealed to some sections of the Evil Dead while it firmly alienated others. However, at its core – beneath the thick layers of onscreen out-and-out cornucopia of gore – the Fede Alvarez remake was still the same movie as the 1981 original. It was just more intense, more brutal, more unflinching. It was a Nirvana song performed by a death metal band. Imagine Come As You Are performed by Cannibal Corpse or Nile. It will be initially downright unrecognizable, especially to those not acclimated to blast beats, mixolydian passages and fast-paced down-tuned chugging, all of which may be essentially indistinguishable from noise generated by a building site during a national jackhammer appreciation day, if this kind of music just isn’t your bag. It was a brutal onslaught and engineered sensory overload meant to push the viewer into a gore-induced excited state. So, arguably it wasn’t for everyone.
This isn’t what Lee Cronin et al were trying to achieve with Evil Dead Rise, as – continuing with this wildly incoherent musical analogy – the movie still functions as a cover of Sam Raimi’s 1981 original but re-enacted by a band like Asking Alexandria or Bring Me The Horizon. It’s radio-friendly heavy metal music for mainstream audiences who would object to unorthodox song structures prevalent in technical death metal, but very much enjoy punchy riffs, breakdowns and occasional screams bigging up an otherwise familiar verse-chorus-coda pattern and catchy melodies.
I guess what I am trying to say is that Evil Dead Rise is a movie whose aim is to appeal to everyone, as it is attempting to lure general audiences with a promise of an exciting trip into the land of extreme-adjacent genre moviemaking, but it still insists you wear a seat belt and knows certain boundaries ought not to be pushed too far. Arguably, this is a good choice for the film to make because fans of the series will likely enjoy it anyway on the back of the fact at this point eighty per cent of the series is essentially composed of remakes of the same narrative template – so they are unlikely to seek originality in the first place. However, in contrast to the 2013 Fede Alvarez movie, which was undoubtedly extreme, Evil Dead Rise makes a conscious effort not to alienate the squeamish among us. In fact, in situations where Alvarez would have clearly relished the idea of lingering on scenes of gruesome violence (like the box grater moment), Cronin opts for a quick flash of gory imagery before moving on completely. Don’t get me wrong, the movie is still very violent, but it is clearly tempered to make sure people don’t pass out or leave the screening covered in their own sick.
However, as is the case of mainstream heavy metal music, despite its catchiness and engineered production design, Evil Dead Rise will likely go down as somewhat forgettable for the very reason it appeals to mainstream audiences so well. In the landscape of predecessors most of which are narratively symmetrical, the movie fails to distinguish itself enough from the pack. Say what you want about the 2013 remake, it stands apart as the cinematic equivalent of a brutal death metal cover of Come As You Are. Evil Dead Rise is the same song performed by Seether, so in all likelihood it is not going to cultivate a substantial following. It is a passable piece of entertainment that works in the moment because everyone – both behind and in front of the camera – is doing what needs to be done to service the material at hand. The acting is fine, the special effects are fine, the gore is fine. Even the drenched-in-blood finale is fine; though it could have been amazing if the filmmakers had committed to it in the way Alvarez did a decade ago.
Problem is, fine is probably not enough. Just as we are swamped with personality-less music that for what it’s worth could have been generated by AI, Evil Dead Rise just doesn’t linger in the memory for long enough to make a lasting cultural impression. It’s cool and snappy in the moment, just like a pop metal song that comes on the radio while you’re navigating the M40 on your way to work, but then it finishes, and another song comes on and you forget it immediately.