While remakes can benefit from name recognition to make a splash at the box office, it’s another challenge entirely to live up to the original film. Many fail to do so, but horror remakes might have the hardest time winning fans over. A genuinely brilliant horror remake, like David Cronenberg’s The Fly or John Carpenter’s The Thing, feels as unlikely as a total solar eclipse when the present theatrical landscape is inundated with underwhelming (if not outright infuriating) reimaginings of Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Omen, Poltergeist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Day of the Dead, and The Wicker Man—and that’s just in the past 20 years.
As a result, even the most iconic horror franchises can experience peaks and valleys. But if there’s one series that’s maintained an impressive baseline of quality, it’s The Evil Dead. The gleefully sadistic brainchild of Sam Raimi, this franchise began with the eponymous 1981 indie film that wore its X rating (later re-rated NC-17) like a badge of honor, attracting a cult following among genre sickos. (One of the movie’s biggest fans just so happened to be Stephen King.) Its sequel-cum-remake, 1987’s Evil Dead II, is arguably held in even higher regard—embracing a slapstick sensibility that puts Bruce Campbell’s Ash Williams through the wringer, while also ramping up the gore. (Campbell, in turn, gives a master class performance in physical comedy.) Raimi capped off his deranged trilogy in 1992 with the fantasy-leaning Army of Darkness, which throws Campbell’s weary protagonist into the Middle Ages to battle hordes of undead. If you ask me, cinema peaked when Ash delivered a speech to a bunch of bewildered medieval folks about the almighty power of his boomstick.
Even if The Evil Dead doesn’t have the mainstream appeal of other horror franchises, its influence on the genre is undeniable—and the people who do discover the films tend to latch on to them. Case in point: Every entry of Raimi’s trilogy was included in The Ringer’s top 50 cult movies, and while list-making is subjective and intended to spark debate, it’s hard to argue against their inclusion. But when the films are inextricable from the filmmaker behind them, crafting a worthy remake within this universe would be a tall order for anyone willing to take on the challenge.
Released 21 years after Army of Darkness hit theaters, the 2013 Evil Dead remake—they dropped the “The”; it’s cleaner—was already facing an uphill battle to match the acclaim of Raimi’s trilogy, and that was before Sony Pictures cooked up a promotional campaign dubbing the project “the most terrifying film you will ever experience.” (So much for tempering expectations!) But if you separate Evil Dead from its hyperbolic marketing strategy and the Raimi of it all to appreciate the movie on its own terms, what you’re left with is an assured remake that understands the franchise’s place in the horror canon. Rather than aim for a wider audience, Evil Dead is a lean, mean bloodbath of a movie that remains faithful to the spirit of its predecessors by never pulling its punches—or dismemberments.
Directed and cowritten by Uruguayan filmmaker Fede Alvarez in his feature-film debut, Evil Dead begins with a familiar premise: A group of 20-somethings head to a cabin in the middle of nowhere. But while the original Evil Dead’s ensemble wanted to use the remote setting for a happy-go-lucky weekend, the remake creates a more emotionally rich backstory for its characters. For Mia (Jane Levy), the trip is intended to help her kick a life-threatening heroin addiction—and what better place to go cold turkey than an old family cabin in the woods? Mia’s support system includes her estranged brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), David’s girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), and their friends Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) and Olivia (Jessica Lucas).
Unsurprisingly, Mia’s withdrawal symptoms are intense. In her agitated state, she repeatedly complains about something pungent emanating from inside the cabin. Sure enough, there’s a grisly display left in the basement: a bunch of strung-up animal carcasses, evidence of a fire, and a book wrapped in barbed wire. (The movie’s terrific cold open lays out how a father had to burn his possessed teenage daughter alive to save her soul from hell.) At this point, any rational person would run for the hills—or, at the very least, not open a book that is clearly bad news. Alas, Eric inquisitively combs through the ancient text known as the Naturom Demonto and recites an incantation that awakens a demonic entity, which sets its sights on poor Mia. (Side note: Eric is an all-time idiotic horror movie character, considering the book also comes with warnings on the pages written in blood to put it down or suffer the consequences.)
Mia’s growing alarm, heightened by the sinister presence’s appearance as a malevolent doppelgänger of herself, is shrugged off by the others as a symptom of her heroin withdrawal. In a callback to the original film’s controversial tree rape scene, a terrified Mia runs through the woods and gets caught in a mess of thorny branches before the demon possesses her. Raimi would later admit he went too far with The Evil Dead’s tree assault, and that he regretted its inclusion—the remake’s transformation of a familiar sequence into a metaphor for addiction is a clever way of righting past wrongs without diluting the scares.
From there, Evil Dead quite literally lets all hell break loose. Mia’s possession is like a contagion, passing on to others in the cabin with seriously gnarly results. By the end of the film, the characters have [deep breath] cut open their own face with shards of glass and amputated their own limbs with an electric knife; they’ve also been shot repeatedly with a nail gun, stabbed with a box cutter, and bludgeoned with both a crowbar and a toilet bowl. Little of this carnage is left to the audience’s imagination—instead, Evil Dead revels in all its stomach-turning viscera. (The movie originally scored an NC-17 rating until some cuts were made for its theatrical distribution, though an unrated version is available on demand.) If the original Evil Dead relied on the fiendish creativity of its director to make every cent of its shoestring budget count, the remake used its comparatively larger resources to double down on the franchise’s go-for-broke spirit.
To that end, Evil Dead culminates in an over-the-top sequence that required 50,000(!) gallons of fake blood, an amount so jaw-dropping it may be as insurmountable as Wilt Chamberlain’s single-game scoring record. After David successfully expels the demon from Mia by burying her alive and resuscitating her—what else are brothers for?—he is stabbed in the neck by Eric’s possessed corpse. Running out of time and options, a fatally wounded David sets the cabin on fire with him and Eric still inside, thereby saving Mia from further torment—or so he thought. The demonic entity that possessed Mia has now claimed enough souls to be granted its own physical form, which rises out of the ground as blood rains down from the sky. (Hence the 50,000 gallons.)
The ensuing showdown between Mia and the so-called Taker of Souls ramps up the gore even further, punctuated when Mia amputates her arm after it gets caught under a rolled-over Jeep and then manages to hold a chainsaw with her new stump by wedging it into the handle. (By now, the Ash vibes are unmistakable.) Naturally, the only way for Mia to end this nightmare is by splitting the Taker of Souls’ head right down the middle in a moment of bloody catharsis. By doing so, Levy rounds out a breathtaking, multifaceted performance in which she plays a vulnerable victim, a sadistic demon, and a chainsaw-wielding Final Girl in the span of 90-odd minutes. The Academy almost always fails to recognize great work in the horror genre, but make no mistake, Levy staked her claim as a modern Scream Queen. (She would team up with Alvarez on his next film, the subversive home invasion thriller Don’t Breathe; unfortunately, if Twitter is anything to go by, their creative partnership has since soured.)
It might not have reached the needlessly high bar of Sony’s marketing push—there are more terrifying films out there to experience—but Evil Dead checked all the boxes for a successful remake. The critical reception, however, was decidedly mixed, perhaps because Raimi’s trilogy was regarded as sacrosanct by horror obsessives. But as the past decade has shown, the franchise can branch out in new directions: Ash’s journey continued on the Starz series Ash vs Evil Dead—Raimi was an executive producer and cowrote and directed the pilot—before it was canceled after three seasons. (An animated follow-up to Ash vs Evil Dead is reportedly in the works.) Meanwhile, a fifth movie will arrive this month, Evil Dead Rise, which will move the demonic festivities from the woods to a run-down apartment building in Los Angeles. Based on the overwhelmingly positive reviews after its SXSW premiere, Evil Dead Rise ensures that the franchise’s winning streak on the big screen will stay intact.
But with all the adoration fans still hold for Campbell’s Ash and the encouraging early response to the latest film in the series, it sure feels like the Evil Dead remake has gotten the short shrift. Reimagining Raimi’s trilogy would be a daunting task for anyone—let alone someone making their directorial debut—but Alvarez managed to strike the right balance between showing deference to the past and putting his own bloody imprint on the franchise. Remakes get a bad rap for a reason, but 10 years after its release, Evil Dead is an evocative reminder that the devil is in the details.