Evil Dead II: Book of the Dead Limited Edition (DVD)

This DVD will swallow your soul.

Get a grip on yourselves, because Anchor Bay has once again re-released another film in this popular horror/comedy franchise. To quote the film’s hero, Ash, “For God’s sake, how do you stop it?”

All Ash (Bruce Campbell, Bubba Ho-Tep) wants to do is have a romantic evening with his girlfriend in a secluded cabin in the woods. After all, he’s a man and she’s a woman. But the cabin’s owners have left behind an ancient book and a tape recording featuring passages from it. When Ash plays the tape, the words from the book unleash a mysterious unseen evil somewhere out in the woods. The evil possesses Ash’s girlfriend, turning her into a murderous monster, forcing Ash to take extreme measures to save himself.

When Ash tries to leave the cabin, the evil comes for him and almost successfully possesses him too. Now, he’s trapped inside the cabin, all alone, knowing what’s waiting for him if he tries to escape. But the evil keeps finding a way in. A mirror isn’t what it seems. Strange noises come out of the walls. An entire room bursts out laughing. And something’s down there in the fruit cellar.

Let’s get the fans’ question out of the way first. How does this release differ from Anchor Bay’s previous Evil Dead 2 disc? The most obvious way is in the packaging. Just like the first film’s “Book of the Dead” edition, this one too is an elaborate book, modeled after the Necronomicon Ex Mortis of the film. Also like the previous release, this one features several pages of beautifully grotesque artwork by special effects designer Tom Sullivan, and, yes, it does give off that distinct rubber latex smell. New to this version, though, is an extra touch: When you poke the book’s face in the eye, it screams. That’ll be a nice way to freak out friends at parties.

As for the disc itself, it keeps all of the same extras as Anchor Bay’s earlier one, with the exception of the Evil Dead: Hail to the King video game trailer. Making a return are the “Gore the Merrier” featurette, which combines interviews and on-set footage to explore the visual effects, and the commentary with Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, co-writer Scott Spiegel, and make-up effects artist Greg Nicotero. It’s still a very entertaining commentary, with plenty of info and laughs, but it too is a holdover from previous releases, originally recorded for the laserdisc. The only new feature is a “Behind the Screams” featurette, which is a slideshow of photos taken during production, narrated by Tom Sullivan. It’s not very long, but it does add some new trivia bits that fans might not be aware of. There’s also the theatrical trailer, talent bios for Raimi and Campbell, and a collection of trailers for other Anchor Bay releases.

The most significant addition here, though, is the new anamorphic widescreen transfer, supervised by Sam Raimi himself. The colors are just as good as they were, and the black levels are just as deep. Improvements made include a lack of grain and haziness found on the old version, as well as digital cleaning up of a few special effects. This is most notable in the horrific “eyeball scene.” In previous releases, the rods and monofilament used to pull off the trick are clearly evident, but now, in this new release, they have been digitally removed. Some might feel this is an improvement, while purists will likely argue that it ruins the original movie’s low budget charm.

Now that all that’s over with, let’s talk about the movie itself. There are plenty of good reasons why Evil Dead 2 has developed such a following among both horror geeks and highbrow film snobs. As cheesy horror, the movie offers plenty of jump scares, spooky atmosphere, and bloody carnage. As cutting edge filmmaking, it offers a non-stop flood of creative camera techniques and homemade special effects. Blend the two together and you’ve got a piece of outrageousness that’s often been imitated by low budget filmmakers, but never really equaled.

The first reason for this is Sam Raimi. Never content to film a scene just to get it completed, Raimi instead gives every shot some extra energy. The camera continually zips and zooms around the actors, creating a sense of momentum and urgency, even during the rare slow times. Raimi has a reputation for torturing his actors, but he also put his special effects crew through the works here as well, often demanding new gags that had to be invented on the spot during production. With the experience they gained on this film, three of these experts created their own company, KNB EFX Inc., shortly thereafter.

Raimi might be behind the steering wheel, but the movie’s heart and soul (still un-swallowed) is Bruce Campbell as Ash. During the course of the film, our hero gets beaten up, thrown through the air, chased through the woods, disarmed, possessed, and more. Campbell spends most of his time here with varying amounts of blood and other ooze smeared all over his face, hair, and clothes. Ash’s battle with his own hand is one of the signature scenes in the entire Evil Dead series, and it’s all thanks to Campbell’s skill as a physical comedian. But Ash does more than just take abuse. In the final third of the film, he undergoes an unusual change in order to confront the evil lurking in the cabin’s cellar. This is when Ash—and Campbell—becomes a genuine movie icon. Like Indiana Jones with his fedora, Jason Voorhees with his hockey mask, or Sherlock Holmes with his deerstalker cap, Ash with his chainsaw has earned a permanent place in recognizable pop culture imagery.

Although a good chunk of the movie is Campbell alone in the cabin, a small gang of other characters show up about halfway through to face the evil as well. Sarah Berry has the thankless of job of playing the “straight man” to Campbell, as well as being the one called upon to deliver all the exposition. Dan Hicks and Kassie Wesley show up as two locals who make all the wrong decisions, leaving the others to deal with the consequences. Denise Bixler and Richard Domeier don’t get much screen time before their characters are possessed and slaughtered, but they too make the most of their small roles.

It could be argued that the cabin itself is a character in the film. One of the earliest images in the movie is two eyes superimposed over the front of the cabin, almost lining up with its windows, as a sinister voice booms, “Join us.” Inside the cabin is chaos and madness, but staying outside means getting possessed by the evil, so Ash has no choice to retreat indoors, no matter what insanity waits for him. The cabin features its drab grey and brown walls, ticking clock, a mounted deer’s head, a beat up old piano, and more. All these items not only come into play during the film, but they help give the set its own personality.

Mentioned above are the special effects. Although they often show their age, the effects serve the story well. Blood of almost every color flows freely. The makeup on the possessed characters is appropriately disgusting, with blank white eyes, and overly large distorted mouths. It’s pretty obvious today to see where Raimi reversed or sped up the film to achieve his desired results, but that does not lessen the insanity of what we’re seeing on the screen.

So, why, exactly, does the film work so well? It’s because Raimi, Campbell, and everyone else involved aren’t afraid to take risks. They delight in messing with the audience’s expectations, so they when we think one thing is about to happen, something else will. This makes the film stand up to repeated viewings. Because it’s so busy during its brief running time, it offers the same excitement and adrenaline rush it always has, no matter how many times you’ve seen it.

So, I’m watching Evil Dead 2 for the one billionth time in preparation for this review, and I have an interesting thought. This is just speculation mind you, but what if there’s nothing supernatural at all going on in the film? What if Ash has indeed lost his mind? Let’s say that when he discovers the book and the professor’s tapes, that these open up a deeply-repressed psychosis in him. He then murders his girlfriend and chops off a certain body part of his own, all while imagining the cause of this to some sort of supernatural evil. When the others arrive, their behavior provides more fuel for his murderous tendencies. He then commits all the violent acts that follow, believing them to be the results of demonic meddling. At the end of the film, Ash has left reality completely behind, escaping into an elaborate fantasy world that exists only in his mind. Now, obviously, this interpretation doesn’t explain everything in the film, and I agree that “it was all a dream” stories are beyond stupid. Sometimes, though, it’s amusing to play “what if.”

If you do not already own a copy of Evil Dead 2, then by all means pick this one up today. But if you have the previous edition, then you’ll have to decide how important a prettier visual transfer and some cool packaging are to you.

The Verdict

Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, and company are found not guilty and are free to go. For the crime of double-dipping, the folks at Anchor Bay are sentenced to spend the night in Henrietta’s fruit cellar.

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