LOS ANGELES -- "Blood-drenched" barely begins to describe Fede Alvarez's remake of "Evil Dead," a gore-for-broke affair that strips the flesh off Sam Raimi's cult-beloved comic-horror franchise and exposes the demons at its core. The presence of Raimi, original collaborator Rob Tapert, and star Bruce Campbell as producers should give the faithful permission to attend what would otherwise smell like a shameless exploitation of the 1981 film, but the high production values and nonstop action offered here should also please younger genre fans who've never bothered to rent it.
True to the essence of its predecessor but reinventing some particulars (precedent is set by Raimi's "Evil Dead II," which practically remade the story from scratch), this film retains the five-youths-in-a-cabin premise, but renames the characters and changes some relationships to ensure we don't expect a beat-by-beat remake. That's good news for Shiloh Fernandez, who has none of the humor or panache of Campbell -- Fernandez's David fills the slot of Campbell's Ash, in that he's the brother of the first young woman to be possessed by evil forces (Jane Levy's Mia), but David is, wisely, never offered as an Ash-like hero.
And while the original had a conventional slasher-flick setup -- a co-ed spring break trip to the woods -- this one offers more justification for the remote setting and the characters' reluctance to leave when things start to go south: Mia is a drug addict, and her brother and their friends have come to the family cabin to nurse her through a cold-turkey withdrawal. Having already steeled themselves to ignore her inevitable pleas to go home, Mia's friends at first mistake the evidence of her possession for drug-sick desperation.
Not that this misinterpretation can last for long -- what with Mia's flesh bubbling up into a scarier version of Linda Blair's "Exorcist" visage, and her new habit of trying to kill her pals and spouting demon-voiced promises that none will live until dawn, it's pretty clear heroin isn't her only problem. Lou Taylor Pucci's Eric, having discovered a mysterious book full of supernatural lore -- fans recognize it as the Necronomicon, bound in human skin and full of "never repeat these magic words"-type warnings, destined to be ignored -- diagnoses Mia's condition after having unwittingly (read: stupidly) set demons loose in the first place. But he's too late to keep her from biting some of their friends, allowing spirits to overtake them as well. (The distinction between zombie-style biological infection and demonic possession was always a little hazy in Raimi's series.)
Pucci is this "Evil Dead's" most charismatic cast member, but Alvarez and his co-writer Rodo Sayagues give him only one wisecrack in the whole film. Jokes are almost non-existent here; Alvarez comes closest to trying to make us laugh (and it works) when his camera casually shows us a prop -- a shotgun, a chain saw -- whose importance we remember from Raimi's trilogy.
Instead he and his crack effects team work to make our stomachs turn. From the initial attack on Mia -- the infamous "tree rape" scene -- to the literal rainstorm of blood that accompanies the climax, "Evil Dead" delivers satisfyingly disgusting effects that serve an ever-accelerating action pace. The only respite from the gore comes in those treacherous moments when one of the possessed stops spitting threats and blood to speak in the wounded, innocent voice of the human who used to inhabit its body. The flip-flopping between "why are you hurting me?" and "I will rape your soul in Hell!" is one of the original film's gags -- like Raimi's camera, dodging trees as it offers a breakneck POV shot of demons swooping in to inhabit unwitting mortal shells -- that Alvarez executes perfectly in this unasked-for but entirely welcome remake.
"Evil Dead," a FilmDistrict release, is rated R for strong bloody violence and gore, some sexual content and language. Running time: 91 minutes.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definition for R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.