Many horror fans remember their introduction to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead franchise. Maybe they fell hard for the gritty gore of its humble yet horrific first installment. Maybe they stumbled upon the quirky pleasures of Evil Dead II, which blended goopy gore with campy comedy. Or maybe they swooned over the twisted time-travel tale that was Army of Darkness. Each entry point might make for a different realm of appreciation. Sadly, the riches that might be unearthed there are not the focus of the fan-made documentary about the Evil Dead fandom. Instead, Hail To The Deadites is a shambling, self-congratulatory slog.
On paper, Hail To The Deadites sounds promising, a horror doc that talks to film historians, critics, and fans to explore why this trio of cult classics have inspired such a fervent fandom. Frankly, I’d hoped for something like Best Worst Movie, Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street, or You Don’t Nomi. Those docs grapple with the complicated legacies of the cult films they herald, using personal stories from the people who made them and/or the audiences who embraced them.
Hail To The Deadites starts off strong, presenting interviews with horror historian Michael Gingold, film professor Andre Loiselle, horror movie maker Chris Alexander, and Evil Dead stars like Betsy Baker, Theresa Tilly, and the king himself, Bruce Campbell. The first five minutes essentially feel like a sizzle reel, explaining what the doc could be with proper funding. It sets up the idea that the films’ popularity might be explored through insights into what the franchise had to say, why it mattered to horror at large, and why it spoke to horror fans across generations. Then in comes Steve.
Who is Steve? It’s a question the film somehow forgets to answer, or perhaps didn’t realize it asked. After the initial sizzle, Hail To The Deadites cuts to Steve buying 4 copies of the 2013 Evil Dead remake on its DVD debut day. That’s what collectors do, we are told by a mysterious narrator who is presumably not Steve as he speaks of him in the third person. Then, the film follows Steve on an ambiguous quest to meet other Deadites. That doesn’t seem hard as there’s a flurry of conventions where the franchise’s stars and crew are treated like royalty. We watch Steve take Zoom calls with “the world’s biggest Evil Dead fan,” go on road trip pilgrimages, and shoot special moments on his camera phone. He’s a fan, but why is he the focus of the film? I was so confused that I stopped the screener and rewatched the beginning to see what I must have missed. Still, no introduction to Steve.
Befuddled, I continued. Watching as Steve meets one Deadite after another, each sharing their origin stories of how they came to love the freaky franchise. Steve has no arc of his own, he mostly seen and not heard. Still, there are some interesting anecdotes in the mix, like a gleefully creepy wedding proposal, a cosplayer determined to come chin-to-chin with Campbell, and a heart-wrenching tale of a sick baby named after Evil Dead’s relentless Ash, in hopes he’d be a fighter too.
However, the director of this doc has no concept of how to give shape to these stories. For instance, the proposal tale is told in its entirety by The Evil Dead’s make-up artist Tom Sullivan, who even recounts what the photo snapped looked like. Instead of cutting to this photo, the doc clumsily cuts to the couple themselves and has them tell the whole story again, from the start. The doc leapfrogs from location and location, fan to fan without any apparent narrative flow. At one point, we’re ushered backstage of a rehearsal of Evil Dead: The Musical only for the narrator to interject with “Oh we forgot something.” Then, we leap to a convention and eventually back again. It’s as jarring to enjoyment as when someone starts to tell a joke, and then says, “Wait. Stop. Let me start over. Okay—so the priest is a giraffe. ANYWAY—”
Anyway, it’s awful.
Its 80-minute runtime feel like an eternity. There’s no apparent structure on which to hang these fans’ stories. There’s no flow to the film. The slapdash segments lack context or engaging b-roll to help smooth over clunky answers. Perhaps that’s why some sections ramble without aims or interruption. The interviews feel frustratingly shallow, offering the same answers again and again. The stars were surprised when they first learned how big the fandom was. The fans love the movies and have since they first saw them. They love collecting memorabilia and cosplaying. Okay. Now dig deeper. What does it mean? Why do these films speak to you? What is the importance of owning props from the set or a piece of the log cabin? Sure, it’s cool. But why should anyone but another die-hard Deadite care?
If you don’t already know the Evil Dead movies like the back of Ash’s dismembered hand, you’ll be lost. There’s no effort to welcome would-be fans into the fold. This is instead a secret handshake for the Deadites who speak in shorthand and apparently assume Steve’s first name is introduction enough. Aside from gleefully (or perhaps obliviously) speaking above the heads of a more casual viewer, the doc is just atrociously executed. Interviews are sloppily framed, trimming off the tops of heads, and not angling to avoid looky-loo passersby. The audio is sometimes shockingly tinny. A Skype interview is shown by shooting the laptop screen, making the woman speaking an amorphous blur of overexposed pixels. Then the structure of the film—or lack thereof—ruthlessly suggests that while this movie’s makers might love The Evil Dead they’ve never seen a documentary before.
If I were watching this for fun, I’d have given up shortly after the Steve-spurred rewind. However, I watched the whole damn thing for you. So heed my warning.
This doc has some interesting moments, like con footage of Groovy Bruce with his game face on, tender stories of how fiction can help fans in real-life, and an irreverently funny segment where Steve visits Don Campbell, the lesser-known but hilarious sbrother of the franchise’ star. What it doesn’t have are in-depth interviews with any of its experts or big names. There’s no interview at ALL with Evil Dead writer/director/visionary Sam Raimi. And this crew didn’t score the rights to any of the Evil Dead films (or TV spinoff), so all the “footage” is fan-art recreations. Even when these are cool, they aren’t exactly as relevant to actually showing the scene the interviewees are describing.
In short, I absolutely hated this doc, which is a disgrace to the form. However, I recognize some of you might still be intrigued. To you, my advice is: Manage your expectations.
Now, if you don’t want to watch this but still want to know who the hell Steve is, spoilers: it’s revealed when the end credits finally hit. “Steve” is Hail To The Deadite’s writer/director/editor/producer Steve Villeneuve.
Hail To The Deadites makes its World Premiere at Fantasia 2020. To learn more about the festival and how you can participate, visit their site.
Header Image Source: Fantasia