Your dilemma: you are in a small, locked room with the only master prints of two movies — one is Sam Raimi’s EVIL DEAD 2: DEAD BY DAWN; the other is Peter Jackson’s DEAD ALIVE (known as BRAINDEAD outside the US). You hold in your hands a book of matches and a small vial of kerosene. You must burn one of the prints. When you do, it will be forgotten forever. The other will be preserved. Which film do you destroy, and which one do you keep?
This is, of course, a “Sophie’s Choice” of enormous magnitude. I cannot imagine a world that is missing either of these films, as they are both some of my — and likely some of your — favorite horror movies. But if you were to canonize one, and reject the other, how would you suss it out? Would you flip a coin, or would you discuss? Is there a clear winner in your head? Because, upon reflection, there doesn’t seem to be a clearly superior film between the two. The time has come, dear readers, to do some serious consideration of the two greatest splatstick horror comedies of all time.
EVIL DEAD 2: DEAD BY DAWN, directed by the venerable and playful Sam Raimi, came out in 1987. DEAD ALIVE was released in 1992, and was directed by the then-hilarious Peter Jackson, who was devoted, at the time, to shock and wonderfully disgusting cult movies. They were both made by directors who started working in the realm of low-budget genre films, and became less interesting as auteurs as their budgets grew. Both directors are currently coming off of not-at-all-good CGI bonanzas. They both feature some excellent gore effects, and display some of the greatest examples of cinema slapstick (I would, without hesitation, compare either to a classic Warner Bros. cartoon from the 1940s). If you see either film as an adolescent, you will become properly obsessed. The playful, flippant, rambunctious attitudes of both cater directly into a silly, Devil-may-care dismissal of death that marks most people’s teen years.
But we can only keep one. Which shall it be?
Let’s start with EVIL DEAD 2, perhaps one of the top 10 cult movies of all time. EVIL DEAD 2 — infamously more of a semi-remake of THE EVIL DEAD than a sequel — is about a loving couple in their early 20s who escape to a remote cabin in the woods for a weekend of romantic bonding. The woods surrounding the cabin are populated by unseen lurking creatures. The young man, Ash (Bruce Campbell), finds a tape recorder in the basement which contains an old scientist’s reading of an ancient unholy book called the Necronomicon. When he plays the tape, the creatures outside awaken and beset the cabin, possessing Ash’s girlfriend Linda (Denise Bixler). Ash decapitates Linda, buries her, and then must comedically fend off the bizarre machinations of the demons (called Deadites), including a basement creature played by Ted Raimi, and other unseen forces. Eventually other people join the cast to aid Ash in his struggle.
Describing the story of EVIL DEAD 2 is actually something of a bizarre experience, as the story is not the focus of the film at all. EVIL DEAD 2 is strikingly spare when it comes to story, and much of the film is devoted merely to elaborate and impeccably staged comedy and horror set-pieces. Indeed, I would say that a good third of the film is nothing but dialogue-free shots of Campbell, alone in a room, battling special effects. In one scene, he faces off against his own reflection in a mirror. In another, he is thrown from the cabin into a murky puddle, whereupon he grows a monstrous face, only to lose it again when the sun comes up. In a third, he cackles alongside a laughing lamp and mutated mounted deer head. In yet another — in what is perhaps the film’s most entertaining sequence — he does battle with his own possessed hand, eventually severing it with a chainsaw.
From a structural perspective, EVIL DEAD 2 is a mess. It bears all the trappings of a classically cheap B-movie, right down to the spartan script and classic examples of plot padding. Although, to be fair, it looks like a classic B-movie, because it is a classic B-movie. Indeed, for many, EVIL DEAD 2 was audiences’ first exposure to energetic low-budget cinema; I know of several amateur filmmakers who elected to explore filmmaking after they saw EVIL DEAD 2. Sam Raimi was able to milk so much out of his low budget that EVIL DEAD 2 has become an object of inspiration.
Exactly what did Raimi milk out of this small budget? He managed to display — with panache, energy, and no small amount of playful DIY punk attitude — a unique style. Raimi was not merely paying homage to the cheap, grindhouse horror films of his youth, but announcing himself as a filmmaker to be reckoned with. With EVIL DEAD 2, Raimi displayed his prowess as a director, and declared he had a voice. Some filmmakers take many years to find a particular style (Wes Craven comes to mind), but Raimi had his style nailed from the very start, even working within a low budget. His more recent films like DRAG ME TO HELL and SPIDER-MAN 3 still bear this stamp.
What is Raimi’s style, then? Although working in the horror milieu, he is clearly taking his visuals and timing from the realm of comedy. EVIL DEAD 2 is may be wearing the skin of horror, but is, at its heart, a cartoon short. Raimi’s talent is assembling a live-action scene, but shooting and editing in such a hyperactive style that you can hardly believe he’s filming real people on a real set. He’s interested in extremes. Not just in content — indeed, the content can seem kind of tame to a dyed-in-the-wool horror veteran — but in movie-making. Raimi is not just interested in monsters; he’s interested in craft — and his forebears are people like Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett.
The juxtaposition of style and substance is where the brilliance starts. Horror is meant to elicit fear; comedy elicits laughs. The two are so far apart on the spectrum of emotions, that by ramming them so wonderfully together, Raimi is making a brilliant comment on horror. It’s fun, he argues, to be scared. But I’m not going to scare you. I’m going to use things you’re usually afraid of to get you to laugh. Extreme gore, it was finally argued, can also be funny.
But is that all EVIL DEAD 2 is about? Is it just a comment on genre? What about anything that’s actually in the film? Well, when it comes to theme and emotions and any other conventional dramatic strength, EVIL DEAD 2 comes up short. I’m trying to think of what the central message of EVIL DEAD 2 is, and I’m at a loss. Is it a love story? Not really. Is it about the dangers of solitude? I would say not. What is Ash’s classical character arc? Nothing really. He starts as a put-upon weirdo, and ends with a chainsaw attached to his severed arm stump. Is this satisfying drama? To watch a nondescript guy turn into a “badass?” To some, yes, but that’s hardly profound. It’s cool, but it’s trifling. EVIL DEAD 2 is, then, all about cool. But “cool” is, emotionally speaking, a flimsy adolescent notion.
In short, EVIL DEAD 2 is a film with a lot of awesome style, and little substance.
In comparison, Peter Jackson’s DEAD ALIVE is actually pretty hefty, and possesses a more traditional — and in many ways, more satisfying — dramatic structure. DEAD ALIVE is about a browbeaten young man named Lionel (Timothy Balme), still living with his tyrannical mother (Elizabeth Moody), who insults him and treats him like a slave. Lionel becomes the romantic pursuit of an astrology-loving Latina named Paquita (Diana Peñalver) who offers his first chance at escape. At the same time, however, his mother is bitten by an exotic Sumatran Rat Monkey, and becomes a rotting zombie. Not only does Lionel have to look after his zombie mother, but has to start hiding all the people she bites (including a nurse, a thug, a priest, and, most hilariously, a baby).
But there’s more: Lionel also discovers secrets about his dead father, finds out about an old love affair, fends off his lecherous uncle’s financial embezzling, and learns about a familiar pornography stash. Lionel is a sad sack, and we can understand his drama. He seems to be good-natured and possessed of good humor, but, like all of us, can’t seem to let go of life’s petty responsibilities.
Already, we have a film that has something of a theme. DEAD ALIVE is about a young man’s relationship with his mother, and how young men must eventually outgrow their parents and move out. It’s about how a mother can use the guise of familial connections to emotionally abuse their children, when really they’re just getting revenge on the father. There are actual relationships in this movie, and we can understand and relate to them.
But don’t get me wrong… DEAD ALIVE is not a heady drama by any means. This is a film that features a living colon that farts and strangles our hero with a greasy gut tendril. This is a movie that features a scene of our hero upturning a lawnmower and pushing it through a sea of zombies, shredding their limbs, and coating himself with thick, sticky, ropy strands of pinkish ickiness. DEAD ALIVE is notable less for its drama than it is for its extreme gore. Indeed, I would call this one of goriest, if not the goriest film of all time. It’s just that DEAD ALIVE bothers to have a skeleton on which to hang its flesh. EVIL DEAD 2, by comparison, only has skeletons on screen.
DEAD ALIVE also has the same sick sense of humor as EVIL DEAD 2. The juxtaposition of horror and slapstick is just as pronounced here, only with faster editing and more blood. DEAD ALIVE ups the ante in the game started by EVIL DEAD 2. There is a graveyard scene wherein zombies begin besetting our hero. The local priest sees the zombies and knows exactly what to do: kung-fu them to death. His immortal line “I kick ass for the Lord!” is one of the highlights of the flick.
Indeed, the dialogue is also better in DEAD ALIVE, and it features some golden one-liners that are fun to repeat. I’m fond of “Your mother ate my dog!” with the response, “Not all of it…”
But, finally, we have to deal with what literary critics refer to as The Anxiety of Influence. DEAD ALIVE is most certainly the stronger of the two films in terms of drama, structure, effects, and extremity. EVIL DEAD 2 might be the superior film comedically, but was outstripped by its child. But do we congratulate the child or the father? DEAD ALIVE, you see, wouldn’t exist without EVIL DEAD 2. Peter Jackson has a unique voice, to be sure — he’s certainly not imitating Raimi — but, culturally speaking, it takes place in a room whose door was opened by EVIL DEAD 2. Jackson likely watched EVIL DEAD 2 before making DEAD ALIVE.
But perhaps this was just the time in horror culture for such splatstick films to arise. Jackson and Raimi are contemporaries (one was born in 1961, the other in 1959), and they were simply working in a general milieu… which means Jackson made the better film.
So, as much as it pains me to say this, I think I would keep DEAD ALIVE alive, and throw EVIL DEAD 2 into the flames. I would cry, I would mourn, I would hate having to do it. But if I’m to keep the better film, the funnier film, and the gorier film… dammit, it’s got to be DEAD ALIVE. That is my final choice on the matter, and I know it’s apt to be an unpopular one. I still adore EVIL DEAD 2 — I adore it beyond reason — and I will eternally keep a candle lit for its passing. But I would keep DEAD ALIVE.
Which one would you keep… and why would you keep it?