What’s So Funny? The Mis-Remembering of ‘The Evil Dead’

It’s the same thing about remakes. You hear it over and over again. “Why bother…the original was perfect,” or “How dare they rape/sully/insult my childhood/geekdom/fanboy fascination with (insert name of movie here).” The answer, of course, is money. John Carpenter more or less mortgaged his mythos allowing people like Rob Zombie (Halloween) and Rupert Wainwright (The Fog) to revisit his massive back catalog. The same with George Romero (Dawn of the Dead), Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes) and Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist).

Now Sam Raimi joins the fray, forgetting (for now) about a proposed Part IV for his infamous franchise to reboot The Evil Dead for a 2013 audience. As hands on as a high priced Hollywood heavyweight can be (or have we already forgotten about Spider-man and his most recent work, Oz the Great and Powerful), he brought in partners Rob Tapert and Bruce “Ash” Campbell from the original to make sure that this update was done right. By all accounts, they succeeded. While some will fidget over the inevitable comparisons and critics have been more or less measured (65% and steady at Rotten Tomatoes), a $26 million box office take for the weekend works wonders toward legitimizing the icon’s career choice.

Yet something weird has been happening as of late, a confusing question of revisionist history which has no real place in the aesthetic arguments over this new Evil Dead. In many of the dismissals (and a few of the favorable notices as well), reviewers have been complaining about the ‘lack of humor’ in this dark, dour redux. Even the Raimaniacs on Facebook and other social media sites have been wondering where the laughs are. To sum up their slams, and we paraphrase: Evil Dead 2013 is a gory, splatter filled failure because it lacks the one essential element that made Sam Raimi’s original so special: jokes.

Really? Jokes? What Evil Dead are you remembering, exactly? The most recent installment in the series, Army of Darkness, was a snarky bit of sword and sorcery silliness allowing Raimi and his cohorts to riff wildly on all the lame adventure matinees they suffered through as kids. Before that, the filmmaker more or less remade his original film, adding a cabin full of physical shtick. The end result was Evil Dead 2 and it like watching the Three Stooges attend a blood bath. But the first film? If we are starting a new take on the entire Evil Dead legend, why would laughs (or the lack thereof) be the most contested element? Why not the failure to name the incantation book The Necronomicon? Or how about the lack of an demonic voice admonishing the victim fodder to “join us.”

Indeed, there are dozens of things that can be parsed over regarding first time filmmaker Fede Alvarez’s work here. Make no mistake, it’s a terrific film, but it’s not really supposed to be Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead. Alvarez is not pulling a Gus Van Sant here, offering a shot by shot reinterpretation. Similarly, Raimi told the newcomer to make the material his own – and that clearly meant getting rid of as much humor as possible…except, THERE WAS NO HUMOR IN THE FIRST EVIL DEAD FILM!!! Let’s repeat that – aside from some dated material that might be considered comical by today’s standards, the original Evil Dead a balls to the wall fright extravaganza. It was never intended to be funny, unlike both of its follow-ups.

That’s right, you’re wrong. Or at the very least, you have your Evil Dead lore all confused. Having revisited the film again for this overview, it’s hard to see why people are complaining – unless, of course, they are merely bewildered. After all, it’s not hard to think on the entire franchise and not remember Ash beating himself over the head with a series of plates, or having a Moe and Curly back and forth with his own severed hand. Or how about the room full of animated furniture that literally laughs at our hero, or how Raimi undercuts the gore with clever comedic excess and hoary old one liners (“Groovy”). That’s the Evil Dead you know, right? That’s the Evil Dead you love.

Except, that’s also Evil Dead 2. Not the first film. The first film has no real “jokes.” It doesn’t purposefully go out to pull your funny bone. That’s not its intent. Sure, we can giggle at some of the arcane elements (the clothes, the cars, the lame “Let’s party!” attitude), but these are not gags. They are just part of the film’s aging process. Similarly, the last 30 minutes are relentless in their horrific and bloody elements. Ash may be a put upon sap, but are you really laughing as he decapitates his girlfriend, has his calf carved open by a Deadites skeletal hand, or watches as the last two demons devolve into a puddle of putrid goo? No, you don’t.

That’s because Raimi more or less invented horror comedy with Evil Dead 2 and it’s a tough legacy to live down. Since he had the time and the budget, he could get away with exaggerating the extremes and add a bit of wit so that audiences would be more comfortable with hyperactive levels of grue. It’s a formula that has influenced generations of homemade movie makers. In fact, almost every amateur macabre wannabe mimics Raimi more than they copy his peers. You can hate a remake for many reasons, but to mis-categorize the original as part of your dismissal is wrong. It would be like arguing that the recent Marcus Nispel Texas Chainsaw remake was poor because Chop-Top didn’t make an appearance (of course not – he was featured in the funnier, flashier follow-up).

Granted, not every critic is an obsessive who sits back with a photographic memory and recounts every last minute from every single movie they’ve seen. We get things wrong. We misremember names, places, plotpoints. But to take a remake to task for failing to match the tone and temperament of the original, and then not really remembering the right quality and character is ludicrous. The Evil Dead remake is right in line with everything Sam Raimi wanted to accomplish when he took Within the Woods and expanded it to a feature length run time. What you’re recalling is a mixed media ephemera of memory, merging, and meaning. For you, the Evil Dead means goofball anarchy and amazing amounts arterial spray. That’s only half of the story with the first film. Sadly, many apparently don’t remember the other half.