It’s weird when a super-low-budget cult movie like 1981’s “The Evil Dead” gets a well-funded sequel. So many elements are bound to be better with a properly-paid crew of professionals, as opposed to amateurs with a scraped-together budget. The 1981 film cost $350,000, though I’d believe you if you told me it never got beyond five digits. “Evil Dead Rise” cost $19 million, and it looks like a perfectly-competent modern horror movie. But that’s exactly the problem with this movie, it rarely rises above the level of “competent.” The original undeniably did some things that were less than competent, but it wouldn’t have had the flavor that gave it success (and warranted this update) if it didn’t.
The new film starts with an homage to the original as we get a fast-paced first-person perspective of a trip around a campsite. Turns out there’s nothing otherworldly about it, it’s just a drone controlled by a prankster. We’re soon introduced to an uninteresting group of young adults. One of them has been in bed all day, clearly affected by… something. Things go south and thankfully we’re soon introduced to an entirely new set of characters. I’m grateful that this opening was a fake-out, but I could have done without it at all. My guess is that it “had” to be included so the movie could claim it has a campsite scene (the setting of the original) whether it needs one or not.
The new characters are a struggling family in a dilapidated apartment in Los Angeles. Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland) is doing her best to raise her kids, Danny (Morgan Davies), Bridget (Gabrielle Echols), and Kassie (Nell Fisher) without her absentee husband. Her sister Beth (Lily Sullivan) comes to visit, and is happy to pitch in, but she’s struggling with problems of her own. Things go from bad to worse when an earthquake hits. Everyone’s okay, and there may even be a silver lining in the form of a cracked-open bank vault just below the building. Bridget warns Danny not to steal from the vault, but he thinks a certain old book he finds might be worth something. Too bad this book is… The Book of the Dead!
Fans of any incarnation of “Evil Dead” know what’s coming. One by one, characters are turned into the possessed demons/zombies known as “Deadites.” The Deadites have the ability to sound like the normal versions of the people they’ve possessed, but that’s just a ruse to trick other characters into opening themselves up to attacks and possession. Characters have to make tough decisions about who they can save and who they need to kill. And it’s all incredibly gory.
The scares are relatively effective. We get some nice long shots of characters in gruesome makeup, where a lesser movie wouldn’t let us get a good look, lest we have time to register that the effects are shoddy. The movie has some creative ideas for violence, though it’s hard to not be taken out of the movie by the thought of how badly the filmmakers wanted an excuse to use certain weapons. There’s also a typical-by-today’s-standards overreliance on quiet tension and jump scares, as if the Deadites are being dramatic on purpose. I know they’re into manipulation, but they’re not great at capitalizing on the element of surprise, so they’re basically doing it for the film’s audience and not their intended victims.
If “Evil Dead Rise” were really bad, it would be easy to trash it and say that it couldn’t be as effective with $19 million as the original was with $350,000. It’s not bad enough to warrant that kind of dismissal. The actors are doing their best to give breakout performances, and the teams in charge of the violence and gore effects are clearly having a blast. But it’s also too bland for me to say that I was ever really enjoying myself. I guess the kind of charisma I need in a horror movie is something money can’t buy.
“Evil Dead Rise” is rated R for strong bloody horror violence and gore, and some language. Its running time is 97 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.