FrightFest 2020: Hail To The Deadites review: a documentary for Evil Dead fans

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A new documentary exploring the fandom that’s sprung up around the Evil Dead series of films (and TV show) – here’s our review of Hail To The Deadites.

Alright you primitive screwheads, listen up…

Hail To The Deadites, from writer and director Steve Villenueve, is a documentary that serves to provide a snapshot of the fan culture that has arisen around the wonderful cult horror Evil Dead films and lead character Ash.

Over the course of the feature length documentary we meet a couple who make a significant life decision at an Evil Dead fan convention, the winner of an ‘ultimate Evil Dead fan’ contest and a couple of dedicated Ash cosplayers, along with several other Evil Dead superfans. These Deadites amass jaw dropping collections of merchandise and memorabilia and travel across the world to attend fan events and meet actors and crew members from the Evil Dead movies.

At their very best, fan cultures like the Deadite community can serve to provide a common ground for people who are buzzing with enthusiasm for a particular film or element of pop culture, or even just those who feel a bit misplaced who see these cultures as a better fit for who they are and where they might like to be. For some of us being a fan of something is a significant part of our identity. And while it may not do a particularly good job of communicating quite why the Evil Dead is the thing that unites these people, Hail To The Deadites does achieve some success in showcasing the human connections that people have made through being a part of this particular community.

This is how the film works, when it does. It’s in short bursts of joyous humanity. An anonymous gesture that helps a fan get to a convention, a story of unimaginable heartbreak that helps a man connect with his hero, people who have found that the obsessive fandom that can cause isolation can also be the basis of friendships with people from all over the world. These are the moments most worth watching in Hail To The Deadites.

Much like the fans it documents, Hail To The Deadites is a film bursting with all of this passion and excitement and joy, but it doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with it. The love we can feel towards our favourite movies can be so deeply felt but it can also be very difficult to explain. Who amongst us has never stumbled smitten out of a cinema, only to stutter ourselves breathless before settling on ‘I just loved it!’? Hail To The Deadites feels like that, like the compulsion to express joy but without working out how to articulate it.

Meandering and episodic, it’s a documentary that desperately needs to be better shaped. It moves listlessly between segments with no fluidity and very little in the way of coherent threading.

A lack of narrative focus isn’t the only issue with Hail To The Deadites, either. It’s a film that’s really lacking in insight. We get a few short soundbites about why people like the films or the characters but nothing that gets us beneath the surface of either the people or their obsession. Without being able to muster much why, we end up seeing an awful lot of what, which does become a bit repetitive.

The inclusion of Bruce Campbell, then, is a real coup for Hail To The Deadites. Not only does Campbell bring his trademark charisma to the screen, and he really does remain an endlessly watchable presence, but he offers the films only real insights, sharing his observations and assessments from his unique perspective as both an insider and outsider of Evil Dead fan culture.

Of course, to criticise the film is not to condemn fan culture. Of all the things to focus your life on, something that brings you joy seems like a great thing to choose. I’m writing this review in my office, surrounded by the most ridiculous Ninja Turtle action figures. I have a framed The Devil’s Rejects poster on the wall beside me. Sitting below that poster is my DVD shelving, and that’s where you’ll find my Evil Dead blu-rays. There are few films that I’ve bought and bought and bought again quite so often as the Evil Dead movies (anyone remember the Evil Dead 2 DVD in the rubbery Necronomicon cover that would scream when squeezed?)

Rather, I think that you’d need to dig significantly deeper into fan culture to produce material sufficient to sustain a feature length documentary than the team behind Hail To The Deadites have here.

Hail To The Deadites, then, is a documentary that is significantly easier to want to like than it is to enjoy. It doesn’t suffer for a lack of enthusiasm and it’s a film we found ourselves willing along, but it’s just a bit too unfocused to work.

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