Blu-ray Review: The Evil Dead (1981)



Anchor Bay’s serial re-releasing of The Evil Dead and its sequels is something of a running joke in the horror community (even Bruce Campbell makes a joke about it on one of this set’s numerous bonus features), but this is the first time it’s appeared on the high def Blu-ray format. Granted, this isn’t exactly the film anyone would think of when they wanted to show off how great their home theater, but it’s nice to truly have the ultimate presentation of the fan favorite, and it carries over just about every bonus feature from the previous, ahem, Ultimate Edition, but takes up less than half the space on your shelf. Power of Blu-ray!

Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here. The real draw is and always will be the film itself, which continues to scare even after dozens of viewings. I know the sequels are more popular in terms of fans repeating quotes over and over (something that’s basically ruined any enjoyment I could derive from Army of Darkness, which I never loved anyway), but the first has always been my favorite, since it’s the only one that’s a full blown horror film, and is the only one that can inspire wannabe filmmakers such as myself to go make their own (I really should get around to doing that...). It’s not just another horror movie; it’ a film school wrapped up in a surprisingly fast-paced and action packed narrative.

What I love most about the film is that all of the kids are really likable, something that’s increasingly rare in horror films. Even some of the other teen-based classics of the day had their fair share of characters you couldn’t wait to see offed, but that’s not the case here. All five of them are personable, funny, and fairly well developed – the shit hits the fan about 20 minutes in but by then you at least know their names, their relation to each other (though the fact that Cheryl was Ash’s sister was something I only learned through bonus features), and some of their background – even a throwaway line like Scotty telling Ash that something in the book looks like his old girlfriend has more depth than anything in say, Nightmare on Elm St 2010, which threw a Joy Division shirt on one major character and left the rest up to our imagination.

It’s also not just a Bruce Campbell demo reel as the sequels were. Scotty lives almost to the end (is this the first horror film to kill off its females first and leave two males for the final reel?), and the demonized girls stick around quite a while as well. And more importantly, he’s not any more/less important to the proceedings in the early scenes. So many films make it too obvious who the final one standing will be right from the start, which always annoys me. Granted the existence of the sequels lets you know that Ash will be more or less unscathed from any dangers he faces here, but at the time, no one could have known that until everyone else was dead.

The effects are crude, yes, but they’re not terrible either. The stop motion stuff is impressive, as are the bulk of the demon makeups. And I’m not sure if this is unique to this edition, but they have fixed the hilariously bad matte lines around the moon shots, though I must admit I always found them kind of charming (and the moon is still too goddamn big, why didn’t they fix that too?). And the Blu-ray makes those red/green/black/every other color liquids look great as they splash and shoot their way across people’s faces and torsos.

The Blu also features two “sizes” for the movie – the original 1.33:1, and a resized 1.85:1 that will fit your HDTV all snug-like. However, please note that the 1.85 version is NOT offering more picture on the sides, but rather cutting the top and bottom. So if you want the most complete image, stick with the full frame 1.33 one. For the most part the 1.85 is fine and doesn’t take out anything important, but it does make many shots feel cramped, cutting off the tops of heads and such. Your call.

As I said, most of the features here are ported over from the previous edition (or ONE of the previous editions; I lost track), the 3-disc set known as the Ultimate Edition, which were all brand new at the time. The biggest draw is probably 45-50 minute length retrospective, featuring all three ladies, Robert Tapert and a lot of the crew (no Raimis, Bruce, or Hal Delrich), plus insight from the likes of Eli Roth, Edgar Wright, and Joe Bob Briggs. They cover the usual areas (the grueling shoot, the lack of a complete script – “it was written on 27 napkins!”, etc), but from the perspective of folks you don’t hear from as often. Sure, having Sam and Bruce would have been nice, but it’s not like the world is starved for their recollections on the film.

The other biggie is an hour’s worth of alternate/deleted takes and footage, nicely edited together as a piece instead of broken up into a bunch of chunks. There isn’t really anything crucial in this set, and you’d have to be a die-hard to sit through the entire thing without skipping around or “background noise”-ing it, but it’s interesting all the same. “The Ladies of The Evil Dead Meet Bruce Campbell” is a roundtable discussion with the three female leads (Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker, Theresa Tilly) and Bruce, as they shoot the shit and mock one another, talking about their various injuries and other war stories from the production. Discovering The Evil Dead is one of the most interesting pieces, detailing the film’s European acquisition and release. As one of the “Video Nasties”, ED caused a lot of controversy in Britain and such, but it was also treated as a major film, not a drive-in cheapie (they don’t HAVE drive-ins in the area, anyway). Definitely the most “outside the box” bonus feature on the set, highly recommended.

"Unconventional" is sort of like the Ladies” piece, but now with Ted Raimi and the elusive Hal Delrich (whose real name is Richard DeManincor) joining the fray. Most of the piece is about going to conventions, dealing with odd fans, autograph mishaps... it’s pretty fun, if a bit long. Then we get a pair of features from a convention in Chicago circa 2005 – one is the cast (plus makeup guru Tom Sullivan) giving away the newest DVD (at that time) to the crowd before they watch the film on 35mm somewhere at O’Hare airport, with jets flying overhead, the other is a panel from the convention itself, with the same 7 folks answering questions as non-seriously as possible. Rounding things out are a look at the complete Book of the Dead (basically a deleted scene of Ash flipping through every page in the book), and a makeup test that could have used some subtitles or commentary for context.

So what’s new? More importantly, what’s missing? Well, the only thing I can find that has been dropped from the UE box are the two commentaries, one with Bruce solo, the other with Sam and Rob. These tracks have been on pretty much every release of the film going back to the Elite disc from 2000, so chances are you probably have them somewhere. Instead, for the first time, we get an all new commentary with all three men together, recorded in December of 2009. There’s a bit of bittersweet irony to the specific time of its recording – it was right at the tail-end of Sam’s ultimately losing battle for more time (and less specific villain demands) from Sony on Spider-Man, which resulted in him leaving the franchise and Sony starting over from scratch. Keeping that in mind, it’s a bit understandable why the track is far more subdued than the others. They still bust each others’ balls and Sam makes a few of his trademark corny puns, but you can sense that they’re just not as into it. But it’s still a good track, largely dealing with the process of getting the film together and getting it released, though they do still tell a lot of the great horror stories from the Tennessee production, such as how someone had to sleep in the freezing house every night to ward off thieves. It’s also entirely non-screen specific (I only counted one instance in the entire movie where they addressed the on-screen action), so if you wanted you could record it onto your iPod and listen to it on your commute or something, as it really comes off more of a roundtable discussion than a commentary track.

If you skipped the UE box a couple years back (as I did), then this is a double-dip worth every penny. The 3+ hours of bonus features are highly entertaining and well put together, and reveal info that even the "Evil Dead Companion" book (or the other 47 DVD releases) never got into, not to mention that the picture quality is, obviously, the best it’s ever been on any home format. If you DO own that set, then you’re essentially buying the high def transfer and new commentary (and some shelf space), so I guess it’s a matter of how much you love the film or love commentary tracks (it’s definitely nice to have fresh Sam material – it’s been quite a while since he has contributed anything new for this particular film). But either way, this is truly the best package yet for the film.

Film 9/10
AV 9/10
Bonus 10/10
Overall 9/10

1 comment:

  1. The moon's supposed to be that big. It's an effect, they could have made it as big as they wanted. The moon is even bigger in Army of Darkness.


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