The Evil Dead appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Before I address my impressions of picture quality, I think I should cover what I know about the crazy history of The Evil Dead on DVD. This 2002 release was my first exposure to the film on DVD, but it definitely wasn’t its first release. That took place in January 1999 when Anchor Bay produced their initial take on the film. It offered a fullscreen image, as did the March 1999 edition released by Elite. Apparently director Sam Raimi approved the fullframe transfer.
According to Anchor Bay, Raimi also “personally supervised” the new DVD’s picture and sound. Further confusing matters, in the Evil Dead Handbook, Raimi apparently indicated that while shot at 1.33:1, Dead was meant to be viewed matted to 1.66:1. Oh, the humanity!
Whatever the confusing case may be, the newest one indeed is 1.85:1 or somewhere thereabouts; my personal measurement came up with 1.80:1, so to coin a phrase: whatever! I cannot compare the cropping against the fullscreen editions, but frankly, I thought the dimensions looked appropriate. For example, one shot showed a close-up on eyes, and I felt it would have displayed too much of the rest of the faces in fullscreen.
In regard to the actual quality of this image, I’m of two minds. Subjectively, Dead looked pretty darned good for a 20-year-old flick made by amateurs with a budget of roughly 50 cents. Objectively, however, the picture seemed much more problematic, even when I took the age of the material into account.
Sharpness consistently showed concerns. Much of the film looked vaguely soft and ill defined. The blurriness wasn’t a terrible distraction, as it remained minor throughout the film and never became very serious. Nonetheless, the movie always looked a bit indistinct and didn’t ever come across as crisp or detailed. Jagged edges and moiré effects caused no concerns, and I also saw no signs of edge enhancement. As for print flaws, Dead showed light to moderate grain throughout the film, but otherwise, it seemed pretty clean. I detected occasional examples of some nicks, speckles and grit, but these were fairly minor; for the most part, the movie looked rather clean.
Colors appeared pale and faded across the board. Some of this was likely due to the film’s subdued color scheme, but even so, the hues were quite lackluster and flat. Black levels also came across as fairly drab and bland; they never achieved much depth or density. Shadow detail usually seemed rather thick and excessively opaque, which could make them tough to discern at times.
I suspect a lot of the problems I saw related to the source material. There’s only so much that can be done with decades-old 16mm footage created by a bunch of goofs in the woods, though the fan community seems divided on the subject; I’ve read a number of comments from folks who appear to prefer the older transfers. Whatever the case may be, I still thought the new version of The Evil Dead looked reasonably good considering all the caveats, but it remained problematic from an objective standpoint.
When we examine the sound options for this 2002 release of The Evil Dead and compare it to prior options, the issues seems almost as sticky as that regarding the picture. The new Dead includes both Dolby Digital 5.1 EX and DTS 6.1 ES mixes. The Elite disc offered DD 5.1, while the old Anchor Bay one provided… I don’t know. I’ve checked a bunch of different reviews and have alternately heard the original AB release included a) DD 5.1; b) DD 4.0, and c) DD 2.0. The 5.1 claims seem to be the most prevalent, so I’d guess they’re correct, but it’s a mess anyway you look at it.
Unfortunately, the original mono track doesn’t appear on this DVD, but I was quite pleased with the new editions. In this newest chapter of the great DTS vs. DD debate, I had to give the narrow edge to the former. For the most part, the two tracks sounded very similar, but I did find the DTS mix to appear somewhat richer and better integrated. However, I should emphasize that the differences were minor, as both tracks presented very strong audio.
Some multichannel remixes come across as forced and gimmicky, and on occasion, those traps affected Dead. However, as a whole I thought the tracks worked surprisingly well. The soundfield seemed quite active throughout the film, as it cranked up the spooky factor. Actually, I found it to sound a bit too active at times, mainly during quieter scenes. During those periods, the mix worked overtime to give us something - or anything - to remind us that this was a brand-new multichannel track. It could seem somewhat distracting and forced.
However, all was forgiven during louder scenes; the soundtrack excelled on those occasions. The mix created a solid sense of atmosphere and placement and blended together quite well. Music showed nice stereo presence, and the effects were accurately placed and moved neatly. Surround usage appeared quite strong overall. Again, the rears seemed a bit too active at times, but usually the track boasted an involving environment.
Not surprisingly, the mix faltered when I examined the quality of the audio, but even so, it didn’t betray its origins too badly. Speech showed the gravest concerns, as much of the dialogue appeared thin and edgy. The lines remained reasonably intelligible, but they didn’t seem very natural or warm. Effects also betrayed a shrill tone at times, and they displayed some mild distortion. Nonetheless, they showed fairly good clarity most of the time, and they featured some excellent low-end response on occasion. The score worked the best, as it demonstrated good dynamics and clarity across the board. I noticed a little hiss at times, but other source flaws caused no concerns. Ultimately, the audio for The Evil Dead displayed too many defects to earn a grade higher than a “B”, but I think fans will like the new mix nonetheless.
Once we move on to the issue of extras, things become even more complicated than they were in regard to picture and sound. Actually, the complication level probably remains the same, but it’s still a mess. At least we can essentially disregard the 1999 Anchor Bay release, as it was a bare-bones affair.
However, the Elite edition included a lot of features, all of which apparently make it to the new AB version. Simple, right? Nope, because for the 2002 release, AB chose to produce two different sets. This review discusses the deluxe “Book of the Dead” edition, but they’ve also created a standard package that offers most of the same extras.
In the interest of clarity (yeah, right), I’ll simply cover the supplements found in “The Book of the Dead” and then summarize most of the differences at the end. We start with two audio commentaries, both of which were ported straight from the old Elite package. The first includes director Sam Raimi and producer Robert Tapert. Taped in 1998, they were recorded together for this running, screen-specific track. Overall, the commentary offers some good information, but it’s a somewhat bland affair.
Both Tapert and Raimi seem to be fairly quiet guys - not exactly what you’d expect from the people who created such a wild flick - and their personalities keep things subdued during this piece. On the positive side, we do learn a fair amount of information about the film. They cover lots of the details about the shoot and offer a generally useful rack of notes. However, they go silent for moderately substantial amounts of time, and those tendencies increase as the commentary progresses; the second half includes decidedly less material than the first. As a whole, the track is reasonably informative, but it remains average.
Much better is the second commentary. It comes from actor Bruce Campbell on his own and also is a running, screen-specific piece. Even though he’s alone, Campbell shows a higher energy level than Raimi/Tapert, and he rarely lets a moment pass without a remark. Funnily, Campbell occasionally indicates that he’s going to pause to let us hear something from the production audio, but he rarely lets this happen.
That’s a good thing; if I wanted to hear the film’s soundtrack, I’d switch channels. Campbell provides a chatty presence as he offers a lot of good details about the production. Much of this revolves around the movie’s crude effects and all of the nastiness to which the actors were subjected, but he keeps up an entertaining attitude. The commentary lags somewhat during the second half of the flick, as Campbell occasionally reverts to simple mocking of the onscreen action, but it’s still a pretty solid little track.
After this we find some video extras. Oddly, Anchor Bay chose to provide anamorphic enhancement for all of these, even though the first two I’ll discuss use a 1.33:1 ratio. As such, for folks with 4X3 TVs, the material will be seriously windowboxed. Fanalysis is a 26-minute documentary directed by Campbell to examine the wacky ways of the hardcore. We see footage of sci-fi/horror conventions at which Campbell appears and hear from the nutty fans who go over the top in their devotion. Scariest of the bunch is a woman so devoted to Xena that she legally changed her name to “Xena” and also got plastic surgery to look more like Lucy Lawless. (It didn’t work; honestly, she more closely resembles a zombie than Xena.)
This territory has been covered elsewhere many times, and in more satisfying renditions; I thought Trekkies - which focused much more heavily on Star Trek fans - was more entertaining and useful. Dead fans may feel disappointed since Fanalysis offers no real discussion of that film; its relationship to the flick is tangential. Nonetheless, Fanalysis is an interesting little piece, and I like the fact that it provides more than just a look at crazy obsessives; via our looks at Campbell, we get a better look at the point of view taken by the object of various desires. Ultimately it’s a good but unspectacular program.
Next we find Behind the Scenes Footage and Outtakes, an 18-minute and five-second compilation of rough footage. Mainly this offers random monster material. We see the actors in heavy makeup and watch various pieces of their emoting. It’s fun to check out these components on their own out of the context of the film, but it’s nothing mind-blowing; it remains a cute piece.
With the next piece, we actually find a reason for the anamorphic enhancement. Presented with a ratio of about 1.78:1, Discovering Evil Dead focuses on the film’s attempts to be seen, especially as they occurred in the UK. The 13-minute and five-second piece features modern interviews with Evil Dead Companion author Bill Warren plus Stephen Woolley and Nik Powell, the co-directors of Palace Pictures, the original UK distributors of the flick. They relate the movie’s rocky road to screens and video and give us a good history of how this tiny “video nasty” reached its audience. I thought this was easily the most useful and interesting of the three video programs.
Next we locate a trailer as well as four 30-second TV spots. The Talent Bios include very detailed entries for Campbell, Raimi and Tapert. Unfortunately, a glitch affects the listing for Raimi; I tried on two different players but couldn’t get it to advance past the third screen! Within the Posters and Still Gallery, we get 136 frames of material. That area includes advertising art, many shots from the set, and some good concept and planning art.
The Evil Dead includes the THX Optimizer program. Also found on The Phantom Menace and Heathers, it purports to help you set up your home theater to best present the movie on the disc in question. Apparently the Optimizer is unique for each DVD on which it’s included; unlike programs such as Video Essentials, the Optimizer should tweak your set-up differently every time. Frankly, I’ve been very happy with my already-established calibration and I’m afraid to muck with it, so I’ve never tried the Optimizer. If you lack calibration from Video Essentials or a similar program, or if you’re just more adventurous than I am, the Optimizer could be a helpful addition.
In addition to all of that, we find two Easter Eggs on Evil Dead. From the first screen of extras, click to the left and highlight the fish. Hit “enter” and you’ll find some “Special Make-Up Effects Tests”. These last for 65 seconds as we see some dripping blood work and also a little early stop-motion animation.
Go to the second supplements screen and again click to the left. This highlights a skull; press enter to watch footage from a panel discussion that followed a Halloween 2001 screening of The Evil Dead. We hear from producer Robert Tapert as well as actors Betsy Baker and Sarah York during this seven-minute and 15-second program. It’s a nice little chat that doesn’t provide any revelatory information, but it was good to hear from actors other than Campbell.
In addition to all of these DVD-based materials, the “Book of the Dead” edition of The Evil Dead includes some packaging components. Most noticeable is the case itself. “BotD” comes in a special rubber package that’s supposed to look like the book found in the flick. Created by Tom Sullivan, the effects man for the original flick, this offers an introduction from Sullivan and some cool artwork. It also contains the chapter selections and a listing of related websites.
Stuck inside this package is a very good booklet. Written by Michael Felsher, the text offers a positive history on the afterlife of The Evil Dead. It follows the various video incarnations and relates how this little flick still sells 20 years later.
So how does all of this compare to the prior Elite DVD? From what I can tell, the new AB release duplicates everything from the Elite package. That set featured the two commentaries, the behind-the-scenes footage, the still gallery and the trailer. The only losses relate to the presentation of the film itself, which was fullframe and DD 5.1 only on the Elite edition.
Things become slightly more complicated when we compare the “Book of the Dead” version to the new standard AB release. I don’t mean the old barebones one; concurrent with “BotD”, they’re producing a cheaper set that lists for $19.98 as opposed to the $49.98 of the more deluxe package.
For the most part, the two are identical. Obviously the less expensive release dispenses with the rubber case, and it also loses “Fanalysis” and “Discovering Evil Dead”. The Felsher booklet is replaced with one devoted to the “Ladies of the Evil Dead”. I don’t know if the basic version also includes the Easter eggs, but apparently it provides the same presentation of the film itself as well as the two commentaries, the BTS footage, the trailer, the TV spots, and the still gallery.
Frankly, the differences seem pretty minor for an additional $30 retail. Personally, I’m not all that wild about the flick anyway. I think it’s entertaining and respect its status as a groundbreaker, but it just doesn’t do a lot for me based on its own merits. The disc provides flawed but acceptable picture along with surprisingly positive sound and a nice roster of supplements.
For those who don’t already own any version of The Evil Dead and want one, I’d recommend the $20 version. It provides most of the material found on the more expensive release. The “Book of the Dead” seems aimed at the superfans who must have everything related to The Evil Dead. Honestly, I think the thing’s a rip-off, however. Is it a nice set? Sure. The packaging’s moderately cool, and the few extras unique to this set seem interesting and useful.
But that enormous price differential sticks in my craw. $30 more for a rubber case, a different booklet and two documentaries seems ridiculous. If you have the money and won’t be satisfied with anything less, go for the “Book of the Dead”; whatever makes you happy is worth the money. Nonetheless, I think the standard release is the way to go for 99 percent of the Dead fans out there. The “BotD” is nice, but not worth anywhere near the $50 price, especially when the very similar basic package retails for only $20.