The Rip-Roaring Finales of ‘Evil Dead’ and ‘Evil Dead Rise’
Some problems can’t be solved with a chainsaw—unless you’re in an Evil Dead movie. Towards the end of Lee Cronin’s Evil Dead Rise, Beth has gone through hell, much like Mia in Fede Alvarez’s 2013 Evil Dead reimagining. Beth and Mia learn the hard way that getting out is not the same as overcoming. Things like catharsis and redemption are fought and earned, not raced toward. Or they can be found in a Mortal Kombat-style chainsaw fatality where the release is so much sweeter.
When it comes to the Evil Dead franchise, it’s not a question of if the coveted chainsaw will appear, but when and how. When Ash (the legendary Bruce Campbell) picks up the chainsaw for the first time in Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn, he does it to obliterate what was once his girlfriend, Linda (Denise Bixler). The horror of the Kandarian demons is that they are both haunting and taunting. Though Deadite Linda has been decapitated, she does not stop insulting or tricking Ash. It’s a franchise rule that has fiendishly persisted through each entry: the Deadites won’t cease the tirade until the human vessels are totally annihilated.
The terror of the Evil Dead franchise is characters being forced to kill their darlings. The 180-degree turn when a loved one becomes possessed is faster than a vampire or werewolf transformation, and more devious and capable than a running zombie. But Ash can’t bring himself to destroy Deadite Linda so quickly. Until her headless corpse comes charging in with the chainsaw. The cinematic sicko joy of the franchise going on four decades is the moment when Ash’s chin has had it up to here and he finally picks up the goddamn chainsaw.
Sam Raimi knew how to make each use of the chainsaw more audacious than the last, from the climax of Evil Dead II to the pit brawl in Army of Darkness. The spectacle got more cinematic, even on the smaller screen. Which is to say there’s a built-in expectation for the chainsaw. It’s hard to imagine any filmmaker leaving their stamp on the series’ bodily dismemberment tool of choice at this stage. Luckily, Cronin and Alvarez were game for the gory competition, building anticipation for the gas-powered rev like an announcer revving up the crowd at a pro wrestling match.
In Evil Dead Rise, Beth (Lily Sullivan) is pregnant and seeks shelter in her sister Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland), a single mother of three. She then gets a crash course in motherhood when the Naturom Demonto possesses Ellie and wreaks havoc on the apartment building. This thing that was once her sister is now after Beth and the kids. By the finale, all that’s left is Beth and her only surviving niece Kassie (Nell Fisher).
The film’s final boss is one for the books (of the dead). A dismembered Ellie fuses with the possessed bodies of her kids Bridget (Gabrielle Echols) and Danny (Morgan Davies). The Deadites twist the best thing about Ellie—her motherly embrace—and turn her into a group hug monster called The Marauder. Beth may not know it, but this is a title fight, and the parking garage is their stage. Matriarch versus matriarch, the mom that stepped up against the “mother of all evil.”
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Alvarez’s Evil Dead sets up a similar showdown. In the finale, Mia’s (Jane Levy) soul has been brought back. Her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) sacrificed himself in a fire to cleanse the cabin and the woods of the Deadites, leaving his sister as the only survivor. She’s back to where she started, on the ground and in the middle of a downpour, haunted by this thing that looks like her. Blood rains down, the Abomination rises like a wrestler hiding under the ring this whole time, and a Slayer music video kicks into gear.
Mia, understandably, bolts. She does what she did the moment the Naturom Demonto was unleashed, back when she was just here to battle her heroin addiction. She gets in the car and tries to escape, and again runs in the same self-defeating circles. To her credit, she still doesn’t know what’s happening or why. Much like Beth in Evil Dead Rise, she didn’t know about demonic entities until tonight. Neither gets a tutorial on how to beat the Deadites. They have to figure it out in real time.
Mia’s problems didn’t start at the cabin, and they don’t end there either. Alvarez thus far has telegraphed what Mia will do versus what she has to do like a video game choice: fall into the same pattern, or break the cycle. She chooses wrong initially and gets burned by the Abomination. Mia’s declaration of sobriety at the well is put to the ultimate test, and Alvarez frames her psychological journey like Alice clawing her way back up the rabbit hole.
Beth is also just trying to evade the final boss, reminiscent of old-school Resident Evil encounters where the name of the game is hide and avoid. Also to her credit, the priest on the vinyl heeds that running away is the only option. Cronin makes the objectives and obstacles clear as seen through Beth’s tunnel vision: get in the car, open the parking gate, FLEE. But when the gate starts to close, she and Kassie make a break for the narrow opening, and the Marauder fatefully drags Kassie back in. If Beth is our third-person avatar, then the moment plays similarly to a cutscene where she’s helpless to watch. And we’re in her corner as she all-out refuses to be the sole survivor of the story.
Evil Dead Rise flips the harbinger of chaos in the finale. It’s Beth’s turn to barrel through with the camera flipped facing her. I don’t know if Lily Sullivan is a wrestling fan, but she plays her surprise arena entrance on the level of a Becky Lynch ambush, one topped off by a sweet franchise callback. You almost wish Bruce Campbell was there to emcee.
Both Mia and Beth learn the hard way that there’s no outrunning this. Mia knows this deep down. At one point, she becomes pinned under her only means of escape. She’s tried to combat her addiction before and lost. It’s no coincidence that the Abomination takes on the form of her demonic doppelganger. In Evil Dead Rise, Deadite Ellie is the one doing the taunting. In Evil Dead, it’s all Mia.
She is her own worst enemy, dragging herself through the mud. In doing so, she becomes self-aware of the ways she’s sabotaged her life and everyone in it. Over the course of the movie, she’s flipped off her brother, bad-mouthed her friends in the vilest ways possible, and damned herself repeatedly. Her penchant for self-harm, hinted at by Olivia (Jessica Lucas), becomes explicit in the tool shed when the Abomination shoves a machete through the walls, slicing at her limbs. Her doppelganger eventually says to her, “You’re gonna die here, you pathetic junkie.”
The spare beauty of Fede Alvarez’s (co-written with Rodo Sayagues) and Lee Cronin’s scripts is they leave the meat of their heroine’s backstories unsaid; the champion that rises to the occasion says all. We don’t know what Mia was like deep in her addiction, but we see her emerging from the black hole. And we don’t know what exactly spurs Beth’s fears of becoming a mom (nor what her and Ellie’s mom was like), but we know that she’s ready to stand up to this matriarchal abomination with something better than a steel chair. Alvarez and Cronin thoroughly supply narrative power to a power tool.
Mia may not be religious, but Alvarez is clearly a worshiper of the franchise. If the chainsaw is seen as a holy object by fans, then it’s only right that Mia makes her way to the church. The rabbit hole funnels through the tool shed, and she finds the chainsaw above her as if placed by divine intervention. (Earlier in the film, Mia said, “Please, God. Give me a break.”) And though Evil Dead Rise may take place at a condemned apartment building in LA, that doesn’t stop Cronin from cheekily bringing a tool shed for use in the rip-roaring climax, with the chainsaw hidden away like a power-up.
In fighting games, players traditionally fill up their special meters by chaining together combos of hits. In the case of an Evil Dead movie, it’s a bullshit meter; it’s about taking the damage and vile punchlines. Beth and Mia are on the ropes, their tolerance levels critical in the final minutes. They hit back fully and decisively after they’ve been knocked down one too many times.
Beth equips the chainsaw power-up and Cronin draws the camera back to give his leading lady her “hero shot.” Raimi, known for his snap zooms and quick cuts, had a video game economy to his compositions where the tools and objectives were always clear. Cronin leads with a similar economy of sequencing, albeit slowed down relative to Raimi. The Marauder pulls Kassie into the tool truck and grabs the chainsaw; the Marauder threatens to drag Beth into the wood chipper, then she knows what she must do to defeat this unholy mama for good. Cronin visually communicates the pieces (and appliances) in play and allows us to savor every rip and tear of the final kill.
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Beth initially reels under the emptiness of dismembering Ellie, Bridget, and Danny’s corpses. Until the decapitated Ellie squeezes in one last round of sibling mind games, and Beth doesn’t bat an eye. Lily Sullivan commits to the no-mercy rule, roaring back with a look that could raze hell. It’s the Carrie stare, hatred raining down as Deadite Ellie pleads, “Help me, Bethy-boo.” Dismembering isn’t enough to punish this desecration of her sister’s memory. Beth obliterates, performing Last Rites by way of the wood chipper.
Mia, in the end, stares down at the uncanny mirror, the thing she’s been running away from the entire time. Now it’s in the way and she doesn’t flinch, exorcizing her demons wholesale. (Seeing as Jane Levy really had it up here while filming, perhaps the finishing move was therapeutic.) Instead of the Bible, she performs her own exorcism with a screaming sermon and a holy chainsaw—sawing from head to chest and back up. Alvarez and Cronin paint in one color, and they both do Raimi, Slayer, and NetherRealm Studios proud.
Beth and Mia both earn the mother of all chainsaw kills, finding salvation in the sicko glory of a crowd-pleasing finisher. To that end, their journey to becoming a Mortal Kombat DLC character has begun. Motherhood awaits Beth, and this is day one of Mia’s recovery. A harder road lies ahead, but there’s an assurance that both final girls won’t back down because of the primal female rage that their final kill symbolizes: I’ve had enough of this shit.