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Published: Thursday, 3/21/2002

Wacky reissue of cult classic

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Like the film, the sculpted-foam DVD container was a labor of love. Like the film, the sculpted-foam DVD container was a labor of love.
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With all the highbrow flowing this Oscar week, with everyone in Hollywood thanking themselves for making socially relevant pictures about schizophrenia and the plight of Hobbits, it's an ideal time to wallow in a little lowbrow. What a nice coincidence that a legendary lower-than-low-budget horror classic has just been released in a terrific extra-packed special edition DVD.

It even smells kinda bad.

The Evil Dead: The Book of the Dead Edition ($49.98) is a totally geeked-out reissue of one of the most revered cult films of the past two decades, and the packaging is so weird you'll never want to file it away. But sniff it, yes. Instead of a snap-case, the disc comes in a stinky sculpted-foam rubber reproduction of one of the film's props, the book of demon incantations. (Helpful household tip: Keep The Book of the Dead out of the reach of pets.) It was even created by the movie's original special-effects guy, Tom Sullivan, and it's as much a low-rent labor of love as the film itself.

Shot for about $400,000 over three years in the late '70s and early '80s, The Evil Dead tells the very simple, funny, bloody, goofy, spooky story of teenagers trapped in a haunted cabin and slowly devoured by trees and driven mad by possessed college girls and mythical beasts covered in really cheap makeup.

At a glance, it doesn't look like much - another garish horror flick from the waning days of drive-ins - and in a way, it is. But it's also directed by a natural-born filmmaker with a sense of humor: Detroit native Sam Raimi, who went on to direct A Simple Plan, the even-cooler Evil Dead II, and a little upcoming art film called Spider-Man. More body parts fly in this film than in all of the Friday the 13th films combined, but it doesn't seem gratuitous and it's never unsettling.

On the disc's absorbing commentary tracks, actor Bruce Campbell (a dead-ringer for Dudley Do-Right) and Raimi basically give a casual seminar on low-budget filmmaking. They talk about pushing rubber rafts through ponds, cameras in hand, to create floating apparitions; creating lame effects, and shooting when half the crew has quit. They also talk about how the women at the film's Detroit casting calls brought along boyfriends because they thought Raimi was trying to persuade them to shoot porn.

But the funny thing about The Evil Dead is it's so warm (what a strange thing to write) and fun that you can sense stories like these happening on the sidelines. The disc includes 18 minutes of outtakes that are painful to watch after a while, a series of people dressed like zombies trying to withstand take after take of growls and jerky motions. Again, this is part of the film's appeal, and so is its lore. Two fine documentaries about the film also are included. One is from Campbell about Evil Dead fans, and the other is about how the film played in England, or didn't: It was banned for years.

One final note: This disc was put together by Anchor Bay Entertainment, and while the Evil Dead films have been re-released endlessly on video (it's one of the first movies to develop a following on home video), this one feels just about definitive. Anchor Bay is a Troy, Mich.-based home video company. It is known for producing loving editions of schlock classics and obscure foreign films. Think of this fun edition as The Evil Dead version of a complete leather-bound collection of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Wrapped in foam rubber.

New on video: Riding in Cars With Boys (Nice title, and Steve Zahn shines as Drew Barrymore's husband, but director Penny Marshall replaces the real feeling in this young-mom-makes-good story with cloying sentiment).

Never played Toledo, now on video: Donnie Darko (Strange, sometimes moving first film from director Richard Kelly that's part sci-fi head-spinner and part teenage coming-of-age tale; should develop a big following on video); Focus (Harrowing but a bit too formal adaptation of Arthur Miller's novel about anti-Semitism in New York at the end of World War II. William H. Macy stars).

New on DVD: Two from TV. Oz: The Complete First Season ($64.98), eight episodes of HBO's prison drama, with audio commentary from creator Tom Fontana; and Samurai Jack: The Premiere Movie ($19.98), a first-rate feature-length version of the Cartoon Network's stylish and inventive adventure series that makes most animated films look like cave drawings.

Chris Borrelli's Fast Forward column runs every Thursday in the Peach section. E-mail him at cborrelli@theblade.com.



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