Last week one of the all-time great cult classics, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II, received a 25th-anniversary Blu-ray update. For those who do not yet belong to this particular cult, Evil Dead II concerns the struggle of reluctant hero Ash—Bruce Campbell, in a masterful performance combining broad slapstick with persuasive shotgun-wielding—against a horde of body-possessing evil demons called “Deadites” (seriously), who are mistakenly summoned from the pages of the Necronomicon.
The setup is purposely overwrought and totally inconsequential: Characters start getting dismembered within the first 10 minutes of the film. Raimi mixes elaborate creature effects and action scenes with Three Stooges-inspired physical comedy, creating one of the most idiosyncratic horror films ever made.
The Blu-ray upgrade is, of course, a dream come true for diehard fans. Among the movie’s many virtues are its use of camera tricks and practical effects to create complicated and memorable sequences despite the film’s limited budget. The transfer is vibrant and crisp, with a contrast so enhanced that even seasoned viewers are going to notice shades of blood and slime they’ve never seen before.
Even so, ditching the old version for the new is a bit like cutting off your hand and replacing it with a chainsaw: What you get is more high-tech, but there are things about the classic model you’re going to miss.
An essential part of the allure for any cult classic is the notion that fans have privileged, higher-level appreciation for something that most people just don’t get. Whether it’s the keen critical eye required to make sense of Eraserhead or the discerning taste necessary to recognize the schlock awesomeness of The Apple, that idea of a shared, secret knowledge gives fandom for these movies a special kick.
The “secret” that fans “get” with Evil Dead II is the joy in watching a film bursting at its off-brand seams. That a movie so inexpensive could be so technically ambitious (as well as disturbingly slapstick and hilariously transgressive) adds to the thrill: There’s real cinematic joy in seeing what Raimi could get away with. On Blu-ray, though, he doesn’t get away with it quite as well.
Both the original 35mm print and the first VHS and DVD releases maintained a dark, low-contrast look. Take Ash’s epic flight from evil through the preposterously large interior of the cabin in the woods:
In early, gloomier releases, the top of the cabin interiors fades away to darkness, completing the cinematic illusion. In the Blu-ray release, the contrast has been increased, and the space where the set ends and the high school gymnasium they were filming in begins is clearly visible. (For trivia about the gym—and much more—see If Chins Could Kill, Bruce Campbell’s excellent memoir of coming up through the B-movies in Hollywood.)
On one level, this adds to the fun: More than ever, you can appreciate the film as a masterpiece of B-movie ingenuity. But those murky, grainy, distorted transfers that many of the film’s biggest fans have been watching for two and a half decades have helped add to the movie’s mystique. As a newcomer to the film, especially, there’s delight in squinting through the darkness, trying to unravel the mysteries of its creation.
If you’re seeing Evil Dead II for the first time, then, there’s still probably no better way to do so than with your older brother’s dubbed VHS copy on the 20-year-old TV in your basement rec room at 2 a.m. If, on the other hand, you’re seeing it for the 24th time, get the Blu-ray: It’s positively groovy.