Mainstreaming mutilation: How did Sam Raimi’s sadistic ‘Evil Dead’ snag R rating?

As director of “Oz the Great and Powerful” and the original “Spider-Man” trilogy, Sam Raimi would seem to be a modern-day heir to Steven Spielberg and Walt Disney. But he started his career more than 30 years ago by making one of the most notoriously gruesome horror films of all time.

“The Evil Dead” (1981), Mr. Raimi’s first full-length feature, was so mercilessly violent that it was unrated upon its U.S. release and eventually branded NC-17, banned for 20 years in Germany, sliced to pieces by editors in Finland and virtually created the need for the “video nasty” list of films deemed too violent to be distributed in England.

One might expect that with 30 more years of life experience, mainstream acceptance and a longtime marriage with five children, Mr. Raimi would look back on that movie as an early aberration. Instead, he is an executive producer and the driving force behind the big-budget remake “Evil Dead,” which opens Friday.

About 90 percent of the new film’s running time consists of finding brutal and bloody ways to kill a person, including shotgun blasts, nail guns, broken mirror shards, strangulations, drowning, electrocution, burning and live burial. I haven’t even mentioned the dungeon full of rotting cat corpses hanging from the ceiling, the dog that has its throat slashed, the moving tree branches that violate a woman (don’t ask), and the numerous forced or accidental amputations along the way.

The more blood spewed, the more the audience at a Tuesday night preview screening applauded and cheered. It leads me to wonder more than ever whether we’re just a degree of separation away from being as callously dehumanized in our sense of what is entertainment as the ancient Romans were.

What does it say about us as a people that such depictions of hatred and suffering are considered acceptable for an R rating — and, thus, wide theatrical release — by the Motion Picture Association of America, upon which many rely to give warning of objectionable content? And it’s fair to ask Mr. Raimi why, as a father — and, by past media accounts, a patriotic American — he would want to pollute the culture with the kind of material that could drive the next James Holmes or Adam Lanza over the edge.

The movie has a $14 million budget, a whopping 400 times larger than the original’s $350,000 shoestring. It is also about 40 times more bloody than any other film to come down the pike in ages.

Like the original, the new movie’s plot is simple: A group of 20-somethings heads to an old, run-down cabin in the woods. This time, they have assembled because one of the women is desperate to kick her heroin habit after overdosing and they hope that the woods will keep her away from drugs. Her friends and her brother make a pact behind her back to lock her down and hold her in the woods no matter how hard she begs to leave. The problem is that she really has a good reason to want out: One of the guys on the trip has found an ancient witchcraft book and unleashed a demon, leading to all manner of mayhem as the friends take turns being possessed and attempting to kill one another.

As in the original, Raimi-directed “Dead,” the deaths are so over the top that they often are played for laughs. This film is a textbook example of the cliche “buckets of blood.” Writer-director Fede Alvarez has people spew, vomit and drip blood all over one another and the scenery.

The fact that the new version is going out in wide release with an R rating is an example of just how far our society has gone off the rails and come to accept bloodletting as entertainment.

This unending assault on the senses is skillfully shot and decently acted by performers who seem to be playing it all for laughs about half the time, but Sam Raimi and his cohorts should be ashamed for laughing all the way to the bank.

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