Inspiration can strike just about anywhere. Maybe it’s in the silence of doing nothing; the mind unobstructed by screens, music, or other noise becomes able to roam freely through the possibilities. Other times, inspiration comes from a question you ask yourself. It can be self-conscious or of genuine interest, but it’s a natural thing to consider if others feel as you do about a thing. The latter appears to be the genesis for filmmaker Steve Villeneuve, who was examining his recently turned two year old collection of Evil Dead memorabilia and wondered what a fan’s collection might look like going back decades. Villeneuve got his answer and then-some while making his documentary about the Evil Dead properties, but, in the finding, discovered something even richer: a fan-base that’s as equally kind and generous as their beloved franchise is neck deep in corn syrup and latex applications. Considering the amount that’s been used across three main films, one reboot, and three seasons of a Stars television program, that’s a lot of syrup amounting to a lot of love. Now, after a stint on the festival circuit, Villeneuve’s Hail to the Deadites is getting a wider release thanks to Shout! Studios.
First things first, a bit of backstory on the films.
If you’re not familiar with the Sam Raimi-written/directed Bruce Campbell-starring The Evil Dead (1981), the premise is simple: five friends go on a vacation to a cabin in the woods, one of them accidentally awakens a dark evil, and each one is killed off until only Campbell’s Ashley “Ash” Williams remains. Raimi and Campbell would revisit the character two more times in cinemas in Evil Dead II (1987) and Army of Darkness (1992), the former being a sequel/reboot and the latter being more of the same just set in the 14th century. With each film, the horror would remain, becoming, in some cases, more grotesque in its more surreal moments, but the comedic elements (inspired by Raimi’s love of physical comedy (see: The Three Stooges)) would also increase. By the time they made the television show, Ash vs. Evil Dead, they’d found the perfect balance of gore-to-humor so that audiences were not sure if they should be laughing, vomiting, or both. The 2013 Evil Dead, directed by Fede Álvarez, written by Álvarez and Rodo Sayagues with actor Jane Levy starring as Mia, the “Ash” of the film, is not canonical to the Raimi films/television series, but is considered a continuation of the first film by Álvarez. Knowing at least this much will help before watching Deadites as the film is structured in a way in which prior knowledge is expected and noobs will be lost until well into the documentary.
Second, a disclosure about this writer.
I’m a fan of the series, if you couldn’t tell from the photo in my bio on the About page of EoM. My introduction into the series came when my middle brother, Micah, started bringing home horror films as he took advantage of the perks of working in a video store. Being a giant chicken in a flesh suit, I couldn’t watch the things he brought home at all. They were too real for my imagination to ignore and I didn’t need to imagine these things in the dark of night. But, as an avid comic reader, I’d seen advertisements for this romance novel-esque film about a hero out of time and low on gas, so I had some sense of what Army of Darkness was about when Micah brought it home. I fell in love with the comedy (dialogue & performance), with the structure of the story, and, most of all, with Campbell. Since then, I’ve seen Campbell live twice, met him once, and amassed a small collection of toys, statues, and various memorabilia related to the film, and seen the absolutely spectacular Evil Dead: The Musical twice. Given the opportunity to look at any shooting scripts at the Academy of Arts and Sciences Library, I opted to read the one for Army of Darkness (which I discussed briefly on Episode 26 of The Cine-Men podcast). The point of all this is to say that I am aware of my bias when it comes to anything Evil Dead related, so when I tell you that Villeneuve captures the heart of the fandom and the continued amazement by the cast at the longevity of their work, understand that it comes from someone within the fandom. I’m nowhere near the level of some of the folks who lead the documentary (special effects enthusiasts, filmmakers, cosplayers, possessors of actual movie props, and general horror fans), but I can recognize the authentic joy with which each of these individuals speaks of the series.
What stands out from the jump is how removed Villeneuve is from the documentary. Some directors are seen or heard on screen, while others have no presence at all. Within Deadites, Villeneuve is there, but not there. After an extended introduction featuring the cast of the first two Evil Dead films, Villeneuve is introduced and the concept of the documentary established. From here, Villeneuve is shown but not really heard as he interviews the IGN-crowned “Ultimate Evil Dead Fan” Brie Cummings. From here, he pops up from time to time, but the real work is done from narrator Scott Shaw, whose voice guides us from one important place to another. Because of this, there’s a sense that Deadites is made by someone visiting the fandom, rather than someone of it. This isn’t a knock on Villeneuve in the slightest, it’s just that having someone else narrate his adventure creates an additional barrier for the audience when a documentary ideally will pull them in further than a fictional narrative. As elements of the narrative experience a bit of jittering due to editing, the distance between the audience and the documentary grows further. For instance, we can forgive the poor video quality of Villeneuve video-chatting with Cummings as there are some things a director can’t control, but why start the documentary with a statement of “what’s the biggest collection” and then not show it off to us? There’s plenty of time spent with Evil Dead special effects artist Tom Sullivan, someone who intersects with quite a few elements of the documentary, but him having a collection of materials is far less surprising than the average person. That said, when the documentary does offer moments that explore the fandom (the cosplayers, collectors, and general fans), Deadites discovers its pulsing heart.
Filmmaker Michael Felsher tells a story about visiting the actual cabin used for exterior shots on The Evil Dead and shows off an art piece from a window shutter that “somehow” ended up in his backseat. Cosplayer Adam King talks about his experience dressing as Ash, including a story with a heartwarming mystery. An Indianapolis DJ, AC McRay, shares an Evil Dead-related story which highlights how profoundly Raimi and Campbell’s Ash has come to represent a stalwart heroism in the face of insurmountable odds. Veteran and actor Don Campbell, Bruce’s brother, has his own stories to tell, while the more famous members of the cast get their own chance to tell stories. Each of these moments and many others highlight the love fans have for a film series which is objectively terrible, yet undeniably impressive for what the production pulled off on such a shoestring budget. Stories like these are absolutely captivating, but each one is undercut by odd editing in the form of delayed name cards, a few instances of jumping from one location to another as though it was forgotten, or even not entirely explaining what it is that Villeneuve is showing us. As the proud owner of the Evil Dead: The Musical soundtrack, I’ve more than once sung the song “Cabin in the Woods” when driving on some unfamiliar road; but, to the unaware, even within the fandom, there’s no explanation of what it is, who created it, and why. It’s the cavern created by the lack of explanations that prevent Deadites from achieving its mission fully.
This isn’t a documentary that you can put on without knowing something about what you’re in for, otherwise you may struggle a tad to see what it is that these people love, but if you know you know. Rather than use shots of the actual films over interviewee dialogue, Villeneuve uses fan films. Rather than getting score rights, he uses songs inspired by the characters and themes. This is a simple and yet brilliant way to showcase material that fans may not be aware of while continuing the message that Evil Dead inspires artists in a variety of ways decades after its initial release. The benefit of knowing about the series is that we can acknowledge what works and doesn’t work about the series and keep on showering it with affection. Personally, the moment in the documentary where actors Ellen Sandweiss, Theresa Tilly, and Betsy Baker (Cheryl, Shelly, and Linda of the original Evil Dead) bring up the sexual violence and gratuitous nudity of the film is the kind of thing worth exploring and it’s unfortunate that it then gets dropped from the documentary entirely. Even if Raimi has spoken publicly about his regrets, it’s important for every fandom to be aware of and explore the things which are problematic. To ignore them is to imply that these issues are ok. Villeneuve doesn’t take a stance within the documentary on this as he instead puts the focus is on the positive elements that have become a generational experience, a fondness and love passed down from parent to child in a variety of ways. In the end, Hail to the Deadites is, without question, a loving tribute to the people who have enjoyed this particular bit of punk rock horror since its inception.
Available on VOD and digital July 27th, 2021.
For more information, head to the official Hail to the Deadites website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.