A while back, when it was announced that Fede Alvarez would reboot the Evil Dead franchise, my first thought was, “Don’t we already have a remake? It’s called Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn.” Indeed, despite the numeral in its title, Renaissance Pictures’ follow-up to Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) feels less like a sequel than a retelling with the same director and lead actor. At least the opening act does. The rest of the movie strikes me as an outright parody of the cult classic, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn opens with a stop-motion shot of the Necronomicon somehow writing itself while voiceover artist John Peakes explains its origins, setting up a clever twist at the end. Then we’re treated to a condensed re-enactment of The Evil Dead because Renaissance Pictures couldn’t get the rights to the original footage. On the one hand, the unexplained disappearance of Cheryl, Shelly, and Scott (and of their entrails splattered in the cabin) can be disorienting. On the other, the retread enables Raimi to shift the emphasis from balls-to-the-walls terror to gruesome slapstick.
Consider how the writer-director pays off the final shot of The Evil Dead, allowing Ash (Bruce Campbell) to elude the malevolent spirit after him by way of Looney Tunes trickery. The entire chase is presented in one take as our hero sprints through every corridor in the cabin, crawls between the walls, and finally disappears somewhere in the living room. I get a smile every time I watch this ingenious sequence, and then I laugh out loud when the camera breaks and pans from side to side to convey the beast’s bemusement.
It’s as if the Evil Dead franchise were taking cues from its unlikely lead, Bruce Campbell, who, in six years, has grown more as a performer than as an actor per se. His stilted mannerisms and delivery remain much the same, but what once felt awkward and amateurish in the context of a low budget splatter flick now comes off like comedic genius as the fearless thespian blurs the line between cartoon wackiness and post-traumatic dementia. The man is a star, pure and simple, which comes in handy, seeing as he’s got to carry three quarters of Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn all on his lonesome.
You see, rather than introduce a fresh set of victims or create a new threat for the previous instalment’s lone survivor, this horror sequel takes the more challenging route of resuming the original conflict as our hero takes a second stab at escaping the proverbial cabin in the woods. To some extent, that means we have to watch the same poor, delirious soul get pummeled over and over again, but Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn proves so inventive in its set pieces that we’re almost disappointed when the owners’ daughter (Sarah Berry) shows up at the hour mark with three cannon fodder characters and the missing pages of the Necronomicon.
It helps that Raimi is tapping a different creative well, one that comes more naturally to him no less. Consider the sequence wherein our desperate protagonist fights his own possessed hand, smashing plates on his noggin and performing wrestling moves on himself. The bit draws more from the Three Stooges or the WWE than any other horror flick out there. Somehow though, despite the pink blood and deliberately rubbery makeup effects, Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn still manages to perturb me, such as when Ash bursts into a mad fit of the giggles with the cabin’s furniture. We sense from his broad, desperate expression that the events depicted may be tainted by dementia, so I never know whether to laugh at the sheer absurdity of the scene or mourn the death of an all too human mind.
That’s the thing: Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn may belong to a different genre than his celebrated original, but it too brims with creative genius, making every outlandish set piece an unforgettable experience. So what if the plot retreads old ground, plays fast and loose with continuity, and turns the whole thing into a joke? As James Cameron demonstrated when he made Aliens in 1986, sequels have every right to reinvent the wheel, provided they entertain on the same visceral level.