“I will feast on your soul!”
So proclaims the “Deadite” possessing Ellie to her blood-drenched sister, Beth, in Evil Dead Rise, the latest installment of one of horror’s most peculiar franchises, The Evil Dead. Unlike many possession stories, The Evil Dead franchise envisions a world without hope of exorcism. The unique version of evil in this franchise calls to mind the cruelty of empires old and new. The relentless mockery the Deadites inflict on their victims reflects the humiliation that Roman soldiers inflicted on Jesus, the carnivals around lynchings in the American South, and the torture American soldiers inflicted on those imprisoned in Abu Ghraib. Evil Dead Rise shows us a world without resurrection.
The original 1981 Evil Dead was followed up by two direct sequel films: Evil Dead II (1987) and Army of Darkness (1993), plus a three-season TV show, Ash vs. Evil Dead (2015—2018). The originals were all directed by Sam Raimi (Spider-Man, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness). Raimi helped oversee a remake in 2013 directed by Fede Álvarez and served as a producer on Evil Dead Rise, directed by Lee Cronin.
All Evil Dead properties follow a similar storyline: A core group of friends (1981/2013) or family (2023) find a copy of the “Necronomicon Ex-Mortis,” the Book of the Dead. The book is read aloud, which summons the Deadites. These are spirits who possess the living, turning them into zombified versions of their former selves. While their end goals differ slightly from film to film, their methodology is consistent: They toy with their victims, creating a spectacle of their possession. It’s this spectacle that makes the Evil Dead films transgressive, even for horror.
Horror, by definition, crosses boundaries. We are afraid of that which doesn’t fit. The original Evil Dead was an ultra-low-budget, DIY project. Some of its success is due to how it broke the mold of ‘70s horror films like The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror, Rosemary’s Baby, and Halloween. The bulk of those films’ runtime is taken up by atmosphere and place-setting. So arises The Evil Dead, unleashing its Deadites almost immediately; from the beginning, there’s gore. So much gore. The film tore through the horror community like Michael Meyers through Haddonfield, Ill., on Halloween night. It was shocking. Transgressive. Provocative.
Newer incarnations of the franchise continue to subvert norms of the day. The 2013 remake emerged into a horror scene ruled by bloodless PG-13 films in the model of Paranormal Activity (2009). Evil Dead promised an R-rated gorefest that eschewed CGI for the gooey gross-out of practical effects.
Evil Dead Rise features a single mother and her three kids. One of the unwritten rules of horror is that, unless the kid is evil (think Damien in The Omen), kids are safe from evil. If they’re particularly precocious, they may have some special insight into the monster (The Conjuring, M3GAN). But even if they’re possessed, like Reagan in The Exorcist, they’ll be okay by the end. Without treading too far into spoiler territory, let’s just say that Evil Dead Rise transgresses here. It’s this transgression that points to the air of hopelessness that characterizes this whole franchise.
Possession films are exorcism films. They’re meant to end with the death of the demon — mostly thanks to the arrival of a father figure. The Exorcist features a single mother who needs a priest — Father Karras — to save her daughter. So too, The Conjuring films feature a husband and wife whose love and faith are enough to protect them — and the families who hire them — despite the fact that they’re not authorized by the Church. Evil Dead Rise doesn’t hold out hope for a father to save the family. The biological father is totally absent from the picture, and the spiritual father — a priest — is the one who summoned the Deadites by reading from the “Necronomicon Ex-Mortis.” In this way, Evil Dead Rise recognizes that patriarchy is just another form of oppression — one more horror trope it gleefully subverts.
Typically, in possession films, a demon makes its way into a body because they’re invited in, or because of some spiritual weakness — we rarely witness the moment of possession. But in Evil Dead (2013), the Deadites behave more like zombies: They possess a host by forcing them to ingest the blood of the Deadite. So where Jesus offers himself as the bread that comes down from heaven, bread that brings life and liberation to all who eat, the consumption of Deadites brings death and damnation. Yes, there is power, power, wonder-working power in the blood of Deadites. But it’s the power of Death.
The Deadites revel in their power, taunting their prey. Their mind games are often as horrific as the bodily injury they inflict. This playful kind of evil is a peculiar characteristic of Empire. In her exploration of murder in Ancient Rome, A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, historian Emma Southan reflects on the public, brutal, and drawn-out spectacle of crucifixion:
Romans wanted people to suffer a lot and suffer publicly. They wanted everyone — everyone — to know that the only rewards of crime were abject humiliation, excruciating pain and, eventually, death. This was important because death wasn’t considered to be that much of a punishment in the Roman world view. Enslaved people … were already socially dead; literal death was a formality. The suffering was the important part.
The gospels illustrate how Rome’s execution of Jesus wasn’t just an execution — they mocked him. They dressed him up like a king, complete with a crown (of thorns). They blindfolded him, beat him, and then asked if he could prophesy who struck him. They hung a sign on his cross that said, “King of the Jews.”
These forms of humiliation — designed to remove any doubt that Rome’s way was uncontested — are strikingly similar to the kinds of torture the Deadites inflict in Evil Dead films. Their goal is not just to kill their victims but to destroy any hope that they can be resisted.
This is the same pattern we’ve seen replicated again and again in American efforts to enforce U.S. superiority. Impromptu carnivals sprang up around lynchings of Black Americans; soldiers mocked and sexually assaulted prisoners at Abu Ghraib; officers in police departments with racist pasts have a long history of exchanging racist jokes. Empire belittles. It dehumanizes. It does everything in its power to convince us that it is inevitable and irresistible.
This is why Jesus’ resurrection is essential to Christian faith. Resurrection means Empire doesn’t get the final word. In his reflection on resurrection to the Corinthians, Paul insists that, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile … Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (15:17-19).
Without Jesus’ resurrection, the Deadites are right. Resistance is futile. Evil wins. Laugh or cry, we all die.