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THE EVIL DEAD
Book of the Dead Limited Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Bruce Campbell, Hal Delrich, Betsy Baker, Ellen Sandweiss, Sarah York
Director:  Sam Raimi
Audio:  Dolby Digital EX 5.1, DTS ES
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Anchor Bay
Features:  See Review
Length:  85 Minutes
Release Date:  March 5, 2002

“Her eyes…what about her eyes…for God’s sake, WHAT HAPPENED TO HER EYES?!”

Film ***1/2  

The Evil Dead is one of the quintessential cult horror films, and also one of the best.  It’s the kind of movie that proves that small budgets and major duress can’t stand in the way of a few dedicated people with great imaginations, a lot of faith, and the chutzpah to make a unique mark in a genre that often fails to get respect.

Now, Anchor Bay has released the quintessential home video version of the quintessential cult horror picture.  The Evil Dead: Book of the Dead is bound to attract fans for its amazing cover package alone, but the disc itself delivers more goods for your money than ever before…more on that further down.

The release of this disc coincides perfectly with the fact that I just finished reading Bruce Campbell’s autobiography, If Chins Could Kill.  And as much as I loved The Evil Dead before, I was now ready to look at it with a whole new perspective and a greater respect than ever for just how hard a film it was to realize.

Sam Raimi was 18 when he conceived and wrote the film, and 20 when he started filming it.  Raising money was a consecutive string of headaches, shooting went on much longer than expected, as did editing and sound work.  It took four years for the film to finally find distribution, and even more years to find its loyal audience.  Stephen King praised it, and censors feared it.  Success (and sequels) followed, but there’s just something about the first one that keeps attracting horror fans generation after generation.

The simple plot has two guys and three gals heading off to a God-awful shack in the middle of the woods for a little vacation.  The creepy setting gets positively spooky when Ash (Campbell) finds the Book of the Dead in the basement, along with a tape recording of translations from it.  When played, the quintet awakens a horrible presence in the woods that wreaks deadly havoc on their best laid plans.

The story isn’t the attraction so much as the style.  Campbell’s book includes some of Sam Raimi’s ingenious yet simple diagrams for his camera tracks:  how they could smash through windows, track smoothly without steadicam technology, and even race through the woods at high speeds, over obstacles and through doors…it created one of the genre’s most menacing presences, essentially putting us in the point of view of the evil stalking force.

As the film builds, so does Raimi’s visual style.  The final stretch with Ash is a hodgepodge of clever imagery.  His movements are tracked from the ceiling, or in rotating arcs that make every shot askew.  The final shot is a horror movie landmark, which I won’t spoil for you.  But if you’ve never seen the movie before, chances are you’ll back the disc up at least once to see it again before you stop it.

Raimi, of course, parlayed his humble beginnings into an impressive career as a Hollywood A-list director.  But I’ve never personally believed his heart was as much in pictures like For the Love of the Game.  I have to think it’s still out in that ramshackle cabin, where lack of money, time and resources only served to fuel his creative fire.  Not many artists could create what he did under those conditions.  The Evil Dead is a standard every young, poor hungry filmmaker can try to shoot for.  Raimi and crew proved it could be done.

Video ***

Anchor Bay delivers a quality transfer here, presenting The Evil Dead in anamorphic widescreen for the first time on home video.  The disc even boasts a THX certification.  However, as someone who’s owned the Elite Collector’s Edition version since it debuted, I have to say that this new version suffers a little in comparison, despite the 16x9 enhancement.  This presentation isn’t as bright, and the overall result is that colors tend to mute ever so slightly, with blacks, reds and flesh tones not quite as true as before.  Darker scenes render well, with no noticeable grain or break-up, but again, by comparison, detail is not as sharp, nor are colors as well rendered. 

I should point out in fairness that these critiques come from extensive scene-by-scene analysis between both versions, and are intended only for those interested in how they compare.  Others will be more than satisfied with Anchor Bay’s offering, which still stands head and shoulders above most DVD releases of films from the early 80s.

Audio ***1/2

On the other hand, no studio re-mixes soundtracks for digital surround sound as well as Anchor Bay, and their version of The Evil Dead definitely takes the prize in this department.  If you have six channel capabilities, either for Dolby Digital or DTS, you’re going to like what you hear.  Most noticeably, the music sounds better than ever; crisper, with a more open and detailed mix than previously heard.  There are plenty of low rumblings for the 5.1 channel, and the rear stage is nicely used for ambient effect…this audio track puts you eerily in the midst of the proceedings.  Dialogue is clean and clear on the front stage, with smooth uses of panning effects.  High marks overall.

Features ****

For starters, how cool is the cover?  Designed to look like the actual Necronomicon, this rubbery 3-D book might actually make you squirm when you touch it!  It’s filled with authentic Book of the Dead designs, too, along with a booklet on the making of the film, notes by designer Tom Sullivan, and of course, the disc itself.

There are two commentary tracks carried over from the Elite version.  One is by director Sam Raimi and producer Rob Tapert, which is an enjoyable and informative listen, filled with memories and details.  The other is quite simply the BEST commentary track I’ve ever heard.  It’s by star Bruce Campbell, and frankly, I wish all commentary tracks were like his.  He speaks with no inhibitions, and his sense of humor makes listening to the track almost as good as listening to the film itself…you’re really going to enjoy this one.

There is also an 18 minute collection of unused footage, plus two featurettes:  a film by Bruce Campbell called “Fanalysis”, which is a 26 minute look at the people who turn offerings like Evil Dead, Star Wars, Star Trek and more into ways of life…it’s an amusing offering.  The other is a 13 minute piece called “Discovering Evil Dead”, featuring the two men responsible for introducing the movie in England (on film and home video at the same time!), and how it grew from there.  There is also an original trailer and 4 TV spots, each ending with a listing of the local Michigan theatres where it was playing 20 years ago (mostly drive-ins…go figure).  Rounding out is a poster and stills gallery and some talent files.

Oh, and a couple of easy-to-find Easter eggs, too.  One shows a panel discussion after an anniversary theatrical showing of the film featuring Rob Tapert and actresses Sarah York and Betsy Baker.  The other is a short effects and make-up test.  Overall, this is one of the best extras packages ever assembled for a horror film!

Summary:

The Evil Dead: Book of the Dead may soon become the Holy Grail of limited edition DVDs.  With cool and innovative packaging, a terrific collection of extras, a pair of dynamite audio remixes and the first ever anamorphic widescreen presentation of the title, this is a must-own for Dead fans…you know who you are.