In an admirably self-aware decision, Fede Alvarez's overhaul of the splatter classic The Evil Dead doesn't have the "the" in its title. This isn't "The" Evil Dead but another one, a lesser, nastier one, with all of the original's high-camp fun hemorrhaged out.
Sam Raimi's 1981 version was a spirited affair, made on the cheap and on the fly, mixing Grand Guignol horror with Three Stooges comedy. Alvarez takes this Spam-in-a-cabin affair much more seriously, resulting in a half-hour of rationalizing why these five dead meat campers won't flee early, something Raimi didn't fiddle with. Making sense is the last thing sado-cinephiles need.
When the fake blood flows it's impressive and not as blatantly derivative as the original's fans might expect. Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues (with a reported but unbilled touch-up by Oscar winner Diablo Cody) stitch together fragments of Raimi's first two Evil Dead flicks like mad scientists. Characters have new names and relationships, enduring variations on agonies someone else went through before.
This makeover is a kick when you recognize what Alvarez borrows and reshapes, and perhaps a run-of-the-kill exercise if you don't.
The most obvious difference from the original is the lack of an energetically overacted hero like Bruce Campbell's Ash Williams, the only person in Raimi's trilogy who got out in one piece (almost). Here aspects of both Ash and his doomed sister Cheryl are moshed into Mia (Jane Levy), a heroin addict going cold turkey so her weird behavior is initially brushed off as withdrawal symptoms.
In fact, she's the first victim of a demon stupidly unleashed by Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), who should know better than to read aloud incantations marked "do not say," in a flesh-covered, barbed wire-bound Book of the Dead. Mia's brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) has a bit of Ash in him, too, just not the amusing parts. Two other campers (Jessica Lucas, Elizabeth Blackmore) are barely noticeable until they're being carved or impaled for our pleasure.
Alvarez mostly distances himself from Raimi's then-inventive visuals, offering only glimpses of disorienting camera angles, a speedy demon's POV and extreme closeup insanity. He's more concerned with aping modern horror clichés: possession marked by creepy twitches with bone-cracking sound effects, and a victim crawling toward the camera before being yanked back supernaturally. Thankfully, self-mutilation and auto-amputation never goes out of sickening style.
Evil Dead isn't a bad movie, just one that doesn't raise (or lower) the bar on gore artistry as Raimi's did decades ago, and it's fair to compare. I learned a total of two things from watching Evil Dead: No camping kit is complete without duct tape, and sometimes end credits are worth sitting through for a movie's best gag.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow him on Twitter @StevePersall.