Ash Williams has a rare distinction as a franchise horror protagonist who’s more iconic than his villain. We can — and have — had movies in their respective franchises without Nancy Thompson, Laurie Strode, Andy Barclay, or Ellen Ripley; but we could never have a movie in their respective franchises without Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, Chucky, or Xenomorphs. With the Evil Dead movies, everybody thinks of Bruce Campbell and his innately overpowering charisma before they think of the Deadites. That’s a problem now that Campbell has publicly retired from the role, but it may be an opportunity in disguise.

A decade ago, we got a soft reboot that only featured Ash Williams in a useless post-credits stinger. The film didn’t really take, though it was a decent film that had many positive aftereffects. It jump-started the respective careers of Fede Alvarez and Jane Levy, for one thing. But more importantly, the 2013 effort was a solid proof of concept for what was left of the franchise without Ash Williams. Audiences of the time weren’t ready for that, with Bruce Campbell still willing and able to reprise the role. But with Campbell stepping away, we now have to embrace what the reboot — and the original films — have established about the Deadites.

On one level, the Deadites are very much like zombies in that they represent the terror of assimilation. It’s hard to tell if being outright killed by zombies or turning into one of them would be the worse fate. In the latter case, our protagonist would be faced with the unspeakable horror of watching their friends and loved ones turn into mindless predatory killing machines. Our main characters would go mad with the prospect of killing something that was once a loved one, and still quite looks like that same loved one, but has since been irrevocably turned into something twisted and inhuman.

The Deadites bring all of that to the table, but with an added twist: They’re smart. The Deadites are crafty and manipulative, and they can even be seductive at times. They retain all the voices and memories of their human vessels, so they know exactly how to get into the heads and under the skins of their prospective victims. And they are utterly shameless about using this knowledge. The Deadites will say and do literally anything, desecrating the memory and image of their human hosts, if it scares and disgusts and tricks the hosts’ surviving loved ones into becoming weaker and more pliable victims.

Put it this way: A zombie will tear you limb from limb before chewing your intestines and cracking your skull open. A Deadite will also do all of that, but only after driving you so far past the point of insanity that death would be a mercy. The Deadites aren’t just a physical threat, they’re also a psychological threat by way of the relationships between our prospective victims.

In the past, we’ve only ever seen this explored in the context of an isolated group of friends/lovers. It’s a good premise. But in the context of an isolated family — regarding the mother/children bonds and the bonds between siblings, typically among the strongest emotional connections people are capable of — it’s a fantastic premise.

Evil Dead Rise centers around Beth (Lily Sullivan), a groupie guitar tech who’s gone touring around the world with some rock band until she finds out that she’s pregnant. Thus Beth goes to visit her sister (Ellie, played by Alyssa Sutherland), hoping to get some sympathy and good counsel. Little does Beth know that while she was off touring the world, her sister’s gotten stuck with her own shit to deal with.

(Side note: Given that Alyssa Sutherland is an Aussie, it’s unlikely that she’s any relation to the British-Canadian Kiefer and Donald.)

First of all, Ellie and her kids (more on them in a minute) live on the 14th floor of a building that used to be the site of an abandoned bank before it got turned into an apartment complex. More importantly, the complex is so old and worn-down that it’s set to be demolished in a month, meaning everything’s breaking down and nobody’s bothering to repair it. Put simply, this could very well be the most ingeniously perfect setting for a horror film that I’ve ever heard of.

Moving on to the characters themselves, Ellie is a tattoo artist whose husband left her for places unknown a few months ago. Her eldest kid (Danny, played by Morgan Davies) is a teenage douchebag with aspirations of becoming a DJ; Bridget (Gabrielle Echols) is a budding environmental activist; and Kassie (Nell Fisher) is a young girl with a hyperactive imagination. In addition, we’ve got a few lingering neighbors, none of whom are worth mentioning.

Shortly after Beth arrives, an earthquake opens up the old abandoned bank vault in the foundations of the apartment complex. Thus Danny gets to be the idiot who ventures into an old vault at risk of caving in at any time, stealing things that don’t belong to him, picking up the goddamn Necronomicon and some old records that are all but literally screaming not to be touched, and playing with them until the Deadites come. And don’t give me that shit about how the family needs the money — all the potentially valuable things in that vault, and that’s what you pick up?!

So, Danny, now your mother is a Deadite and your whole family is doomed for no reason at all. Congratulations, dipshit. I’d hope you’re the one to die first, but I doubt we’re that lucky. And we’re not, but at least the other characters are good enough to rub it in Danny’s face that this whole clusterfuck is entirely 100 percent his fault.

Moving on, so much of what this movie does right comes down to Alyssa Sutherland. This is an extremely dynamic role, and Sutherland proves remarkably adept at playing the stressed-out doting single mother and the unholy undead menace and any horrifying permutation in between. It certainly helps that she’s got that “Olivia Wilde” kind of otherworldly beauty going on.

Kudos are also due to Lily Sullivan, holding it down admirably well as the mundane protagonist who develops into a blood-soaked trauma-hardened chainsaw-wielding badass in the franchise’s trademark style. But on top of all that, Beth has to learn how to be a horror/action hero while also learning how to be a mother. While Beth has to find it within her to brutally kill the Deadites coming after her, she also has to save her nieces and nephew while developing into a surrogate mother for them after they’ve just lost their own birth mother (also Beth’s undead sister, remember), which in turn helps Beth find the strength to think that maybe she can be a proper mother to her own unborn child someday soon. It all dovetails together superbly well.

As for the kids, Nell Fisher does a serviceable job playing a precocious young girl without getting too twee or annoying about it. Gabrielle Echols plays her part with some genuine fire, I’ll be delighted to see how she ages artistically. As for Morgan Davies… well, he’s a lot of fun to hate, I’ll give him that.

The horror element is amazing from start to finish. We’ve got repulsive body horror, strategic camerawork, dazzling VFX and makeup work on the Deadites, oceans of blood, and that’s not even getting started on the psychological terror of the Deadites as this family turns against each other. I need hardly add that getting stuck on the 14th floor of a condemned building is a brilliant new spin on the claustrophobic survival horror aspect. But what might be the scariest thing about this movie is that it’s all told in flashback.

Yeah, the movie actually opens with the old familiar premise of some young stupid friends vacationing together in a cabin in the woods, then one of them turns into a Deadite and kills the others. Then the title card rolls and we flashback to Beth one day earlier. Who are these kids? How and when do they intersect with Beth and their ongoing plight? Does this mean a Deadite somehow survives a film to infect these others? Does that mean Beth and her extended family all die?

The film opens by showing us two wildly distant unconnected points, implicitly promising to show us the connection, then withholds that information until the closing minutes. It’s a diabolically effective way of keeping up the tension and suspense throughout the runtime.

Should you watch the previous films before seeing this one? Well, the original film trilogy is a classic and the 2013 remake is underrated, so you should watch them for those reasons alone. More importantly, this franchise has always played notoriously fast and loose with continuity. Don’t even bother trying to sort through the retcons and alternate cuts to form a coherent timeline, you’ll give yourself a migraine. To its credit, the film’s narrative is so far removed from Ash Williams and Mia Allen that it’s completely up to the viewer’s interpretation (so far, anyway) as to whether this takes place in any previously existing timeline. So as long as you’re familiar with the basic concept of an evil book turning people into malicious undead abominations, you’re good.

That said, there are a few subtle callbacks and shout-outs that fans will appreciate without alienating newcomers. In particular, Bruce Campbell himself has a quick voice-over cameo that will get the die-hards positively salivating if they’re sharp enough to spot it. Also, I’d be remiss not to point out the old yellow Buick featured prominently in the climax. I can’t confirm for a certainty as to whether it really is THE old yellow Buick, but the connection is definitely there nonetheless.

So, are there any nitpicks? Well, it bears repeating that I hated Danny. I know it’s a time-honored and necessary staple of the franchise to have someone stupid enough to read from the Necronomicon and set the Deadites free, but I maintain little sympathy for anyone so aggressively and needlessly stupid as this character. Also, it threw me off to see Deadites taking lethal head wounds only to see them get back up a short time later like nothing happened. I had to look up the established lore online to confirm that barring any magical recourse, the only two consistent ways to kill a Deadite are to either burn it or to destroy the entire body completely. (Though complete burial also works, according to the 2013 reboot.) Oh, and did I mention how the neighbors aren’t worth mentioning?

Between Evil Dead Rise and the 2013 reboot, it appears that the franchise is trying to pivot toward the Deadites themselves — and not Ash Williams or any other human protagonist — as the central driving force. Personally, I’m fine with that. By all means, let’s have more Deadite outbreaks in different settings. Hell, why limit ourselves to different places? We’ve already got an Evil Dead movie set in the Middle Ages, why not have Deadites in different time periods?

So long as the filmmakers can maintain this level of gruesome body horror and bloody action, balanced with harrowing psychological horror and compelling character drama, then let’s keep it coming. Evil Dead Rise has tremendous potential to shake up the franchise and the genre in a huge way, but for right now, it’s a damn good movie well worth checking out.

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1 thought on “Movie Curiosities: Evil Dead Rise

  1. I’m a big Evil Dead fan and this one did not disappoint for me. While I do love the original comedic horror approach with the Raimi trilogy, I did enjoy the direction these recent films have taken as well and I would also love to see them in different periods of time as well as you mentioned.

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