Review Date: February 12, 2002
Released by: Anchor Bay Entertainment
Release date: 3/5/2002
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 1.85:1 | 16x9: Yes
In 1982, Stephen King referred to The Evil Dead as "the most ferociously original horror film of the year." It's likely that without this endorsement, the movie may never have become the horror classic that it is today. But the success of The Evil Dead was not at the theaters or the drive-ins; it was almost solely due to home video, so it's been long overdue for an ultimate edition. There have been several releases on various video formats, from VHS and Beta to Laserdisc and DVD. Anchor Bay has come up with some ingenious packaging on this newest edition, called "The Book of the Dead." While the content doesn't add much from previous versions, the packaging itself is unprecedented. No self-respecting Evil Dead fan will not want this.
Ash (Bruce Campbell) and four of his friends are off to a remote cabin in the woods for a weekend of fun. Everything begins innocent enough, with dinner and drinks, and ridiculously cute gift giving between Ash and his girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker). Apparently both Ash and Linda had no problem getting the weekend off from S-Mart.
Anyway, the fun starts when Ash and Scotty (Hal Delrich) find some curious relics in the impossibly large basement. There's an ancient book of Sumerian burial rites, and a tape recording of the professor who discovered it. Seems the book inspires the resurrection of demons, and the only way to end the madness is through bodily dismemberment. You just KNOW this is gonna get good.
Replaying the passages via the tape recorder awakens a terrible evil in the woods, and in true horror movie fashion, Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) decides to investigate on her own. In one of the most infamous scenes in all of horror history, Cheryl is attacked by the woods themselves, and that's when the real craziness begins. Pretty soon, Cheryl turns into a hideous demon, and keeping her locked in the basement doesn't seem to help. The evil spreads from person to person, until it's only Ash left to defend himself against his newly transformed friends.
The Evil Dead is one of the few films that managed to scare me as an adult, almost solely due to the tension Sam Raimi is able to create. It's not the subject matter or the excessive gore, it's just the simple concept behind it; being in a confined inescapable situation under attack from all sides. We've seen this in film almost since film was invented, all the way from Stagecoach to From Dusk till Dawn. This plot device is used again and again because it just never gets boring.
The opening of the movie is a bit slow, but it's essential in creating mood and atmosphere. Raimi makes deliberate efforts to describe in intricate detail his cabin setting. This creates a claustrophobic effect, and we feel the loneliness and isolation of all of the characters. Not too many directors would use such a limited scenario, and then spend the first third of the film detailing almost every inch of that setting. But in doing so, Raimi makes us feel like we are in that cabin too.
Raimi combines the simplicity of the plot with some amazing visual techniques. For once, 16mm actually provides an advantage over 35mm, as he was able to use the lightweight 16mm camera to provide frenetic movements that may not have been possible using 35mm. From the opening scene as the camera rises from the swamps, to the final swoop through the cabin, you will always notice Sam Raimi's radically unique visual style. The camera angles are stunning as well, furthering the overall off-kilter feel of the film.
One of the more obvious aspects of The Evil Dead is the staggering amount of gory scenes, an aspect that made the film difficult to release almost anywhere in the world. Probably the only reason anyone even considered unleashing this unbelievably violent film is that the gore is almost more humorous than horrifying. Raimi took this idea even further with the sequel, Evil Dead 2, which is almost more of a remake than a sequel except that the humor is even more evident. It's for this reason I actually prefer the less polished original, as it's more of a "true" horror film than the Three Stooges-inspired but more refined sequel. Ah, they're both good movies though…
Evil Dead sure looks nice (well, as nice as a low-budget 16mm film can look) on this disc, but there's bound to be a lot of controversy with the presentation here. As a 16mm film, it was originally shot in the full-frame ratio, then matted to a 1.66:1 or 1.85:1 theatrical ratio, depending on who you ask. Thus, previous video releases of The Evil Dead were presented in the non-matted ratio at 1.33:1. On this disc, we lose some of the top and bottom of the picture in order to have a 1.85:1 ratio, but that's most likely the way American audiences saw it. Now, while some people are up in arms about the missing visual information, I noticed that the composition didn't suffer at all. Oh, I'm sure that in a few scenes there's an extra amount of gore that we won't see with the mattes in place, but it's not really that distracting. Basically, there is no "right" or "wrong" aspect ratio here, and the consumer can decide for himself which release he'd like. And let's face it, if The Evil Dead was brought back for a theatrical revival, would anyone stay at home to watch their full frame versions instead of a matted widescreen presentation on the big screen? I applaud Anchor Bay for providing us with the theatrical ratio. And purists can always seek out one of the many full-frame releases on disc if they so desire.
I compared this DVD to both the previous Elite disc and the older Japanese Laserdisc. This new Anchor Bay disc polishes up the rather washed-out look of the older discs, but that's not always a good thing. Any of the outdoor scenes at night are marred by the extremely bad matting of the moon. I had never noticed this before until seeing the new transfer. I've gone back and looked for it on the other discs, and while it's there, it's nowhere near as pronounced. In fact, I definitely preferred the deeper black levels on previous releases, but the new DVD provides more detail. It's really hard to say which one is better overall, as they both have their respective merits. I like this new disc, but I'm not getting rid of my old copies.
As with several of their recent releases, Anchor Bay has presented The Evil Dead in DTS 5.1 sound. There's also a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX track, but that mix isn't very different from Elite disc. It's the DTS that's the standout here. The low roar during the "force" scenes begins at the back of the room and moves forward with the camera for a great effect. OK, it sure didn't sound like that in 1982, but Raimi did make great use of sound with his original release, and I think the DTS enhances the effects. Other than the extra surrounds, the DTS is comparable to the Dolby Digital in terms of clarity and direction. If you've heard any of the previous 5.1 tracks, there is no measurable difference here.
This Anchor Bay disc ported over the commentary tracks from the previous Elite disc. The first commentary is by director Sam Raimi and Producer Robert Tapert. But despite the genius those two showed in creating the film, they're rather mum when it comes to discussing it. In fact, I'd just avoid the commentary altogether, in favor of the second track done by Bruce Campbell. Bruce actually re-iterates all of the important facts Sam and Robert talked about, but in a much more entertaining manner. He also gives even more information than Raimi and Tapert on other subjects. It's rather strange that the star of the film actually knows as much technical details as the director, but that's one reason Bruce Campbell is so idolized when it comes to these films; obviously he was just as influential as Sam Raimi in the overall look and feel of the Evil Dead trilogy.
We also get the trailers and still gallery from the previous disc, as well as the 18-minute behind the scenes featurette. I hadn't seen this before, and it really does show the hardships the cast and crew endured during the making of the film. The very extensive stills gallery is also worth a look, but make sure you have plenty of time - there are over 100 different shots here.
Not all of the supplements on this Anchor Bay disc are re-treads though. There are two featurettes that have not appeared on any previous release. Unfortunately, they're not exactly essential viewing. The first documentary, produced and directed by Bruce Campbell, is entitled Fanalysis, and really isn't specific to Evil Dead at all. In fact, it's a study of genre fans, from the casual viewer to the fanatics who legally change their names to that of their favorite sci-fi and horror characters. But despite these lunatics, Fanalysis is not an indictment nor a defense of their bizarre behavior. As Bruce himself points out, it's fans like this that pay his bills. I think everyone who sees this will recognize himself and his "level" of fandom.
The next documentary, Discovering Evil Dead, almost seems more out of place, even though it's directly related to The Evil Dead. In this featurette, two producers, Stephen Wooley and Nik Powell, discuss their efforts to bring The Evil Dead to both theaters and video in England back in the 80s. This was the time of the infamous "Video Nasties" that raised so much controversy in Great Britain. Unfortunately though, as an American, I think I'd be more interested in the efforts made to distribute The Evil Dead in the United States and worldwide, rather than just the European market. It is an interesting documentary to be sure, but not exactly required viewing except for the most ardent of fans.
What will interest fans the most with this release however, is the packaging itself. As the name implies, The Book of the Dead is a re-creation of the infamous tome that inspired all three Evil Dead movies. I haven't read aloud any of the incantations, and I doubt anything would come to life if I did, but I do like this presentation. As a longtime Laserdisc collector, I've always felt that DVD has yet to design any creative packaging that was standard on many old Laserdisc releases. Well, this one beats the old 12-inch format in a big way, and may be the most interesting video release I've ever seen. Also, there's a nice booklet inside which documents the many video incarnations of The Evil Dead. Many fans (myself included) have been confused with all the different releases on VHS, Laserdisc, and DVD. While it doesn't exactly do a complete side-by-side-by-side comparison of every single version with all of the various supplements, it's still a nice video history of the film.
Finally, the most notable supplement is the one that isn't there: The Sam Raimi short film Within the Woods, a predecessor to The Evil Dead. Anchor Bay had originally announced that this film would appear on this DVD, then cancelled at the 11th hour. Many fans are up in arms about this, and are of the opinion that another release WITH the short film will one day be made, thus forcing them to buy The Evil Dead yet again. I don't know for sure whether or not that will ever happen, but I wouldn't want to risk not owning this gorgeous edition just in case a future release supplants it.
The Evil Dead is a classic 80s horror film, and the first part of one of the best trilogies of all time. Anchor Bay has done it justice with an anamorphic transfer, DTS sound, and an incredible package. Some fans are rightfully miffed about the repetition of supplements as well as the omitted Within the Woods. I'm not sure that casual fans who already have one of the previous releases on either Laserdisc or DVD will really need to add this to their collections, but hardcore fans will definitely want it. Words alone cannot accurately describe just how cool The Book of the Dead really is. Join us!
Movie - A
Image Quality - B+
Sound - A-
Supplements - A-
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English DTS 5.1 Sound
- English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX
- English Dolby Surround 2.0
- French Dolby Digital 5.1
- French Dolby Surround 2.0
- Audio Commentary with writer/director Sam Raimi and producer Robert Tapert
- Audio Commentary with star Bruce Campbell
- Fanalysis: A 26-minute documentary by Bruce Campbell
- Discovering Evil Dead
- Behind the scenes footage and outtakes
- Theatrical Trailer
- TV Spots
- Poster & Still Gallery
- Talent Bios