Review: Evil Dead Rise Infuses a Familiar Horror Comedy Franchise with More Gore and Fresh Energy in Deviously Interesting Ways

Even devotees of the Evil Dead properties may not recall this, but in Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness film (aka Evil Dead III), it is established that there are, in fact, three Necronomicons (aka, the Book of the Dead). Although it’s never explicitly stated, the thinking behind the new Evil Dead Rise is that one of those texts is featured prominently in Raimi’s Ash-centric trilogy; the second was discovered in the more recent Evil Dead remake/reboot/re-imagining from filmmaker Fede Álvarez; and the third is found by a group of kids in writer/director Lee Cronin’s (The Hole in the Ground) new film. Sure, why not! The result is still a bloody good time.

Cronin seems intent on having his cake and eating it too, which historically isn’t always a good thing. But as far as this splatter-fest goes, it seems to work out. He uses a great deal of the familiar iconography of the previous films—the book itself (bound in human flesh, inked in human blood), flying eyeballs, Deadites screaming “Dead by dawn!,” a snazzy chainsaw, the possessed turning against loved ones—but the rest of the film is something quite different. That begins with the setting, a nearly condemned apartment building where a single mother named Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland) lives with her teen son Danny (Morgan Davies) and younger daughters Bridget (Gabrielle Echols) and Kassie (Nell Fisher).

After an earthquake, a hole opens up in the garage of the building, revealing a secret chamber where a Necronomicon is hidden away, along with several vinyl records with the voice of a priest from about 100 years ago on it. Because Danny is a moody teenager with no impulse control, he snatches the book and records, and immediately heads to his room to listen to the records (he’s a would-be DJ, so of course he loves the vinyl). As is always the case, hearing the incantations on the vinyl doesn’t impact the listener but someone nearby—in this case, Ellie becomes corrupted by whatever demons are released.

But the film’s true main character is Ellie’s sister Beth (Lily Sullivan), a guitar tech with an unstable life who comes to visit her sister unannounced on the same day the earthquake happens and ends up being the first line of defense between the possessed Ellie and her kids. Both adult leads are phenomenal in their respective roles. Ellie’s twisted, nasty smile is absolutely terrifying at times, and she’s just as likely to self-mutilate as she is to hurt others. Whatever is inside of her doesn’t care as long as someone gets hurt. Meanwhile, Beth has just found out she’s pregnant, so she sees protecting these children from harm as a test run to being a mother, and not surprisingly, she turns out to be a badass.

Most of the film takes place in the apartment or in the hall just outside it, so naturally some of their neighbors join the party—first to fight the demons and then to get killed and brought back to life by them. Since the Raimi films set the bar for horror comedies, it’s hard to look at the latest two Evil Dead movies as humorous. Although I liked the previous film a great deal, my only complaint was that it took itself so seriously that it really didn’t feel like an Evil Dead movie. Evil Dead Rise feels slightly more relaxed (to the point where I didn’t really find any of it scary, but that was never the point of these films), and most of the humor comes from either the great demonic banter or the copious amount of blood spraying and dismembered limbs flying. Wear a tarp.

Despite production credits from OG filmmakers Raimi, Rob Tapert, and Bruce Campbell, not a great deal of Evil Dead Rise feels like they had much of a hand in the production, which is probably for the best. Director Cronin has injected some much-needed new life into a franchise about the rampaging dead, and he’s done it by blending the familiar and the new in deviously interesting ways. If for no other reason, I hope Raimi keeps letting younger filmmakers tackle Evil Dead movies so mass audience are exposed to their talents, the way the world was introduced to his gifts 40-some years ago.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.