The Horrors of Tough Love
I am not going into writing about the new Evil Dead (2013) movie with the pretense of saying anything profound. In fact, I went to see Evil Dead largely to escape the profound. Like so many other working Americans, I’m slugging along with the Summer Duldrums. It’s hot as fuck out here in the desert with temperatures in the 110s. The anxiety of the failing economy has me presently working three jobs to take care of my kid. Between the oppressive heat and the oppressive Situation of the World, I need to feel some relief. I went to see the Evil Dead because I wanted to escape the brutality of daily life, because I wanted to laugh, scream, shriek, and squirm in a cool air conditioned theater with the throngs of other people who wanted to escape the heat with some campy supernatural gore.
Yep. I saw this movie because I wanted to leave my troubles behind by watching people become possessed by evil demons, turn into the living dead, and cannibalize themselves and others. It was therapeutic. It was fun. It was necessary. After watching this 91 minute riotous bloodbath, I left the theater elated. I even felt new hope for human kind, a kind of warm utopian bliss. Watching a movie like this, where random people come together for the shared experience of laughing, screaming and cringing, provided a momentary window of social utopia. Sure, much of our shared squeamish glee involved the severing of limbs, oozing body parts, and literal showers of blood, but it was a joyous bloodbath that we relished together as a cohesive community of movie goers who needed some fucking relief. When the credits rolled on the screen, we all clapped and hooted enthusiastically. Whoever would have guessed that a movie about demonic possession could provide a slice of utopian escape in a world possessed by the strangling demons of the crashing economy and a war-torn global landscape? But Evil Dead does just this.
In preparation for my excursion to see the movie on $1.50 night at the Cheap Seats (see previous mention of economic anxiety and note my delight that I live in a town that has $1.50 night at the movies), I watched the original 1981 Sam Raimi film starring the iconic cult actor Bruce Campbell. What a riot that film is! A group of five young adults hit a cabin in Tennessee only to stumble upon a Book of the Dead (bound in real human flesh!) and a recording of some voodoo scientist reciting the words that unleash the evil demon Necronomicon. The evil spirit possesses the unsuspecting girls who think they’re out for a vacation but instead find themselves dismembered, oozing, bleeding, and putrefying their way through the film.
The original film combines truly spooky and groundbreaking cinematography (deploying the signature Sam Raimi tracking shots of the literal ground) with campy humor and schlocky cheese. Fallen leaves never looked so scary! Possessed girls’ eyes never looks so much like undercooked egg whites! The original film is a terrific send-up of the horror Final Girl genre, of which John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) is the precursor. In Final Girl narratives, everyone gets knocked off except the last remaining girl, who is always a gender neutral single virgin. In the 1981 Evil Dead, Raimi reverses this standard formula. The character who would be the classic final girl (single, bookish, nerdy, sexless girl) is the first to “get it” while Bruce Campbell’s pretty boy Ash (note the gender neutral name) plays the role of the “Final Boy” as the (almost) last survivor. Bruce Campbell’s near-triumphant Final Boy can’t quite beat the possessed, leaking, ejaculating, oozing, self-cannibalizing, bleeding, putrefying horror parade of women, but he comes close enough to carry the Final Boy designation.
There are some seriously leaky gals in the original film. Once they have been possessed by the demon Necronomicon (whose preferable way of entering the body, not surprisingly, is through the vagina), these girls spew what looks like melting Styrofoam, ejaculate a white milky substance from all their orifices (including their severed limbs), sever their own limbs, chew on themselves, and wreak havoc on the poor boys who brought them to the woods. Their skin rots. They bleed all the time and never die, and they seriously mess things up with their demonically possessed bodies. In a way, the original Evil Dead is a hilarious commentary on the horror movie tradition that depicts Menstruating Women As Evil (see Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie).
This all may sound very over the top, and it is! But it is also worth our attention. The original Evil Dead actually screened at Cannes, so there is some art in all this campy supernatural gore. Believe it or not, Sam Raimi broke new ground with that film. Never before had the silver screen been graced with so much oozing gore. It’s so colorful, bright and lavishly campy. Plus his use of the tracking shot, making the camera the stalker, paved the way for a whole new era of horror films. The tension between the real eerie horror of the woods and the campy possession of the girls makes the film interesting and fun.
Raimi’s original film has tremendous Cult Clout, so I did not have great expectations of the remake, but I did think it would be fun and a great way to escape the heat while getting my yucks on. Though directed by newcomer Fede Alvarez, the film is co-written by Sam Raimi and produced by Bruce Campbell, so it possesses the footprint of the original cult classic. The movie starts out slow with overhead shots. It doesn’t dive head first and hit the ground running with tracking shots of menacing fallen leaves like the original. I had my doubts. But once the thrills kick in, they kick in hard and fast. The movie is like a rollercoaster. It slowly cranks its way up that first steep slope, and then it lets go into an insanely wild thrill ride with countless opportunities to scream, laugh, shriek and squirm.
As in the original, there is no shortage of gore and ooze. The girls get it first, get it bad and get the boys. But unlike the original, the Final Girl rises and makes a comeback. Before she rises to victory, however, there is a lot of carnage on the screen. We squirm as one character has a needle extracted from his eye. We scream when one of the girls cuts her arm of with a carving knife. But we also laugh, because they movie understands it is over the top and is poking fun at itself and making us chuckle along the way. Yes, it is possible to laugh when everything is dripping with blood.
But this isn’t Torture Porn (e.g. the Saw and Hostel franchises). Sure the movie is full of blood and gore, but there is not one single gratuitous titty shot. (Nor is there in the original.) There is no sadism. Somehow, even when women are cutting off their own arms, slicing off pieces of their cheeks with broken glass, attacking the men with nail guns, and going after the Evil Dead with chainsaws, there is not one hint of sadism in the violence. It is absurd, yes. It is ridiculously excessive, yes. But the fact that there is humor to it, that it shows its gore as excessively artificial with its overtly fake blood and gore, and that the story is ground in everyday life and ordinary people makes the film fun instead of sadistic.
Evil Dead (2013) has another new spin on it. Whereas in the original, everyone dies, in the current version someone makes it out alive. This is a movie about survival, not about torture for kicks. To take the survival story even further, the new film is a sobriety narrative. Unlike the original, where the group of young people show up at the cabin simply for a little vacation, the group in the new film arrive in the woods with a purpose. They gather at this remote cabin to help the movie’s Final Girl Mia kick her heroin habit. The new Evil Dead is above all else a recovery narrative, a tale of the horrors of Tough Love, the nightmare of the DTs, and a whole new kind of 12 step program. Mia arrives at the cabin strung out. She is the first to be possessed and the last to survive. The whole nightmare starts when they discover the Book of the Dead in the basement. The book is like a parody of NA’s Big Book. NA offers its twelve steps to recovery, and the Evil Dead has its own version (NA = Necronomicon Anonymous).
This is how it goes. First you have to get raped by the woods including having a long thick black rat-like tongue slither between your legs. Then you have to turn into a demon, scald your body in a hot shower, get locked in the basement, bite chunks of flesh off the people who are trying to save you, turn them into demons, get buried alive with a Ziplock baggie over your head, make sure everyone dies except you, get drenched by bloody rain pouring from the sky, rip your arm off from under the jeep that’s crushing it, and kill the last remaining Evil Dead Thing with a chainsaw while screaming, “ Feast on this motherfucker!” How many steps is that anyway? I think it’s close to twelve. Once you complete these steps, then you’re pretty much good to go. Heroin habit kicked. So what if all your friends and family are dead? Maybe it was just a bad DT nightmare anyway.
One of the things that is delightfully fun about the new film is how ordinary household tools are used to wreak havoc. They’re used as weapons by the Evil Dead and as weapons against the Evil Dead. Box cutters, wrenches, nail guns, an electric carving knife, the inevitable chainsaw, and no end of duct tape play key roles in the movie’s action. While the movie’s storyline is about supernatural forces who invade these young people, the action is grounded in the materials of everyday life. Mia uses a simple box cutter to go after one woman who then cuts off her own arm with a vintage electric carving knife and proceeds to attack the men with a nail gun. Good old sturdy duct tape is used to seal her bloody stump. After one of the male characters is stabbed with a piece of broken mirror, duct tape is employed to stop his wound from bleeding. Duct tape is very handy when the Evil Dead come to prey. A wrench is thrust into one character’s neck. When the chips are really down, a classic double barrel shotgun gets the job done. Mia’s brother David attempts to revive her with a car battery, and finally Mia rises to victory by wielding a chainsaw. There is no high tech anything in this movie. Not a cell phone or computer in sight. Just good old Craftsman tools and the people and zombies who know how to use them.
The movie progresses further and further into gore culminating with its female hero Mia drenched in blood and wielding the Chainsaw of Victory. The entire screen glows red with blood, and the audience feels as victorious as Mia when she stomps out of the woods. Covered in blood and gore, Mia may not be clean, but she is sober, and the audience cheers ecstatically for her victory. It has been a long time since I felt such a thrill of communal cinematic glee as I did when I watched Evil Dead the other night.
Maybe the very fact that the movie is dripping with blood is why it is so effective as a vehicle for communal catharsis. Perhaps we are in a place in history where we need to see our heroes conquer their demons in a literal blood-soaked landscape as a way of externalizing the bloodbath that represents the war-torn economy that haunts every corner of our daily lives. Mia’s tale of survival gives the audience a new kind of hero we can root for. We’re not living in a Pot of Gold at the End of the Rainbow World. Evil Dead gives us something to cheer for that provides escape through supernatural camp while also being grounded in the tools and blood of everyday life.
If you stay through the ending credits, Bruce Campbell makes a short cameo in which he simply states, “Groovy.” His appearance seals the deal. While different cinematographically from the original and delivering a different twist with a new ending, the new film carries as much Cult Cred as the original. The movie starts out knowing what it’s up against as a remake of a classic, but then it delivers the goods just as deliciously as the original even if it is a dfferent film for a different time. Campbell’s phrase “groovy” harkens back to a bloody time in history when utopia through revolution seemed possible. That moment in is long gone. It was gone in the hyper-conservative era of the early Reagan years in 1981 when the original film was made, and it is deeply buried in the dustbin of history in our present day climate of censorship and oppression. Now, our “groovy” moment comes at $1.50 night at the movies, when we can shed our own fears by embracing the horror of the Evil Dead and the victory of those who are able to conquer it.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.