Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987)
Studio: Lionsgate Home Entertainment
Release date: December 11th , 2018
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Few filmmakers debuted with his sensibilities as fully formed and pronounced as Sam Raimi. With The Evil Dead, the now iconic Michigan filmmaker revealed just about everything one needed to know about his demented imagination, home to outlandish gore gags, ramshackle funhouse thrills, and genuinely disturbing hellraising, all of it delivered with a distinct, cockeyed sort of Old Hollywood showmanship. A huckster from the outset, Raimi promised the “ultimate experience in grueling terror” and absolutely delivered with a signature, enthusiastic voice all too eager to please its audience. Whatever might have been left unsaid was certainly bolded, italicized and underlined with blood a few years later, when Raimi unleashed Evil Dead 2, a delirious sequel that confirmed this franchise’s place in horror lore.
The irreverence that defines Dead by Dawn spills forth immediately, with a breathless recap of the original film’s events, now streamlined into a slightly zanier tale of two doomed lovers, Ash and Linda, whose idyllic weekend getaway becomes a nightmare upon the discovery of the Necronomicon, a Sumerian Book of the Dead capable of raising literal hell. When stripped of its predecessor’s ominous, more meticulously crafted atmosphere, this rapid-fire retelling reimagines The Evil Dead as a bouncier, kookier ordeal. While rights issues necessitated the newly-shot redux, it effectively doubles as Raimi’s mission statement for the sequel: he’s here to fuck you up again, but, this time, he’s doing it with a demented smile plastered across his face.
If Raimi delivered the first Evil Dead with a barely stifled giggle, then the sequel arrives on the back of a lunatic cackle, its director now even more eager to please. No longer confined to a shoestring budget, both Raimi and cohort Scott Spiegel follow their every deranged whim. Most of them are laced with an unmistakable black humor this time around, as that Old Hollywood flair here manifests itself here as an unhinged vaudeville show of sorts, one where Bruce Campbell is at the mercy of his director’s sadistic impulses. Where the first Evil Dead feels like a truly hellish descent into the worst night of a man’s life, its sequel dares to laugh at pretty much the same ordeal.
In many ways, Dead by Dawn is everything you’d expect from a sequel in its insistence on retracing (but also escalating) its predecessor’s indelible funhouse spirit: Raimi orchestrates another whirlwind of chainsaws, mutilations, sinister forests, latex, and karo syrup, only there’s more of it (a subplot involving the ill-fated professor Knowby’s daughter even provides more corpses for the body count and some crucial mythology-building). But in other ways, it’s quite unconventional: while it’s hard to say that Raimi douses The Evil Dead in gasoline and sets fire to it, his decision to take the piss out of it with a “splatstick’ approach feels quite daring, especially in retrospect. In a decade where studios generally made a cottage industry out of churning out familiar retreads for sequels, Raimi snuck in something of a trojan horse with Evil Dead II, a film that looks like more of the same but isn’t. Given the low budget, handcrafted nature of the original, it’d be easy to assume the follow-up was something like a do-over, but it’s actually a fiendishly clever repurposing of The Evil Dead—a legitimately nerve-shredding brain-basher—into a demented comedy that owes more to The Three Stooges than it does Lucio Fulci.
With that risk came rewards, with contemporary critics and moviegoers making it a decent hit whose legacy only grew over the next three decades and cemented The Evil Dead as an institution. At the center of this is Campbell himself as Ash, envisioned here not as the default lone survivor but as the hard luck Lothario fans have adored ever since. This is the movie where Ash is, well, Ash: a well-meaning but imbecilic dolt who can’t win for losing. Somehow pathetic and badass all at once, he enters this cabin riffing on the nice college guy act from the original but emerges as an icon with a chainsaw affixed to the bloody stump of his right hand and a boomstick in tow. We perhaps take this for granted now that we’ve spent 30 years with this guy, but it’s a remarkable transformation when you consider Campbell’s performances in conjunction with each other. In the first film, his sincerity carries the day, heightening the terror of the situation; in the second one, his buffoonish, cocksure charm invites the audience to laugh in the same way they would at an anvil being dropped on Wile E. Coyote’s head.
I suppose that makes Raimi himself the Roadrunner, a sly trickster who delights in inflicting punishment on his star here. His imaginative script inspires a masterful physical comedy routine from Campbell, whose rubber face and gangly limbs match the film’s cartoon energy step-for-step. At a certain point, Dead by Dawn no longer poses a question about Ash’s survival; rather, it becomes a question of just how much outlandish nonsense he’ll endure. Raimi’s answers are consistently delightful in dragging Ash through hell and beyond, with his final gambit setting the course for one of the wilder detours in horror franchise history. It would take another five years for the gag to pay off with Army of Darkness, but the decision to send Ash hurtling back in time proves to be an incredible grace note to Evil Dead II, one of the few sequels that arguably overshadows its predecessor.
Obviously, The Evil Dead would not have been forgotten in the absence of any sequels; however, this film was instrumental in not only securing the franchise’s legacy but also in charting its path and tone. Simply put, Without Evil Dead II, there is no Evil Dead as we know it: an irreverent, gory, and, yes, groovy romp through rickety cabins, medieval castles, hardware aisles, and beyond.
It comes as no surprise that Evil Dead II has arrived on the 4K UHD format shortly after the original. These two films have been permanent fixtures on collectors’ shelves since the inception of DVD, though I imagine most of us have cycled through at least a few different editions now. If my calculations are correct, this is the fifth different disc I’ve owned, but I’m happy to report that it’s quite definitive: obviously, this is the best the film has ever looked on home video, and there’s a noticeable uptick in detail and color reproduction that makes this a worthwhile upgrade if you’ve already entered this market. While I’ve found the 4K scene to be a bit hit-or-miss in this regard, this one is a big hit: in fact, this film, the original, and Halloween, Lionsgate boasts the three most impressive UHD releases I’ve seen so far. Again, the upgrade is much more subtle than any other format upgrade, but these films just look so naturally filmic on these releases. This is the ultimate goal of home video presentation, and these have become immediate reference discs.
Only two special features grace the 4K disc: an old commentary with Raimi, Campbell, Spiegel, and Gregory Nicotero, plus “Bloody and Groovy Baby: A Tribute to Evil Dead 2,” a 51-minute retrospective featuring the likes of Guillermo del Toro, Roger Corman, and other fans reminiscing about this landmark sequel. To my knowledge, it’s a newly-produced supplement that joins all of the other supplements housed on the previously released 25th Anniversary disc that accompanies the UHD disc in the package. As such, this is likely the only release necessary at this point, though I certainly won’t begrudge anyone who wants to hang onto the killer Book of the Dead DVD edition, whose distinct, rotting latex smell has also become a permanent fixture in my collection.
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