Remakes of films, particularly horror films, don’t tend to be renowned for their quality or held up as true successes of the genre. Too many of them seem to fall into the trap of attempting to be an exact replica, or on the other end of the spectrum veer off into a direction that renders them unrecognizable as a remake in the first place.
In a lot of cases, the audience’s attachment to the original prevents them from enjoying a fresh take on the material since it just doesn’t have the same genetic makeup. But there are some remakes that manage to break through the barrier of nostalgia and create something that is both original and infused with the same spirit as their source material. In my opinion, Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead is a prime example of this.
The act of remaking or reimagining something is in itself a staple of the Evil Dead franchise—both Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness feature retconned openings, and the former film is both a reimagining and a continuation of the original Evil Dead. Alvarez’s remake follows this same tradition—it is both a sequel to and loosely based on the events of the first film. The remake begins in much the same way that the first film did, with a group of friends coming to stay in a remote cabin in the woods. This time, however, the primary reason for them being there is to encourage one of the characters, Mia (Jane Levy), to detox and recover from her drug addiction in relative isolation.
This change in motivation for the plot already sets it apart from the original trilogy, which never concerned itself with social issues or metaphors. We also get a prologue of sorts in the remake which sets up the way Deadites can switch between their demonic form and the normal human form of their host. After the friends find the Book of the Dead and Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) reads aloud from it, an evil spirit is unleashed which begins possessing them one by one, starting with Mia.
What makes the remake so effective is that although it undoubtedly has an identity of its own, it still pays homage to the original in a number of ways and is instantly recognizable as an Evil Dead film. In the original 1981 version, Ash (Bruce Campbell) is accompanied at the cabin by his friends and sister Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), and although the latter dies, little is ever said about their relationship nor do we see Ash grieve for her loss.
In the remake, the two main characters are brother and sister David (Shiloh Fernandez) and Mia, and their sibling relationship is a main focus of the film. Another way the remake remains very similar to the original is with the setting of the cabin, which is more or less a central character of the films. It even has a pair of eyes briefly superimposed over it in the opening of Evil Dead 2 as it beckons Ash inside, with the doorway serving as a sort of mouth.
It retains this sense of identity in the remake, and several of the props carry over from the previous films; the iconic deer antlers adorn one of the walls (although missing the actual head which comes alive in Evil Dead 2), and a possessed Mia is trapped under the same chained cellar door that Cheryl was. The infamous ‘tree rape’ scene is unfortunately also replicated in the remake, but although the sexual connotations are still there, the scene is used instead to convey the idea of Deadite possession passing from person to person. Later on in the film, one of the characters also cuts off their arm in order to prevent possession just like Ash does in the second film.
Despite these obvious call-backs to the original trilogy, the film’s strength lies in the fact that it still very much has its own style and points that it is trying to get across. In the 1981 Evil Dead, the group of friends is never given nuanced personalities, and in a similar fashion, Ash is more or less a cardboard cut-out for the audience to project themselves onto, at least until the sequels where his personality is much more pronounced. The friends in the remake aren’t particularly fleshed out—their personalities are conveyed more via wardrobe—but the characters of Mia and David are given a lot more depth than any of the characters in the original.
We are told via dialogue about their mentally ill mother and the sometimes strained relationship they have had as siblings as a result, which becomes more poignant towards the end when David sacrifices himself in order to save Mia. The Evil Dead franchise has never really needed heavy subtext or complex characterization—I’m a firm believer that horror doesn’t need a social issue underpinning the narrative for it to be good—but adding a level of relatability to the characters adds rather than detracts from the film. The emphasis on characterization and the inclusion of substance abuse being used as a metaphor and motivation for the plot works in the film’s favor because it has an overall much more serious tone.
Another way the remake sets itself apart from the originals is in the expansion of the lore of the universe. We get to see more of the Necronomicon, dubbed the Naturom Demonto in this version, and more emphasis is placed on the ways in which the characters become possessed, which seems to happen primarily via the transmission of bodily fluids such as blood and vomit.
The Naturom Demonto also clearly sets out the conditions in which The Taker of Souls will be able to rise from the earth (by possessing 5 people) and carries instructions on how to destroy a Deadite. One thing that fans of the franchise might find disappointing about this film is that there is basically no humor to be found at all. Offbeat comedy has come to be a defining characteristic of these films, even though this element is only a major component in the second and third entries to the original trilogy.
Although Alvarez’s Evil Dead is markedly devoid of the humor that makes Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness so memorable, what it lacks in goofiness it more than makes up for in sheer bloody, over-the-top gore. It may not be on Braindead levels of bloodshed, but the amount of carnage on display is particularly reminiscent of Evil Dead 2, which is partly so much fun to watch because of the excessive gore which borders on being so excessive as to be humorous.
This is why the tonal seriousness of the remake is really not a hindrance at all—you can feel the amount of genuine love for these films that has gone into creating all these gnarly, horrific scenes (almost all of which were achieved with practical effects). It’s hard to beat the elation that comes with witnessing blood pour from the sky as Mia chainsaws The Taker of Souls in half in the film’s gruesome finale. A lesser remake might have had a character pointedly drop in the infamous “groovy” line, but Alvarez’s creation is smarter than that and possesses the confidence to know that such gimmicks are unnecessary.
The fact that Mia turns out to be the character who takes up Ash’s mantle is also wonderfully unexpected. For the majority of the film, it is easy to assume that David is Ash’s spiritual successor; he is the last of his friends to remain alive, and we empathize with his ordeal as he loses his sister to possession and subsequently manages to bring her back to life again. A chainsaw is even briefly teased as a potential weapon for David to use before he instead reaches for the tools to create a makeshift defibrillator.
This makes his apparent death much sadder to witness, but in turn, also makes Mia an even more interesting character. Not only is she the first of the group to get possessed, spending most of the film in this state, but she is also the Final Girl who makes it to the end and becomes the sole survivor. The fact that she couldn’t have done it without David makes for an even more bittersweet emergence to victory and cements their bond as the glue that holds the film together. The cabin itself also takes on extra significance with the culmination of the film; for Mia, it is a place of both death and rebirth, and the cabin burning down symbolizes all that she has lost, and gained, during this horrifying experience.
Alvarez’s Evil Dead remake is such a success because it isn’t afraid to set itself apart from the previous films, yet is also in keeping with the tradition and spirit of its predecessors. Fans of Ash’s escapades will find much to love and recognize within this reimagining while finding new characters to root for and memorable scenes to match those already iconized by the original trilogy.
In fact, if anything, Army of Darkness is the real anomaly of the franchise—it lacks the cabin setting, the foreboding atmosphere of the other installments, and only features one or two uses of tracking shots from the Deadite’s POV. Hell, it doesn’t even have Evil Dead in the title. The uniqueness of the remake on the other hand parallels the dual effectiveness of Evil Dead 2, with both films being able to stand completely on their own whilst also paying homage to what came before them.
Alvarez has successfully paid tribute to the originals, but at heart, his film is really about Mia’s personal journey. Learning about her background and her motivations at the beginning of the story means that we are rooting for her and want her to succeed. Although her future is uncertain by the end of the film, it’s clear that her experience has completely changed her. As Mia looks on at the burning cabin, we are given one more reference to the original film as she picks up and puts on the necklace her brother gave her which bears a striking resemblance to the necklace Ash gifts Linda (Betsy Baker) with.
It would be amazing to see a continuation of both Mia and Ash’s stories where the pair meet up and take on a horde of Deadites together, but even if this doesn’t come to pass we can rest assured that they are out there somewhere fighting their respective demons, both figurative and literal.