Evil Dead Rise (2023)
Mommy loves you to death.
To put it bluntly, Evil Dead Rise fucking rocks!
For decades now, I’ve been clamoring for a direct follow-up to Sam Raimi’s batshit bonkers Army of Darkness (1992), which was teased in Fede Álvarez’s gloriously bloody Evil Dead remake (2013). Groovy! And while the three brilliantly blood-soaked seasons of Ash vs Evil Dead (2015-2018) did quench my thirst for Bruce Campbell’s sardonic, chainsaw-wielding wise guy, Ash Williams, and his oddball antics, I was secretly hoping we’d get to see Campbell duke it out with the parasitic Deadites, demons who possess the bodies of mortals and feast on their souls, one final time — and on the big screen, too, in gory R-rated glee!
So, when all the teased Evil Dead projects were scrapped, I was rightfully disappointed — I understand that Evil Dead is more of an indie cult hit and not a massive money-maker, and wasn’t surprised with any of the cancellations. And then we got the first-look Evil Dead Rise trailer, which, to be honest, didn’t really pique my interest; well, not until I realized that the key talent behind the Evil Dead’s success — Rob Tapert, Sam Raimi, and Bruce Campbell — are all producers on the new film, which, I can confirm, is a soft reboot with no real ties to the previous movies bar the Necronomicon, the Book of the Dead. So, there’s no Bruce Campbell cameo, sadly.
But, boy, did Evil Dead Rise blow the brains right out of my head, exceeding all expectations; the film is a violent, unrelentingly vicious gorefest, featuring an insane third act that rival’s the macabre madness of Raimi’s original Evil Dead I and II! Evil Dead Rise, the fifth film in the beloved Evil Dead franchise, injects the series with fresh new meat, in terms of its cast and director, opening up the Evil Dead world in ways I could have only imagined. Writer-director Lee Cronin, The Hole in the Ground (2019), totally understands what made Raimi’s Evil Dead movies so enjoyable and successful, using pre-existing mythology and expectations to craft something that feels organically part of this morbidly twisted universe but entirely different, too.
The film opens with a gnarly little prologue set at a woodsy lakeside cabin, which fittingly tributes the franchises’ Cabin in the Woods roots. Reintroducing audiences to the flesh-bound Necronomicon, this sequence goes straight for the jugular, hinting at the wince-worthy gore and Deadite action on the bloody horizon for our unsuspecting protagonists.
The terror this time takes place in a deteriorating high-rise apartment in an LA neighborhood, branching out into new terrain. We meet bad-ass touring guitar technician Beth (Lily Sullivan) at a dingy nightspot in the City of Angels, who decides to reunite with her estranged older sister Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland) for some parental guidance after learning that she’s pregnant; Lily realizes that her current lifestyle may not bode well with a newborn child. Ellie, however, has problems of her own. She’s a struggling single mother of three children, teenagers Danny (Morgan Davies) and Bridget (Gabrielle Echols), and youngster Kassie (Nell Fisher), who are about a month away from being evicted from their soon-to-be-demolished residency.
When Beth shows up unannounced at the apartment complex, Ellie sends her kids to grab some pizzas so that the women can speak in private; Beth is planning to reveal the reason behind her sudden visit, about to tell her big sis that she’s expecting, while Ellie is desperate to talk to Beth about her dire living situation, the family on the verge of being homeless. However, the sister’s reunion is cut short when a fierce rainstorm causes a mini earthquake, which hits the already crumbling structure.
The tremor just so happens to unearth an eerie abandoned bank with a vault that holds the Necronomicon, a book bound in human flesh, sealed by teethy bones, and inked in blood. Of course, the pit hiding the Necronomicon opens up in the building’s underground parking lot, right in front of the trio of kids. Curiosity gets the better of Danny, who jumps into the hollow to take a closer look. The teen recovers the ancient, dreaded text — which can reanimate the dead and summon malevolent entities — along with some creepy vinyl records he discovers with the book, taking them both back to his bedroom against his sister Bridget’s better judgment — Danny is an aspiring DJ and plans to give the discs a spin, unaware that they contain Kandarian Incantations.
Anyone who’s seen one of these Evil Dead films knows precisely where this is headed. The book is open, words are uttered, and blood-spattered carnage ensues. As bodies are maimed, mutilated, and dismembered in ghastly yet imaginative ways and gallons of blood is spilled (1,717 gallons of fake blood, to be exact), poor Beth is forced to become the family’s reluctant savior, as it’s up to her to ensure that Ellie and her family aren’t dead by dawn.
The film’s first portion spends time setting up the family dynamic. We learn a little about the sisters and children; we also meet several other characters in the interim, tenants who live in the cursed apartment block, whom we all know are potential fodder for the looming Deadite threat. The side players aren’t nearly developed well enough for audiences to care about their fates. What’s interesting, however, is that this chapter of Evil Dead shifts its focus from promiscuous twentysomethings to a familiar domestic situation, choosing to spotlight a family that’s severed and broken, a situation that, through supernatural forces, turns into a literal living nightmare, Ellie and Beth both battling their own internal demons before the actual ghouls awaken. Filmmakers also move the action away from the classic outdoor lodge setting and into an urban domestic backdrop, this change of location giving Rise a genuine sense of freshness. With that said, much of the established rules and lore surrounding the Necronomicon are skimmed over, and there’s not much time for newbies to play catch-up. Fortunately, the film is relatively straightforward and tells a very self-contained story.
In his attempts to break new ground, writer-director Cronin never loses sight of what made the Evil Dead series such a cult favorite. His film honors what’s come before and includes all the iconic garnishes that make Evil Dead, well, Evil Dead. The film features inventive camera work — a terrifying peephole sequence comes to mind — along with crazy and creative kills, filmmakers disfiguring and mutilating characters in grisly and sometimes cruel ways; a scene with a glass cup still makes me cringe, you’ll know the one. Then there’s the ingenious makeshift weaponry — I’ll never look at a cheese grater the same way again — and memorable lines, such as “Mommy’s with the maggots now,” the nasty shit-talking demons teasing and tormenting their victims in classic Evil Dead style. And then we have a kick-ass final girl in Lily Sullivan, for those who aren’t yet ready to let go of Ash and his trusty Boomstick. And while Evil Dead Rise is no doubt dark, demented, and deranged, it somehow manages to avoid the sadistic tone of the 2013 remake, the film littered with Raimi’s signature black humor. For instance, there’s a gross slapstick gag involving an eyeball that feels like it’s been plucked right out of Evil Dead
Most people who come to an Evil Dead picture are looking for bloodshed, and in that department, Cronin’s film gives us bucketloads, enough to please even the most bloodthirsty of horror nuts — we’re talking Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (1993) level of gross-out gore. And this film is a bloody mess, in the best way possible. Evil Dead Rise stays true to the franchise’s hyper-gory aesthetic, with Cronin and his behind-the-scenes team employing a seamless mix of digital and practical effects to craft some of the best and most warped horror sequences in recent memory — the make-up and gore FX are A-grade. Characters puke out their organs, and they’re tortured and torn apart in horrific ways. We even get a scene with elevator cables that homages the signature tree vine sequence from the 2013 and ‘81 pictures. Being an Evil Dead joint, this film is visceral and unrelenting — nobody is safe, not even the children! The absolute highlight, though, is a creature that filmmakers have named the Marauder, a grotesque abomination that arrives just in time for the climax, clearly designed to invade our future nightmares. And Cronin knows how to create fear and dread without solely relying on jump scares, generating a grim and claustrophobic atmosphere, the film descending further and further into chaos the deeper it bleeds out.
Alyssa Sutherland, Blood Vessel (2019), is great as single mom Ellie, the film’s patient zero Deadite who transforms from a caring mother into a screeching demonic ghoul, one who weaponizes her motherly persona to sadistically taunt her family and lure folks to their doom. Lily Sullivan, I Met a Girl (2020), is excellent as Beth, a careless rock chick forced to become the family’s new ‘caretaker’ when her sis transforms into a hellish monster, Sullivan forming a fun dynamic with the youngest child, played by Nell Fisher
When a blood-covered Sullivan picks up a chainsaw in the flick’s final act, the buzz of Ash’s trusty steed reverberating throughout the theatre, it’s clear that Cronin and his team know exactly what Evil Dead fans have come to see and deliver in bloody spades. Evil Dead Rise is mean, lean, and a gruesomely good time — it could very well be the horror of the year, and we’re only in April.
4 / 5 – Recommended