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The Evil Dead

Year: 1981  Company: Rennaisance Pictures   Runtime: 85′
Director: Sam Raimi   Writers: Sam Raimi   Cinematography: Tim Philo   Music: Joseph LoDuca
Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Richard DeManincor, Betsy Baker, Theresa Tilly, Bob Dorian, Sam Raimi
Disc company: Starz / Anchor Bay   Video: 1080p 1.85:1 / 1.33:1   Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 English,
Dolby Digital 2.0 French   Subtitles: English SDH,  Spanish   Disc: BD50 (Region A) / DVD-9
Release Date: 08/21/2010   Limited Edition 2-disc is OOP, but available through third party sellers.  The current single-disc standard edition is available for purchase through Amazon.com
The Wtf-Film Guide to Essential Blu-ray is the record of one man’s eclectic journey to uncover the very best of the weird and wonderful that Blu-ray has to offer.  And with Halloween nary a month and a half away it seemed appropriate to cover an oddball horror classic in this, the inaugural edition of the column.  Mmmm… manufactured timeliness.  Can you dig it?

It’s difficult to know just what to say about The Evil Dead, a bona fide cult phenomenon that’s spawned two successful sequels, sent its writer and director to the top of the Hollywood food chain, and converted thousands of seemingly well-adjusted individuals into foaming-at-the-mouth genre fanatics over the course of the past three decades.  Perhaps the greatest compliment I can level at it is that even after thirty long years it has lost none of its spectacularly deranged funhouse appeal.  Current generations can have their sleek and soulless remakes and mindless torture porn, but my heart will always belong to The Evil Dead.

Low budget horror of the highest possible order, The Evil Dead begins in more or less familiar territory and ends anywhere but.  An air devilish playfulness is obvious from the start.  The film introduces itself with a roaring Steadicam-style point-of-view motif, thrusting the audience into the perspective of its eponymous malignance before a human cast is ever produced!  Once the cast does arrive it is almost immediately threatened, and narrowly avoids the certain doom of a disastrous head-on collision.  It’s a moment indicative of the a-thrill-a-minute mentality of The Evil Dead‘s production, and the first notice to the audience that they’re in for a bumpy ride.

Somewhere between its genre flourishes – a creepy cabin, a dark cellar, fog-bound woods full of unnatural noises – the film’s meager plot unwinds.  Five young friends are off to the wilds of Tennessee for a touch of low-rent rest and relaxation.  In rummaging about their creaky vacation spot they discover some strange memorabilia – a skeletal knife, an ancient book bound in human flesh, and the tape-recorded ramblings of a mysterious archaeologist – which they immediately set about messing with.  Before long the likable if dim-witted cast has run afoul of obscure demonic forces, and a delirious nightmare of possession begins…

The setup for The Evil Dead is as sparse as it is brief, a fact that works well in the film’s favor.  Contemporary horrors were often burdened by their dependency on cheap titillation at best or drab dramatic fill at worst, but writer and director Sam Raimi foregoes all of that and instead focuses on assaulting both his characters and his audience with a precisely timed assortment of false alarms, sight gags and legitimate frights.  That’s not to say that the story isn’t important.  Quite the contrary.  That the premise is so grounded in familiar genre tropes only enhances the insanity of what follows, providing a stable foundation from which The Evil Dead‘s house of hysterical horrors can emerge.  There’s a sort of sideshow appeal to the terrors on display here that’s hard to quantify, something that keeps us looking no matter how outlandish or cringe-worthy the film becomes.  What’s more is that on some subversive, primal level it’s fun, a factor that keeps the film from feeling cruel or mean-spirited even at its most grueling.


Who’s that guy?

And grueling The Evil Dead can certainly be, though never to such an extent that its playful spirit is entirely obfuscated.  Though clearly inspired by the dreadfully serious horror blockbuster The Exorcist, Raimi and his co-conspirators were just as clearly not concerned with the existential or spiritual concerns of demonic possession.  The focus here is squarely on entertaining the audience through the physical and psychological torments so judiciously ladeled upon the cast, a focus that brings The Evil Dead closer to the realm of slapstick comedy and Looney Tunes than to the nastily viceral horrors of The Exorcist.  While overt comedy wouldn’t enter into the series until Evil Dead II, the over-the-top comedy of gore that serves as both a retread of and a sequel to the first film, the same sensibilities are certainly in evidence.  This is the sort of film that proves just how paper-thin the line between comedy and horror really is, and much of its success lies in the fact that it frequently takes the latter to such extremes that it flirts with becoming the former.

Produced for less than half a million dollars and filmed on grainy 16mm film stock, I never cease to be amazed at just how well made The Evil Dead really is.  Sure, the extensive gore effects are so fiscally constrained as to be silly at times (a silliness that would become more and more intentional as the series wore on), but the film maintains a cinematic vitality that’s simply not seen in most of its kind.  Much of the crew of The Evil Dead had worked together to produce short 8mm subjects in the past, including the legendary Within the Woods (the short horror film concocted to drum up support for this feature production), and that experience definitely paid off here.

The Evil Dead is positively gut-loaded with old-school atmosphere and inventive design (including my favorite visual, a collapsed bridge whose steel supports have been curled so as to look like a menacing hand), with an uncharacteristically professional sound mix to match.  Save for some inherent grittiness of the 16mm photography rarely gives itself away, bolstered by thoughtful key lighting and often bizarre compositions.  Raimi’s camera follows the cast from a variety of strange and often hand-held angles, in one case beginning upside down and behind the subject, then sweeping over to end in an extreme close-up of their face.  Then there is the editing (by Edna Ruth Paul and Joel Coen, who would coordinate again for the Coen brothers’ debut feature Blood Simple), the bane of so many low-budget low-talent productions, and an element that’s in stronger form here than in most films, period.  Taken as a whole The Evil Dead can be a disarming experience, a drive-in shocker that defies expectations, transcending the limitations of genre and budget to become something deliciously unique and totally its own.

There’s plenty more to be said of The Evil Dead, its horrors, and its star (what’s his name again?), but I’ll leave it to others to say it.  This is a film best experienced first hand rather than talked about, and I’ll not spoil further details of it here.  Just rest assured that its reputation is well-earned and that yes, you need to see it.  Enough said.

I’m sure I’ve been guilty of saying the same thing in the past, but the more marginal Blu-ray releases I see the more I hate the same tired assumption that such and such subpar product is “perhaps the best this low-budget cult picture is ever going to look“.  I realize that expectations are low for genre efforts, largely because of decades worth of sub-par theatrical presentations and even worse video editions, but when generally trustworthy reviewers begin excusing crap like the recent Blu-ray of The Hills Have Eyes with idiotic assumptions about filmic limitations (“You can’t improve beyond the source” my ass) I get angry.  I count myself lucky that there are at least a few genuinely fantastic genre releases on my side, and couldn’t be happier to add Anchor Bay’s Blu-ray edition of The Evil Dead to the list.

Anchor Bay has had more than its fair share of HD troubles, mostly to do with a spate of overly-processed DNR-heavy affairs (Dawn of the Dead anyone?) from early in the format’s history, but there’s nothing to fault them for here.  The Evil Dead makes its high definition debut in a new director-supervised 1080p transfer minted from the original negative, and I find it genuinely difficult to believe that the film could ever look much better.  Presented in both theatrical 1.85:1 and the originally-intended 1.33:1, this new edition excels beyond past DVD editions to an extent I hardly thought possible.  Detail shows a marked improvement across the board, with the backgrounds of exterior shots finally appearing as more than just amorphous blobs, while color saturation and contrast take a turn for the natural.  Film grain is present throughout, and is predictably more pronounced in the matted 1.85:1 edition, and aside from some questionable moments during the opening title the strong AVC encode (26.3 Mbps average video bitrate for the 1.33:1 version, minutely higher for 1.85:1) never falters.  Framing differs between the two aspect ratios but not always as one might expect.  The 1.85:1 edition almost always appears to have more information at the sides, though the amount is not consistent across the board.  The intended 1.33:1 feels more comfortably framed, but even the 1.85:1 edition isn’t so ridiculously constrained as in past editions (see the 8th comparison set below).  This wipes the floor with what came before, and I’d say it looks damned good.

For the sake of full disclosure, HD screenshots were captured as .png at full resolution in MPlayer and compressed to .jpg using Image Magick.  After comparing to the original .png files the results appeared quite transparent to these eyes, even when zooming in 2-3x.  DVD screenshots were captured in .png format in VLC from the 2002 Anchor Bay edition, upconverted to 1920×1080 in GIMP and compressed to .jpg format at a quality setting of 95%.  DVD screen shots appear first, followed by the 1.85:1 and finally 1.33:1 HD variants.  Frame matches are exact in all cases.

Comparison Set #1

Comparison Set #2

Comparison Set #3

Comparison Set #4

Comparison Set #5

Comparison Set #6

Comparison Set #7

Comparison Set #8

Comparison Set #9

Comparison Set #10

Comparison Set #11

Comparison Set #12

No original monophonic mix is included, but this is no surprise (the 2002 DVD was lacking in that department as well), and the 5.1 surround track gets a decent technical bump in Dolby TrueHD.  The Evil Dead‘s outlandish sound design, with clocks ticking like guillotines and voices sneaking up from beyond, lends itself well to the surround format, and the more bombastic moments come across very nicely.  A lossy Dolby Digital 2.0 French dub track is also included, and the feature is supported by optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles.

The sole new supplement in this package is a brand new audio commentary that gathers director Sam Raimi, producer Robert Tapert and the star of the show (who has sadly gone on to dwell in obscurity, with no hit television series or successful film productions to his credit at all), and it’s a blast.  Detailed production information goes hand in hand with anecdotes, and The Evil Dead may be one of the most fascinating film production to hear about, ever.  It’s abundantly clear that this was a labor of (mad) love for all involved, and that they genuinely cherish the experience regardless of how awful it was at times.

If you have the standard single-disc Blu-ray version of The Evil Dead then the above commentary is the only extra on board.  The now-OOP and needlessly limited edition two-disc version collects most of the supplements from Anchor Bay’s Ultimate Edition DVD from 2006 and piles them onto a dual layer DVD that accompanies the feature Blu-ray.  This is the only sore spot of this release, in my mind.  The dual layered Blu-ray, even after carrying 2 separate encodes of the film, still has more than enough space to cover the 6.9 GB of standard definition material presented on the DVD.  So why not put it there?  I have no idea, but those who already own the Ultimate Edition can at least rest assured that the additional disc in the LE Blu-ray doesn’t have anything on it that they haven’t already seen.

The disc 2 standard definition supplements are as follows: One By One We Will Take You: The Untold Saga of The Evil Dead (54 minutes), The Evil Dead: Treasures From the Cutting Room Floor (60 minutes), The Ladies of The Evil Dead Meet B…. C…… (29 minutes), Discovering Evil Dead (13 minutes), Unconventional (19 minutes), At the Drive-In (12 minutes), Reunion Panel (31 minutes), Book of the Dead: The Other Pages (2 minutes), Make-Up Test (1 minute), a theatrical trailer (2 minutes), four television spots (2 minutes), and a brief photo gallery.  It amounts to just under four hours of material, all told, and is well worth the time it takes to view it all.

I could lament again how disappointing it is that Starz / Anchor Bay needlessly released a limited edition and have now saddled potential buyers with a Blu-ray with very little supplemental heft, but I won’t.  With The Evil Dead looking as it does here I’d have settled for nothing and less in the way of supplements.  Yes, I think it looks that good.  There’s no question here as to whether to recommend or not recommend.  Just buy it.  It’s good for you.

in conclusion
Film: Excellent  Video: Excellent  Audio: Very Good   Supplements: Excellent -
Harrumphs: Missing some past supplements, and needlessly a limited edition.
Packaging: Standard 2-disc Blu-ray case.

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