‘Evil Dead Rise’: inside the year’s scariest horror film

How director Lee Cronin resurrected a zombie franchise with clever scares, undead kids and a lot of fake blood

Lee Cronin was nine years old when he saw Sam Raimi’s seminal 1981 horror The Evil Dead and its 1987 sequel Evil Dead II. At his family’s Dublin home, he watched them back to back one night with his dad, who had rented them on VHS. “I grew up in a house where everybody watched horror movies all the time. There was no concealment from those things,” he says. Rather than be terrified, he was excited. “I didn’t understand what they were. And I didn’t understand the importance. But I knew I’d seen something I’d never seen before.”

The story of five Michigan college students who inadvertently unleash demonic spirits while holidaying in a remote cabin in the woods, The Evil Dead was indeed unique. Dubbed “a good campfire story” by none other than horror maestro Stephen King, its raw mix of black humour and extreme gore became notorious. A cult in the making, it launched the careers of Raimi, producer Robert Tapert and Bruce Campbell, who starred as the demon-slaying lead Ash Williams. 

Then came the sequel six years later, and finally trilogy-closer Army of Darkness in 1992.

After that, the franchise was kept alive by the likes of Fede Álvarez, who made reboot Evil Dead in 2013 starring Jane Levy and Shiloh Fernandez. Campbell also returned to his most famous role in Ash Vs Evil Dead, a TV series continuation that lasted for three seasons on cable network Starz.

Evil Dead Rise is like a full-frontal bloodied scream right in your face”

Although a sequel to Álvarez’s film was also mooted, it never got off the ground. Then Cronin stepped in.

 After his 2019 supernatural debut The Hole In The Ground played at Sundance Film Festival, Cronin was invited to lunch by Raimi, impressed by what he’d seen. As Raimi recently said during the SXSW Film Festival, “I saw in Lee a great craftsman. It takes another plumber to recognise a good plumber. You’ve got to be able to know what type of pipe to use, the gauge. I recognise a good weld that another plumber makes. A lot of people can’t but if you do that yourself you really see the art and the care that goes into it and I saw that in The Hole In The Ground.”

At the time, they talked about movies and influences – anything but The Evil Dead. “It was just the last ten minutes of [our] conversation, I said, ‘By the way, what are you doing with Evil Dead?’” remembers Cronin. “And he was like, ‘Why?’ And I was like, ‘Well, I’m a massive fan. And I’d like to see more Evil Dead movies.’ And he went, ‘Oh, shit! You like Evil Dead!?’” Cronin was heading out the door to catch a flight to Dublin. Quickly, he “blurted out” some initial thoughts on what would ultimately form the basis for the franchise’s fifth movie: Evil Dead Rise. 

Curiously, it hadn’t struck Raimi to bring it up.

Evil Dead
Bruce Campbell in original 1981 classic ‘The Evil Dead’. CREDIT: Alamy

“He didn’t think I’d have any interest in Evil Dead,” says Cronin. “The Hole In The Ground is like a whisper at the back of your neck. Evil Dead Rise is like a full-frontal bloodied scream right in your face.” Yet over the next six months, and many emails, Cronin came up with an idea. “I pitched to Sam, Rob and Bruce the full storyline and they fell in love with the story I was trying to tell and the way I was trying to break the mould.” 

Cronin doesn’t just break the mould. “I think it’s a big bloody crack open into a new part of the universe,” he says.

One of the most intense horror movies in years, Evil Dead Rise captures the renegade spirit of the Raimi originals and yet slams something new down on the table. Primarily set in Los Angeles, there’s no cabin-in-the-woods setting or Ash Williams. “It’s the first Evil Dead movie that has neither of those things,” says Cronin. “It just felt like it needed to step into some fresh territory, to reinvigorate what’s there.”

“The franchise needed to step into fresh territory”

When he proposed his idea to Raimi, the director had two key bits of advice: ‘Make sure the Deadites are really scary” and “make sure there’s a Book in there.” The Deadites, of course, are the demons that look to possess the bodies of mere mortals and feast on their souls. And the Book? Well, that’s the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, the ancient Sumerian text also known as the Book Of The Dead that originally unleashed hell when Ash and his friends find it in the cabin’s cellar. But what about other totems in the franchise – like the use of a chainsaw and shotgun? “They weren’t givens,” says Cronin. “In a way, we all agreed it was about the Book.”

Cronin’s idea for the Book saw him dip into the Evil Dead mythology, courtesy of the third movie. “I spoke to Sam about how [we should] do something different with it,” says Cronin. “He set it up in Army Of Darkness where Ash discovers three different Books. So I said to Sam, ‘You had one, Fede Álvarez had one in 2013. I’m gonna take the third Book and play it my way.’ So that was very important.” In Evil Dead Rise, the Book is stashed in a bank vault buried beneath the basement of a crumbling, condemned tenement building in a less-than-salubrious part of LA.

Evil Dead Rise
‘Evil Dead Rise’ is the fifth entry in the film franchise. CREDIT: StudioCanal

Living in the top floor of the building is Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland), mother to three kids, teens Danny (Morgan Davies) and Bridget (Gabrielle Echols) and the younger Kassie (Nell Fisher). Joining the party is Ellie’s sister Beth (Lily Sullivan), who swings back into town after a couple of months on the road not returning her sister’s phone calls. When an earthquake rocks the city, a huge crack appears in the basement, exposing the vault. Danny finds the Book, and a bunch of aged vinyl – discoveries that soon unleash the Deadites.

 Where Evil Dead Rise gets really twisted is that it’s mum Ellie who gets possessed, seeing her turn on her sister and her three kids. Children inside the world of Evil Dead, surely not?

“People always ask me that and then I kind of smirk a little bit because the moment I made the call – kids plus Evil Dead – it was only ever going to go one way,” says Cronin. “I am continually drawn to horror stories built around domestic circumstance, because the truth of life is bad things happen to families. As much as we want to believe they don’t, bad things do happen. Terrible things. I didn’t want to shy away from that in any way.”

The Evil Dead mythology centres on the ancient ‘Book Of The Dead’. CREDIT: StudioCanal

While his original draft saw the Deadites rampaging through the entire apartment block, Cronin took advice from producer Rob Tapert. “He was just keen to remind me that Evil Dead movies are about one set of innocent people that are trapped, and to not expand so far that it starts to feel like a different type of movie. And I liked that piece of advice because I wanted it to be as claustrophobic as possible,” says Cronin. “In the end, I basically got rid of all the floors in between, and I used the top floor and I used the basement of that world.”

While some purists might balk at the urban setting, Cronin smartly begins with a lakeside-set prologue, as a group of holidaying teens are torn apart. It’s a deliberately familiar setting, made more so by the very opening shot as the camera flies through the undergrowth – reminiscent of the homespun technique Raimi used to represent the Deadites flying through the air at horrifying speed. Amusingly, here it turns out to be a drone flown by one of the teens. “What it was trying to do was say to the fans, ‘You’re in safe hands because I know the things that make an Evil Dead movie what they are, but I [also] want to play with your expectations.’”

“We used six and a half thousand litres of blood”

As much as he subverts, he also knows what the fans want. He favoured practical effects over CGI. “Every punch, every stab, every jump, all of those things, are us pulling the puppet strings around this playground set that we built so that we could have this kind of operatic carnage roll out.” The blood (and there’s a lot of it) was all practical. “We used six and a half thousand litres of blood,” Cronin says. “We had to open up an industrial kitchen to cook all of that blood up. It’s kind of like a character in the movie. It has a big part to play, especially in the third act.”

He also doesn’t forget the sick, tongue-in-cheek humour – an important element that’s always been sewn into the fabric of the franchise. “I wanted there to be humour – dark, dark humour – alongside the bloodletting,” says Cronin. One moment, involving an eyeball being swallowed, spat out and ingested by another, is a perfect example. “The outlandish-ness of some of the horror, like the eyeball… it’s so visceral and intense that at times people can’t help but laugh at what takes place.”

Evil Dead Rise
Six and a half thousand litres of fake blood were used in ‘Evil Dead Rise’. CREDIT: StudioCanal

Evil Dead Rise also smartly nods to the originals. One of the most famous (and controversial) scenes in The Evil Dead comes when Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) is violated by the branches of a tree, which has been possessed (Raimi later said he felt it was “unnecessarily gratuitous and a little too brutal”). While Cronin wisely leaves out any sexual connotations, when Ellie is first confronted with the Deadite in the apartment block’s elevator, wires from the lift ensnare her in much the way that Cheryl was trapped by vines.

Other deliberate callbacks to the originals are also made. “There’s lots and lots of really deeply buried easter eggs for people to discover,” says Cronin. “I think for the fans, they’re gonna have to probably go and watch this movie two or three times to pick up everything that’s in there.” Among them, on the pizza boxes bought home by the kids is the name ‘Henrietta’s Pizza’, a blatant reference to the Deadite seen in the cellar in Evil Dead II. The featured chainsaw (yes, there is one) is also “the exact colour match” – a sort of honey beige – of Ash’s trusty steed, ‘The Oldsmobile’ Delta 88 Royale.

Evil Dead Rise
‘Evil Dead Rise’ hits cinemas on April 21. CREDIT: StudioCanal

Then there’s Bruce Campbell, buried somewhere in the film. “Bruce came over to Ireland when we were working on the sound and I asked him if he would do this teeny, tiny, little cameo for me. And the fun part is, that’s not necessarily Bruce Campbell playing someone else – that could very well be Ash Williams.”

At the time of the film’s SXSW world premiere, Cronin promised a prize to the first person who figured out where Campbell features. “[Someone] ran up to me, as I was leaving the stage after the Q&A, and quoted the exact moment, so I owe that person $50. And I still need to announce it.”

Held at Austin’s Paramount Theatre, the premiere was, according to Cronin, “like a rock concert”, with 1300 people cheering and, at times, recoiling in horror at what they were witnessing. It was the perfect launch for a film that currently has a 96 per cent critics’ score on aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. “So far, the signs are good, the reactions are good,” the director says. “My only anxieties are with the viewers… because I want to entertain and engage and terrify an audience. That’s my goal.” The nine-year-old Cronin would surely be delighted.

‘Evil Dead Rise’ is in cinemas from April 21

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