This review of Evil Dead Rise was initially published after the movie’s SXSW debut. It has been updated and republished for the film’s public theatrical release.
In terms of sheer scare factor, your mileage may vary with Evil Dead Rise. This spinoff of Sam Raimi’s iconic franchise upholds the manic glee of Sam Raimi’s original 1980s Evil Dead movies, but the violence falls somewhere between Fede Álvarez’s 2013 remake and Raimi’s comedy-heavy Evil Dead 2. The kills are absolutely brutal and gnarly, the emphasis on child endangerment gives the action a new edge, and the tone is generally bleak and cruel.
And yet it still finds moments of levity. Though it’s far from a comedy, there are a lot of laughs in Evil Dead Rise — like a gag about an eyeball getting ripped out, then landing on someone’s mouth. Writer-director Lee Cronin has a solid handle on the scale between scary and funny, servicing both without undermining either. This is a film best seen with a massive horror-loving audience that takes the gruesome horror along with the silly jokes, that screams and cheers along with the action.
A big part of why this movie’s more straightforward horrific take works is the change of formula. Instead of centering on victims in a cabin in the woods, it moves to the big city, where it follows a family being tormented by Deadites, the Evil Dead movies’ signature antagonists. There is no army of the undead here: Like the 1981 original, this film operates on a smaller scale — in this case, one Deadite. It plays more like a possession story than what modern moviegoers might expect from a “zombie movie.”
The role of the villain falls to Alyssa Sutherland as Ellie, a mother of three who winds up on the receiving end of a demonic possession after one of her kids — or as she puts it, her “titty-sucking parasite” — finds the Book of the Dead. Soon enough, she turns on her own children, trying to horrifically murder them in the worst ways possible using every tool in the house. (A cheese grater becomes a star.)
On the other end is Beth (Lily Sullivan), Ellie’s sister, who returns home when she freaks out over an unexpected positive pregnancy test. Once at the apartment, she’s forced to fight her own sister as everyone in her family turns on each other. Sullivan is fantastic, with Cronin giving her depth through hints of past trauma that make the character more rounded without taking away from the dumb fun of an Evil Dead movie. This isn’t “elevated horror” — don’t expect an A24 horror film about exploring grief — but the family aspect creates a dynamic with heavier emotions that connect viewers to the characters while still prioritizing the gross-out scares.
Once Ellie is possessed, the film catches its second wind and goes fully off the rails in the best way. Ellie immediately turns on her family, threatening, scaring, and hunting them, but also insulting them. At the same time, even Deadite Ellie still loves her children, and she often begs to be stopped.
Cronin uses his location to its maximum potential. Everyday objects take on new and more sinister vibes as they make their way to the characters. There’s a feeling of claustrophobia throughout the film, with characters given little chance to escape the apartment. Cronin and his team have a clear love for practical effects, seen in the sheer amount of tactile, physical blood on screen. He also has a love for the Evil Dead movies: Cronin packs the script and screen with as many visual references and homages to the original Sam Raimi films as he can, overloading the film with fan service, from iconic weapons to lines of dialogue and even the choices of shots.
Evil Dead Rise is a movie made by sickos for sickos. It’s a fantastic update to the iconic franchise, filled with humor but bringing in Álvarez’s taste for the disgusting and upsetting. The refreshing change in scenery and cast, plus Sutherland’s breakout performance, proves this undead franchise still has a lot of life and fight in it.
At 97 lively minutes, it does feel like it’s over almost as soon as it begins. It’s a perfect onboarding movie for newer audiences who’ve never seen an Evil Dead movie, but for longtime fans, it breathes new air into a classic horror-comedy franchise, mixing Raimi’s old-school approach with the new school of gruesome horror. It proves there’s still a lot to color in within the old dead-lines.
Evil Dead Rise is in theaters now.