Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2011-11-17 09:15

Written by: Sam Raimi, Scott Spiegel
Directed by: Sam Raimi
Starring: Bruce Campbell, Sarah Berry and Dan Hicks

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

“There's something out there. That... that witch in the cellar is only part of it. It lives... out in those woods, in the dark... something... something that's come back from the dead."

Like so many other horror movies that have been in my life for as long as I can remember, my earliest memories of Evil Dead II are tied to the VHS box art. It wasn’t the most elaborate of designs--just a half-grinning skull set against a black background, and it really doesn’t have much to do with the film itself. However, that image somehow deftly captures the macabre humor of the film in hindsight; at the time, it was just enough to catch my young eyes. I don’t know if it spurned me to check out the original first, but both films made their way into my weekend rental rotation pretty quickly. While both are unquestionable masterpieces, part 2 became the favorite over the years, mostly due to its demented tongue-in-cheek (or is that eyeball-in-mouth?) spirit that set it apart from the first film.

Evil Dead II takes us back to that infamous cabin in the woods, where Ash (Bruce Campbell) and his girlfriend stumble upon the Necronomicon and accidentally raise hell; just as in the first film (Raimi and company had to reshoot instead of simply using footage from The Evil Dead), Linda becomes possessed and terrorizes Ash, who is forced to decapitate her and bury her. You can’t keep a good demon down, though, as she keeps coming back, along with the rest of the evil lurking in the woods. Meanwhile, the daughter (Sarah Berry) of the archeologist who discovered the Book of the Dead and brought it to the cabin is en route with some newly discovered pages that may help to dispel the evil once and for all--if there’s anything left of the cabin when she arrives, that is.

If the first Evil Dead is akin to a nightmare, then Evil Dead II is like the most feverish night terror you can imagine. Forget putting your balls to the wall--it takes them and totally flings them against the wall over and over again for 80 deranged minutes of pure insanity. A perfectly conducted cacophony of madness that mixes genuine chills, relentless gore, and raucous laughs, it’s an unparalleled experience; in many ways, even the original doesn’t compare, and I don’t say that to disparage the original. I’ve always admired this series for its refusal to rehash; even though part II has all of the makings to be more of the same, Raimi mixes up the formula and makes this sequel one of the best horror comedies of all time. He’d turn the same trick 5 years later with Army of Darkness, which completely reinvigorates the series and results in the finest mix of horror and fantasy ever, firmly cementing Raimi’s place among the most imaginative of his filmmaking generation.

That all started here, though; whereas The Evil Dead is mostly a straight horror movie, Dead by Dawn somehow finds the humor in a guy being forced to endure the torments of hell. This is the film that introduced the world to “splatstick comedy,” which chucks around blood and guts in a riotous manner; usually, a guy being forced to kill his girlfriend is tragic stuff, but when he accidentally lops off her head and sends it flying through the woods, it’s pretty funny. Even funnier, though, is when she comes back and he’s forced to chainsaw her demonic head in half, sending all of the grue flying about, with most of it splattering right into his own face. Most of the humor comes during that opening act, where Bruce Campbell puts on this incredible one man show, almost like a bloody vaudeville act (only the musical numbers here are replaced by the maniacal laughter of the mounted deer heads, books, and lamps).

Watching a guy essentially get the crap beat out of him probably shouldn’t be this fun, but many of the film’s more iconic moments emerge from the evil’s unrelenting assault on Ash. Perhaps the most memorable segment involves the besieged hero going to war with his own hand, which he’s forced to sever; still, their battle rages on, as the detached appendage even manages to withstand shotgun blasts before being captured under a pile of books (a stack that is, of course, headlined by A Farewell to Arms). This is one brilliant sequence amongst many, as Ash is basically battling for his own soul once night falls, at which point his own evil doppelganger will begin to take over his body. By the time Annie and her cohorts arrive with the rest of the Necronomicon, he’s already been to hell and back, and the worst has yet to happen. Campbell’s performance is an interesting one; he starts out as a bit of a faux-macho doofus with Linda ("Hey, what do you say we have some champagne, huh, baby?") before evolving into the terse, wisecracking badass we know him as today.

Once he’s joined by the rest of the cast, one can hardly say Evil Dead II relents at all; in fact, it only gets more deranged, as the horror elements really begin to take over. Raimi recycles a lot of the same techniques from the original film, like moody establishing shots, unholy noises, and buckets of blood (in fact, both Evil Dead films were among the most blood-soaked in my life for many years). He’s further aided this time around by a healthier budget that allows for more imaginative effects and make-up work, which constantly reveal themselves. There’s not only Ash’s rogue hand, but other incarnated deadites and voices from beyond. Even the rape-happy evil trees even make a return and carry off poor Bobby Joe (Kassie Wesley), a feisty local girl who thought she was just escorting Annie to an old cabin. The film’s crowning moment, however, may come when Ash finds himself trapped in that cellar that held unspeakable horrors in the first film. As you might imagine, he’s not alone, joined by a reanimated corpse that’s brought to life by topnotch effects work and Raimi’s brother, Ted.

Helming all of this wizardry with expert precision is Raimi, one of horror’s great auteurs. Few films like this exhibit the stylistic bravado that Raimi flashes, and I’d argue that it hasn’t been matched in the 20 years since its release (Raimi himself has come the closest with Drag Me to Hell). Incredible camera work is on display and is once again highlighted by the winding first person shots that rush throughout the house and track Ash in a jaw-dropping sequence. To highlight the splattery absurdity of it all, Raimi often finds inventive and odd angles and employs distorted lens-work to deliver that nightmarish quality again. While obviously a much slicker production than the original (getting $3.5 million from Dino De Laurentiis will do that), this is still a triumph in lo-fi filmmaking, as that budget is squeezed out into each frame. All of that money made it to the screen, whether it be in the gobs of blood or marvelous practical effects.

None of that is news, though; everyone’s known that Evil Dead II is the work of an ingenious madman for years. At best, I can only say that it still holds up after all of these years. And believe me, I would know since I’ve purchased the movie at least five times and have revisited it at least once every couple of years for the past decade. Anchor Bay became a bit infamous for releasing the same films over and over again, and this is one of the films that aided in that reputation. Of their four releases, the Book of the Dead edition is obviously the coolest, as the THX-certified edition comes housed in a Necrinomicon replica; any enthusiasts will want that in their collection along with the similar release for the first film. They might not actually raise the dead (though the latex used for them start to smell of death after some years), but they make for a fine looking duo on any horror collector’s shelf.

However, for the absolute best presentation of the film itself, we actually have to look to someone other than Anchor Bay for the first time in over a decade. Instead, check out Lions Gate’s recently-released 25th Anniversary Blu-ray that features a gorgeous restoration (Anchor Bay’s previous Blu-ray was marked by heavy DNR issues) and an outstanding 5.1 DTS-MA soundtrack that’ll have the evil shooting throughout all of your speakers (plus, Campbell’s infamous “workshed” line has never sounded clearer!). Over four hours of special features await you after the main feature, including retrospectives and interviews with the cast and crew on their experiences with the film in general and Raimi specifically, a couple of features dedicated to the effects work, a look at the film’s cinematography, production design, and editing, an all-new featurette that takes us back to the original shooting location of the film, and a commentary by Raimi, Campbell, Scott Spiegel, and Greg Nicotero. Rounding out the supplements are some archival features, trailers, still galleries, and a series of production videos by Nicotero. And, to top it all off, they even revived that original VHS box art to make this the definitive Evil Dead II release. The best part? It’s already sitting on store shelves at ten bucks. To borrow an obvious phrase from the film: “groovy.” Essential!

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