Before Bruce Campbell returned to the small screen as Ash in Ash vs. Evil Dead (2015), when the original trilogy was primarily spoken about amongst loyal fans (myself included), Evil Dead (2013) arrived with modest critical success and overwhelming box office numbers. It then fell away from the public consciousness with the release of the series and the upcoming HBO Max sequel, Evil Dead Rise (2023). The film stands out among modern remakes that exist purely to thrive on brand recognition. It pays tribute to what came before while standing on its own as an entertaining movie helmed by a sure-handed filmmaker and deserves its due credit.
Evil Dead follows a group of friends to a remote cabin for a relaxing weekend. After Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) reads incantations from a book, a sinister force awakens. Sound familiar? This movie would have benefited from not being released after The Cabin in the Woods (2012) due to its similar parallels with The Evil Dead (1981). The film’s plot differs from the original. Their trip is an attempt to put their friend, Mia (Jane Levy), through detox. Among the group is her older brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), David’s girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), their friends Olivia and Eric (Jessica Lucas), and their dog, Grandpa.
What sticks out is the confident vision of the director, Fede Álvarez, in his feature film debut. He co-wrote the film with writing partner Rodo Sayagues. Regarding the visuals, everything looks repulsive, the cabin is filthy, and the atmosphere is unpleasant. Thanks to the ever-present fog and eerie overgrown trees, you feel claustrophobic, even when the characters are outside.
The gore effects are tasteless, vile, and an absolute delight. Especially when considering how much of it is practical special effects created by prosthetic designer Roger Murray and the extensive effects team for bringing the grotesqueness to life. From the dismembered limbs to the blood (and other fluids), Evil Dead is full of blunt and violent ways for the characters to meet horrible ends. It is not vicious enough to be torture porn but not over the top enough to be wild fun (ala Quentin Tarantino).
The make-up is also a standout, courtesy of special makeup effects artist C.J. Goldman. Primarily on Levy, who becomes unrecognizable by the time Mia is locked in the cellar. Her pale gray skin tone contrasts with her red and yellow eyes, making the colors visually striking. However, the absent solid white eyes of the original films do not go unnoticed.
The characters are standard fare for a slasher film. The central standout is Levy. She turns what could have been a phoned-in performance into a physically demanding one. Her portrayal of Mia ranges from sympathetic to horrified, then frightening and badass, with genuine grace and precision. The rest of the cast does a fine job, but their characters aren’t profoundly developed, not unlike the original. Their characterizations are complete with load-bearing exposition in their introductory scenes.
For instance, David addresses himself to Mia as her older brother, as all siblings do. You probably won’t remember most of the characters’ names. Ultimately, this is forgivable. Their purpose in the film is to be a part of the body count. However, like Levy, they all give dignified performances in roles that didn’t require it.
The film’s pacing is relentless. There’s just enough story to keep it going, and the rest dedicates itself to action and gore. Evil Dead sadly seems to have been forgotten, perhaps due to releasing after the horror film remake surge of the prior decade. It’s refreshing that the filmmakers decided not to rely only on nostalgia to capture the campy tone of the original.
They went another direction stylistically, making the film stand out amongst the rest of the franchise. The answer to whether Evil Dead is the best of the franchise is subjective. If you’ve seen Evil Dead II (1987) and Army of Darkness (1992), it's fair to say Evil Dead ranks third in the film series.