From “video nasty” to mainstream horror, the difference between the response to Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1980) and Fede Alvarez’s 2013 remake, Evil Dead, and now Lee Cronin’s Evil Dead Rise is stark. Is Cronin’s film a reboot of an established world, or is it a spin-off, a new chapter in Raimi’s mythological lore that has entered its fourth decade? The response charts changing cultural trends – the desensitisation of horror, where over time, the mainstream appropriates what was once unacceptable and, in the case of The Evil Dead, considered nasty and unconsciable filth.
This new chapter relocates to the city, where roadie and guitar technician Beth (Lily Sullivan) one night drops in on her sister Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland) and her three kids, Bridget (Gabrielle Echols), Kassie (Nell Fisher) and Danny (Morgan Davies), for an impromptu visit. In the cramped Los Angeles apartment, the sisters reconnect, and Ellie reveals that her husband has left her and the kids, and they need to vacate the apartment, but they’ve nowhere to go.
Meanwhile, Beth has her own closely guarded secret – she’s pregnant. Danny discovers a mysterious book when an earthquake exposes a bank vault beneath the building. Ignoring Bridget’s warnings, Danny plays the accompanying vinyl recording, a resurrection incantation from The Book of the Dead.
With Evil Dead Rise, Cronin honours the tried and tested formula that has established the Evil Dead films as a mainstay of horror cinema for the past 41 years. While Raimi experimented with comedy-horror in 1987’2 Evil Dead II, and then added time travel with dark fantasy into 1992’s Evil Dead III’s plot, Alvarez reverted back to the first film’s tone, which Cronin doubles down on.
The trick is possessing the humility to embrace crafting a familiar experience and not aim for a game-changer or something strikingly original. The Evil Dead series has gradually evolved with the passage of time, keeping up with cultural sensibilities. The constant pleasure of these films is the experience of watching characters plunged into a nightmarish fight for survival and seeing what the depraved treats the filmmakers have to offer. In Cronin’s delightfully wicked imagination, an innocuous kitchen utensil, like a cheese grater, becomes something nasty, or frying eggs becomes amusingly twisted.
Evil Dead Rise should be tired and worn, the audience feeling exhausted by the repetition of these films and the zombie sub-genre itself. How many times can we watch people set upon by the living dead before it becomes tedious? Unabashedly, Evil Dead Rise announces that we’re not finished with it yet. By now, the series has become a mirror image of its own horror by refusing to take its final breath.
Bruce Campbell joked on The Evil Dead’s commentary track that his character Ash would read from The Book of the Dead because he’s an idiot. The precedent of characters being foolish is necessary because, throughout the series, the horror is borne out of their curiosity, if not stupidity. Danny pricks his finger on the ivory-like teeth that seal the book shut, and it only opens after absorbing his blood, yet he still plays the record.
If the slasher sub-genre has been critiqued as a punishment for sexually promiscuous teenagers, are The Evil Dead films a punishment for naïve and curious people? Or is the suffering the characters of the genre subjected to symbolic of our primitive natures – our lizard brains, programmed to survive – that horror films are a way to experience our primitive psyche?
Cronin’s addition to the series has an individuality, and while it utilises the established lore, it’s not indebted to Raimi’s 1981 original in the same way Alvarez’s remake was. It has the presence of a new chapter or legacy – the end of a second beginning. The image of Mia (Jane Levy) drenched in blood, the cabin in the woods, and the dynamic between brother and sister, almost branded Alvarez’s remake as a reimagining of the classic fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood. It was an effective touch that tapped into the heritage of feminine resilience.
Vulnerability is not gender specific in horror cinema; only the focus is heightened when women are the victims. It’s an instinctive idea transmitted from centuries of patriarchal tradition, where films parrot the idea of feminine purity versus living in sin. From Mia, the heroin addict who goes to the cabin to detox, to the unwed pregnant Beth, their fight for survival against the living dead symbolizes atonement for defiling their bodily temples.
This is not to suggest it was a conscious choice on Cronin’s part, but films carry a semiotic language that feeds into preconceived notions and cultural traditions of critical thinking. In Evil Dead Rise, once possessed, Ellie’s maternal and feminine persona, interestingly bohemian in nature, transforms into what feels like a masculine presence that oppresses, appropriates, or even shouts down the feminine. Ellie reminds us that the reasons are that philosophical and critical thought is merely a convenience – no excuse is needed to punish women.
Beth’s pregnancy is an effective plot device, anchoring the suspense in emotion. She’s not fighting to survive for survival’s sake but to prove she can be a mother, to prove the nay-sayers wrong who think she’s not a serious person who shirks responsibility. Besides her unborn child, she also needs to survive to protect her nieces and nephew because in her last words, Ellie told Beth not to let it take her babies. The ordeal Beth endures is almost a trial by fire – fate throws down a gauntlet and demands she proves she’s worthy of being a mother.
Evil Dead Rise knows what its audience wants and delivers. There’s ample blood and gore, the wise-cracking humour, where the transformed play on their former selves with witty remarks, and the iconographic tracking cinematography, without which, it wouldn’t feel like an Evil Dead film. Cronin effectively intersperses some delightfully wicked moments throughout, striking a balance between scenes driven by emotion, the characters’ personalities, and the horror. The “Mummy’s with the maggots now” is a delightfully wicked moment, as is the scene when the possessed Ellie tries to get Kassie to open the door. Cronin knows how to tickle us with those familiar beats, and we go along with it out of pleasure, not malice.
Evil Dead Rise is effective in creating a suspenseful experience, but it doesn’t try to be a scary or frightening horror film, nor should it. It’s so on the nose that it denies itself the capability to be a terrifying film. It’s an expressionistic rendition of horror that celebrates its excess. Evil Dead Rise is the pleasure instead of the terror of horror.
Ellie’s make-up and one ominous glare have shades of Heath Ledger’s The Joker from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and her look possibly draws from various renditions of The Joker character in the graphic novels. The music in the climactic scene is oddly distracting, haunted by beats that sound eerily similar to Christopher Young’s score for Hellraiser from 1987. Whether conscious, a bloody elevator scene recalls Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. James Cameron’s Aliens also exerts its presence upon Evil Dead Rise, especially in the relationship between Beth and Kassie, as well as in a subtle nod to Cameron’s masterpiece in the climactic scene.
Unfortunately, Cronin fails to follow Alfred Hitchcock’s advice to enter the story at the last possible moment and leave at your earliest convenience. The opening and closing scenes in Evil Dead Rise are unnecessary, featuring characters and a lakeside cabin location that have no involvement in Beth’s story. We’re left to wait to see if these scenes are the jumping-off point for the sequel (because, of course, we anticipate there will be a sequel), returning the horror to the woods, but it denies Evil Dead Rise from being as oppressively claustrophobic and intense as it wants to be.