Remaking beloved movies is always a risky proposition, and few films are as beloved as Sam Raimi's 1981 low-budget horror classic "The Evil Dead," which tells the story of five college kids stuck in a cabin with an ancient tome and murderous demons. Made for $350,000, the film spawned one of horror's most enduring franchises and has been blessed by critics. (On the review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes, it boasts a 98% "fresh" rating.)
That means the new "Evil Dead" remake, directed by Fede Alvarez in his feature debut, has its work cut out for it, even with Raimi and original star Bruce Campbell on board as producers. This time around, critics are divided on whether the new version stakes its own claim to the "Evil Dead" mantle.
The Times' Mark Olsen says it does, writing that the remake "has a gleeful exuberance of its own analogous to the mad invention of the original" and adding that it "nimbly walks the fine line of tribute, update and doing its own thing." Alvarez nails the tone — "scary without being downbeat, fun without being too jokey" — and delivers "plenty of over-the-top gore, great gushing geysers of it."
The New York Times' Manohla Dargis, however, finds the film a bit lacking. Specifically, she says, it "doesn’t have the original's wooden performances, puffy clothes and hairdos or its amusingly crude special effects," and as such it "has none of the first movie's handmade charm or hilarity, intentional or otherwise." What the remake does share with its predecessor is a lust for blood, as Alvarez "gets his gore on" and "makes handy sport with an electric meat knife and a nail gun, among other convenient and preposterous household items." Dargis ends with an endorsement of supporting actor Lou Taylor Pucci, who "deserves a boost."
NPR's Ian Buckwalter concedes up front that the remake "can't hold a candle, shotgun or revving chainsaw to the original," which was "a masterpiece of punk filmmaking." Fortunately, he continues, Alvarez "doesn't try to replicate the practically accidental glory of that film." Instead, "this 'Evil Dead' is polished and meticulously planned, and it benefits from the attention to detail as well as from Alvarez's obvious love for the spirit of the source material."
In a measured review for the Chicago Tribune, Michael Phillips calls "Evil Dead" a "grim, outlandish remake" whose gore "goes straight to 11." Alvarez "manages a shrewd narrative variation or two on the original," Phillips says, and indeed "the new one is better acted, more carefully composed." On the other hand, "it feels like a lot of other remakes of '70s and '80s horror titles. Competent craftsmanship, vacuous slickness." All in all, "It's not bad."
Lou Lumenick of the New York Post would disagree. He claims he was tempted to walk out of the film, writing, "if it hadn’t been my paying job as a critic to watch Fede Alvarez’s remake of 'Evil Dead' all the way to the end, I probably would have headed for the exit door long before the point where somebody cuts off her own arm with an electric carving knife." That said, "Gorehounds will have a field day with the plentiful mutilations, decapitations and other blood-drenched moments in the redo."
If that's the case, perhaps the Village Voice's Chuck Wilson is a bit of a gorehound. He calls "Evil Dead" a "wittily gory remake" and "a virtuoso feature debut." The new film "honors the motifs of the original," and "the plotting as a whole feels fresh, as does the emphasis on women strong enough to defend themselves." He ends his review with a challenge: "Dare ya not to look."