The awesome Evil Dead Rise is the gnarliest Deadite feeding frenzy yet

A new urban setting, no “groovy” Ash, and genuinely stomach-turning gore: Evil Dead Rise is a satisfying self-contained sequel, says Eliza Janssen, despite some underdeveloped ideas lurking in the background.

A cabin in the woods: you didn’t really wanna come anyways, and now one of your mates is sick, very sick, chanting aloud the book you’re reading in a guttural, foreign voice. But it’s all a misdirect! From director Lee Cronin, Evil Dead Rises only opens with a scene of cabin-set carnage: for the first time, Sam Raimi’s splattery horror franchise is moved out of the sticks and into the city.

An apartment building, of course, offers plenty more meat-puppets for demonic Deadites to ruin than an isolated rural setting. It’s just one of the stakes-raising tactics that makes the series’ fifth entry feel different and exciting, even if it’s not quite as thematically complete as the more faithful 2013 Evil Dead. Both sequels sacrifice Raimi’s anarchic, cartoonish excess for sadder stories of loved ones forced into chainsaw-fuelled family therapy seshes. And with all due respect to the 1981 original that started it all? I reckon Evil Dead Rise’s gory violence makes that iconic pencil-to-achilles-tendon scare look like a regular degular stubbed toe.

A hip, urban family requires a hip, new-look Necronomicon, with needley rows of teeth and blood-inked illustrations that will remind some horror fans of Junji Ito’s body horror anime. Cool tattoo artist mum Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland, a dead ringer for Mia Farrow) has raised her kids to be activists, creatives, and in son Danny’s (Morgan Davies) case, a DJ. He’s our perfect fool because of this hobby, obliviously dropping a needle on a discovered vinyl recording of the building’s ex-tenants: priests summoning something terrible.

The backstory of how the flesh-bound tome ended up tormenting this edgy little family is, ironically enough, not very fleshed out. The significance of the fairly irrelevant cold open is lost on me, too, perhaps only added as the film would run about 80 minutes long without it. Freed from slavish exposition or any of the pulpy lore we’ve enjoyed in Ash’s film and TV appearances, though, Cronin exorcises a core essence of cruelty from his host franchise. This is not a referential, self-conscious sequel, with barely a pandering “groovy” or too much OTT chainsaw badassery in sight: just a gnarly extrapolation of what makes the series so nasty.

Ellie is tragically the first recipient of the Necronomicon’s dark powers, getting bound and broken in a possessed elevator (rather than a touchy-feely tree) before dispensing Deadite trash-talk to her terrified kids. “Mommy’s with the maggots now”, she cooes at them: “free from you titty-sucking parasites”. All a bit more pointed and painful than the generic, tried-and-true “I’ll swallow your soul”, etc. With their dad out of the picture and mum now worse than dead, the kids’ sole protector is their aunt Beth (Lily Sullivan), an emotionally-avoidant rock chick burdened by an overfamiliar subplot about parental anxiety. She’s pregnant but, due to shadowy family trauma in the sisters’ past, is unsure whether she’s capable of being a good guardian.

Once Ellie’s possession spreads to the building’s other tenants and, most heartbreakingly, to her own offspring, her estranged sister must ovary up or die, left with the responsibility of getting as many kids as possible out of the building alive and uncorrupted. Beth and Ellie are wound up in themes of maternal love—its power and twisted potential for darkness—that are better developed in films like The Babadook or even Cronin’s own The Hole In The Ground, both also being about single mums getting the supernatural anti-natal blues.

Sullivan is a cool final girl, and Sutherland is superb in maybe the franchise’s best-ever Deadite performance: with supernatural physicality and gaunt cheekbones, she confidently leads the mostly-Australian cast through a virally spreading parade of horrors. But the big ideas driving these characters don’t get much light. The film instead favours yucky visual shocks, The Shining-inspired floods of blood and intestine-ripping perversion giving setpieces a bitter, gynaecological feel.

What has always scared me most about the Deadites is their utter joy in their victim’s misery: “this evil creates terror through total chaos”, a bit of exposition in the new film concisely puts it. If they can’t immediately destroy you, they’re all too happy to destroy themselves, all in the name of tenderising your weak human flesh into submission, or madness. And oh boy, will the baddies in Evil Dead Rise destroy viewers. Tattoo machine needles, wineglasses, and cheese graters are employed in ways that made me genuinely cover my eyes in the cinema. Be thankful that the film was bumped onto big screens after an initially planned streaming-only release: it’s the ideal midnight movie to see in a large, squealing audience, with revolted walk-outs a given.

In terms of sadism, Evil Dead Rise misses absolutely no opportunities. The same can’t be said of the movie’s halfhearted grabs at referring to old Evil Dead logic, or its slightly tired central story of a final girl stepping up to realise her destiny as a caring mother. But you won’t care by the time Sutherland is regurgitating litres of infernal goop, her infection building into a nightmarish, The Thing-esque final boss.

And most impressively, it achieves all its revitalised, organ-wrenching glory without depending on the powerful charms of Raimi and Bruce Campbell’s past successes. Ash, buddy: take a well-deserved break and let a new batch of dead-by-dawn victims carry the chainsaw for a minute. You can trust them to wield it well.