CONFESSIONS OF A SECRET “EVIL DEAD” FANBOY

Fanboy defined: Anyone with annoyingly professorial knowledge of trivial events, persons and quotations relating to comic books, video games, and cult films, specifically the Evil Dead trilogy or anything sci-fi related…Star Trek and Star Wars being the epitome. Fangirl is pretty much the same, but usually accompanied by a freakish, fanatical worship of Benicio Del Toro and/or Christian Bale.

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Secret Fanboy defined: Same as above, with fandom being done in hushed or muted tones.

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In theaters these days, horror remakes have become as common as a screaming girl running through the forest, only to trip, and eventually meet her maker.

Over the last decade, the (s)cream of the crop have all been remade, including “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Halloween,” “The Omen,” “The Amityville Horror,” and “Friday the 13th.”

Thing is, year in and year out, low-budget horror flicks continue to make a killing at the box office, so it’s no surprise to see filmmakers rehash the past, unburying the axe. The dead never stay down, not for long anyway, and that’s the psychological conundrum of the horror genre, and its anti-heroes—they never truly die.

Chill pills, in general, were not only the life-blood of studios like New Line and Lionsgate, but masked men you loved to loathe like Freddy, Jason, Leatherface, Michael Myers and Jigsaw have become pop culture icons.

What’s extremely rare though, is to have a horror protagonist that is more popular than the antagonist. It’s always the things that go ‘bump in the night’ that are remembered and revered, not the nameless dead and faceless survivors.

That is, except for one: Ash Williams. Or simply…Ash.

One of the granddaddies of gore is rolling into multiplexes this weekend, and if you are, or have ever considered yourself a true horror aficionado, you know that film is “Evil Dead.” If that doesn’t immediately make you say “groovy” you’ve obviously never seriously considered replacing one of your hands with a chainsaw and most certainly are not a true Deadite.

Don’t call “Evil Dead” a reboot though, call it a resurrection. Creator Sam Raimi plucked South American filmmaker Fede Alvarez from YouTube obscurity to helm the new installment. Sony’s $15 million remake is produced by Raimi’s Ghost House Productions as well as Ash himself, Bruce Campbell, so you know this isn’t just a cash grab. And like the original, the latest incarnation is pure unflinching horror. Where “Evil Dead 2” and “Army of Darkness” veered further and further into slapstick humor, make no mistake, this one goes straight for the jugular…via the ripping out of your spine.

Raimi’s groundbreaking horror film, “The Evil Dead,” which Stephen King famously blurbed as “the most ferociously original horror film…” crawled out of the woodwork over thirty years ago and forever possessed schlock-loving cinematic souls…including my own.

My history started innocently enough, as a tween, when the pinnacle of a Friday night was my brother and I sleeping over at our friends’ house (which, coincidentally, really was way out in the middle of a dark forest, replete with rolling fog), playing Atari baseball, eating pizza and settling in front of the TV in our sleeping bags, scaring the piss out of each other watching horror movies on beta and yes, even laserdisc, until dawn.

BACK IN THE MID-80s THERE WAS NO WIKIPEDIA

Back in the mid-80s there was no Wikipedia, no pipeline to perversion, no portal to pulp, no superhighway to all things salacious, superstitious and horror-riffic. For our porn fix, there was a dilapidated tin shed in the backyard of our friend’s grandparents that had rain-damaged, moldy old Playboys. For our horror fix, there was a run-of-the-mill video store, The Movie Machine, which had a pretty substantial horror section. That was the extended reach of our outer limits growing up in a small sleepy town in Northern Idaho.

So instead of letting our fingers do the walking and browsing cult film websites, we had our parents drive us to the video store, where we fended for ourselves, meticulously scanning the shelves, discovering horror gems based solely on their box art. That led us to classics like “Ghoulies,” “The Stuff,” “Scanners,” “Three on a Meathook,” “The Toxic Avenger,” and eventually “The Evil Dead.”

For those of you that don’t know what a video store is, there used to be this magical place where you could take your time, wandering up and down spacious aisles and look at the different movies and read their synopsis. Sure, it’s sort of like Redbox, except that nobody is bum-rushing you and there are thousands of movies, not just hundreds.

Heck, if “The Evil Dead” came out today, it would probably get lost and become just another ghost in the Redbox machine. Back in the day, if you owned a video store, you paid $80 bucks for a tape…so you made damn sure it sat on the shelf for the long run.

Originally, “The Evil Dead” was titled “Book of the Dead,” but later changed because distributor Irvin Shapiro convinced everyone it needed something a bit flashier to get people’s attention, something a bit more marketable. Well, turned out the old codger was right. “The Evil Dead” was made for just over $100k, and became a big hit theatrically. But where it really developed a following, was a newer ancillary market: home video.

Five years later, based on the cult success of “The Evil Dead,” and the epic flop that followed with Raimi’s sophomore slump, “Crimewave,” Raimi and his usual suspects were given $3.6 million to make a sequel of sorts.

Funny thing is, you can argue “Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn” is actually a remake, as Raimi and Co. basically shot a bigger budget variation of roughly the same premise, although this one firmly established Campbell as a genuine lead and popping off one-liners like a boss, all while successfully transfusing horror with comedy—an almost impossible task. So, would that make this latest remake actually a three-make?

Regardless of semantics, “Evil Dead 2” scared up around $6 million in theaters, and its success paved the way for a real career for Raimi, who followed it with the hugely successful “Darkman,” and then the fan-pleasing “Evil Dead 3,” otherwise known as “Army of Darkness.”

Universal’s $13 million budget for the threequel finally allowed Raimi the freedom to make the movie he had always wanted…and he went absolutely haywire with over-the-top action and an onslaught of one-liners. In fact, I’m pretty sure every film now has an IMDb quote page solely because “Army of Darkness” exists.

It’s as if Raimi made a fandom film, before fandom films existed—every fanboy’s wet dream was splashed across the silver screen. Raimi’s true genius has always been giving fans exactly what they want, and that’s no surprise considering he himself is a huge movie buff.

That kind of passion, along with Raimi’s dedication to genre films, eventually convinced the right people that his creative gusto could be harnessed for loftier visions. It was Sony that finally rolled the dice on Raimi, who finally hit the big-time with the original “Spider-Man” trilogy. The web-slinger series snagged $2.5 billion worldwide, a long way from the humble beginning of “The Evil Dead,” which ultimately grossed $2.4 million theatrically but also did extremely well in home sectors.

“THE EVIL DEAD” AT HOME

“The Evil Dead” video artwork features the upper torso of a scantily clad woman with her arm reaching up into the air for help, while another monstrous-looking arm has its hand grasped around her neck, seemingly pulling her further into the ground. This never happens during the movie, but it’s a brilliantly effective piece of marketing and one of the few VHS tapes I still own to this day. Call me sentimental, but I just can’t part with it.

I had seen “The Evil Dead” lurking on the lower shelf a couple times before, but I think the box was so tattered, that I didn’t pay much attention to it. It wasn’t until our friend’s mom rented “The Evil Dead” one night with a recommendation from the video store clerk, who warned her that she’d be lucky to get through the first ten minutes without turning it off.

Oh, that got us fired up, all right. We were going to watch the scariest movie ever. The ultimate experience in grueling terror was ours! Oh yeah, bring it! Well, right after we watched our old stand-by, “Revenge of the Nerds,” of course.

You know that old phrase, “Be kind rewind?” Well needless to say, that didn’t apply to “The Evil Dead,” as it sat in its case all night long. Nobody really said anything; it was an unspoken agreement that we would just play Atari until we were googly-eyed. The title alone, combined with the preemptive warning were obviously too much for our fragile minds to endure. In other words: we totally chickened out.

In fact, it wouldn’t be until a couple years later that my friends and I would even revisit “The Evil Dead,” and that was some time after we experienced “Evil Dead 2” for the first time…which did indeed swallow our souls, taking possession of our lives. By that time, we had drained the main vein of The Movie Machine, watching every campy horror flick they had, and when we weren’t watching chill pills, we were making/mocking them.

“The Mean Guy with the Vast Array of Weaponry” was our aimless, expressionless assassin that killed indiscriminately. Basically, we forced my brother to dress up in all black and fitted him with every garden tool we had in the garage. Combine that with multiple bottles of ketchup and you have yourself the makings of some good ol’ schlock-house cinema…much to the chagrin of my mom, who all summer long served hot dogs with only mustard. One could surmise that he was one bad brutha with no regard for my mutha.

He and “The Eggman”—who killed people with acid-filled eggs—were our go-to anti-heroes, and deep down, it all led back to the wackiness and cleverness of “Evil Dead 2,” a film that inspired and impressed us to such a degree that our creative juices ran a deep, deep crimson. Raimi and Campbell were like kindred spirits reaching out to us through a celluloid void…with disembodied hands…goosing us to make our own fright flicks.

Granted, most of them turned out to be trailers, which may or may not have been guises to get out of book reports—“101 Ways to Kill a Salesman.” Sorry, Arthur Miller. However, I did get a B-. Thanks, Mr. McNulty…it was probably more than I deserved.

Speaking of grades, “Evil Dead (2013)” currently has an 82% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, while Raimi’s own “Oz: The Great and Powerful” tows the line of freshness at 61%. “The Evil Dead” and “Evil Dead 2” both have a mind-numbing approval rating of 98%–that tops “Argo,” “Lincoln,” and “Life of Pi” by the way.

So, which is the best of the three films? Well, like all hardcore Star Wars fans who single out “Empire Strikes Back,” if you ask any true Deadite, they will tell you “Evil Dead 2.” In the family of these films, if “The Evil Dead” is the rebirth of horror, “Evil Dead 2” is the twin of horror/comedy, while “Army of Darkness” is the pet monkey.

These are three very different films in a tonal sense, but they all stem from the same geyser of blood. Evil Dead is gonzo horror at its greatest, and Raimi is the ringmaster. If a flood of blood, a sexual attack by trees, or the swallowing of eyeballs isn’t your thing, then by all means don’t wander into these woods. But for the legions of Deadites that revel in this merry madness, this is the mecca of the macabre, the Valhalla of viciousness, nerve-ending nirvana…severed and otherwise.

AM I A FANBOY? NOPE. A SECRET FANBOY? YES!!!

There is the ultimate moment in fanboy lore when Ash — portrayed by my favorite square-jawed actor, Mr. Bruce Campbell — heads out to a shed after cutting off his own hand. His hand had become possessed. It’s “Evil Dead 2” and Ash has decided to go medieval on the demons he has just called “bastards” (a former password of mine).

With revenge on his mind, Ash straps a chainsaw on his bloody stump. He looks at the camera, and says: “Groovy.” He could have said anything. He said, “Groovy.” That’s all. Succinct. To the point. Arguably the best one word one-liner of all-time. Yup, and that word is part of my main email address.

It makes me realize that the first part of coming to terms with being a secret fanboy is admitting that I’m a secret fanboy.

And while I don’t have a tattoo of Ash on my forearm (which I’ve seen multiple times), nor do I have the complete collection (Yes, I said complete) of action figures by my desk, I do rock a hipster shirt occasionally that shows an outline of Ash holding his 12-guage aloft with one of his greatest “Army of Darkness” taglines: “This is my boomstick.” And every time I wear it, I always get comments, and that usually strikes up a conversation about our mutual appreciation. People unquestionably connect with the Evil Dead franchise—arguably fandom’s most rabid group of devotees. They are Deadites, in fact, possessed by all things evil and all things dead and all things Bruce and all things Raimi.

The latest “Evil Dead” received bloody drippin’ great reviews when it premiered at SXSW Film Festival this year, and has been buzzing like Ash’s trusty sidekick ever since. It not only has a solid shot to deliver a #1 opening this weekend, but it will likely out-gross the lifetime box office of the original trilogy in a single weekend. Anything over $20 million and that’s a done deal. From the looks of it right now, Sony’s reboot may be headed towards a rip-roaring debut of $25 million, which is why many involved are already discussing sequels.

You want some more sugar, baby? Yes, plural, as in the possibility of concurrent sequels; one following “Army of Darkness”—which Raimi is already writing with his older brother Ivan—and another straight sequel to the reboot. And then, just to keep your soul salivating, there is a possibility that the two storylines will converge somewhere down the line. If that happens, expect boomsticks far and wide to simultaneously stand erect followed by fanboy heads exploding. Although, secret fanboys like myself will just utter one word: “Groovy.”

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Jeff Bock, NewsWhistle’s movie editor, is the senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations in Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at Jeff@NewsWhistle.com.