Selling the Splatter: ‘Evil Dead’ Is Back

It may be the first time in mainstream movie history that gore is getting the high sign from marketers. If you’ve been paying attention to the advertising for the new Sam Raimi approved remake of his classic Evil Dead, you’ll understand. Currently making the rounds is a commercial featuring nothing more than brief glimpses of the film and multiple reaction shots — teens, the target audience, and even a couple of older people offer up their first look faces as the trailer (one assumes, red banded) unspools before them. Mind you, we don’t see the splatter, but the implication is clear: the update of the classic ‘within the woods’ workout is one shocking, disgusting blood feast where body parts and arterial spray are beyond the norm. The grimaces and gasps say it all.

And reviews from a recent screening at SXSW confirm this. Critics have been talking about how ‘brutal’ and ‘unrelenting’ the film is. They point out that the MPAA must have been sleeping when it granted the release an “R” rating (there is an even more repugnant cut out there, director Fede Alvarez tweeting that he had to trim some material to avoid the dreaded NC-17 tag). There is even talk of walkouts, nausea, and that most debatable of cinematic asides – is this the most frightening/gory/gratuitous film ever made? While the compare and contrast can be left for a later discussion, the notion of selling splatter is something relatively new. Three decades ago, such shilling would be shunned. Today, with little else to push, the sluice is loose.

Indeed, at the start of the ’80s, Italian horror was pushing the envelope of acceptable big screen material. Movies like Lucio Fulci’s infamous Zombi and his equally appalling City of the Living Dead (renamed Gates of Hell upon its US release) showcased vivisection, literal gut regurgitation, drills through the head, flesh tearing, and gallon upon gallon of the red stuff. Pus flowed and was quickly followed by the rest of the body’s horrific humors. Eyes were gouged out, or pierced with splintered pieces of wood while chunks of muscle and bone were bitten through and consumed. Throughout the decades, titles like Demons and Cannibal Ferox continued the trend. Even the Americans got into the act, following the success of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead sequel, Dawn of the Dead.

It wasn’t until John Carpenter’s The Thing, however, where splatter became ‘legitimate.’ In remaking the creaky old schlock standard, the director relied on F/X genius Rob Bottin to envision his take. Going back to the source, Carpenter wanted his creature to be a shapeshifting spectacle, an ‘anything at any time’ treat for audiences spoonfed their scares. Working tirelessly, seven days a week, for more than a year, Bottin delivered what today stand as some of the most amazing practical make-up and prosthetic effects ever. From the initial dog transformation to the grotesque heart attack defibrillator sequence, The Thing tried to coattail the messy macabre from the Mediterranean. While considered a masterpiece today, it was pilloried by the critics and was a commercial disappointment.

On the outskirts, however, Raimi and his fellow Michigan filmmakers were doing something equally inventive. Without a studio to support/stop them, they took the tale of a group of teens, a diabolical book of demonic incantations, and a few buckets of red Kayro syrup and turned it into a horror tour de force. Raimi would even revisit the film in his sort-of sequel, Evil Dead 2. Both movies piled on the puke, making sure splatter fans were good and satisfied. Eventually, names became associated with gore F/X, as Bottin was joined by such luminaries as Tom Savini, Rick Baker, and Chris Walas (of The Fly fame) in the pantheon of vein draining. And yet the subgenre remained just that – a rarely visited fright by product. Besides, the MPAA wasn’t helping, cracking down on ultra-violence with alarming regularity throughout the ’80s and ’90s.

Now, some 30-plus years later, gore is being given the spotlight. When Marcus Nispel revisited Tobe Hooper’s notorious The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, he included scenes of horrific splatter. Similarly, Eli Roth built his entire Hostel franchise around the detailed maiming and dismemberment of individuals. While splatter remained a viable artist expression around the world – especially in Japan and the new wave of French fright filmmaking – it was never really embraced by Hollywood. In fact, it’s safe to say that when The Evil Dead 2013 finally hits theaters, there will be dozens of pundits pronouncing it as detrimental to personal psychology and the social contract as well.

It’s not a kneejerk reaction. We aren’t used to having blood be the main selling point. Some could argue that we already worship at the altar of atrocity, but there is a difference between dozens of bullet holes erupting on a body and someone taking a knife to their own tongue or smile line (as the Evil Dead red bander delivers). A foreign film like Inside, which sees a psychotic female maniac stalking – and slicing up – a pregnant woman for her about to be born baby, isn’t into edge of your seat thrills. It’s more interested in rim of the toilet despair. No, positioning disturbing, near autopsy level images as your point of purpose smacks of the days of those dopey Faces of Death video compilations. Perhaps that’s why it’s so unusual as a marketing tool – beside the obvious.

It remains to be seen if this will actually work. For everyone turned on by the prospect of seeing someone (or something) sliced up in exquisite, painstaking specificity, there will be many who won’t make the journey. Similarly, Raimi purists are already complaining about the various story changes (there is no Ash this time around) and, believe it or not, comedy. Some are even angry that Diablo Cody was brought him to help smooth out some of the dialogue. No matter the case, when The Evil Dead open in a month, the ad campaign will be only part of the story. Horror fans are very loyal and usually show up to anything scary. By playing the gore card, this film is hedging its bets. Will it come up trumps…or splatter snake eyes? We’ll have to wait and see.