VOD film review: Hail to the Deadites
Less interesting fans4
Anton Bitel | On 27, Sep 2021
Director: Steve Villeneuve
Cast: Bruce Campbell, Tom Sullivan, Ted Raimi, Martin Bruyère, André Loiselle, Michael Gingold, Kassie Wesley DePalva, Ellen Sandweiss
“Everything you see in the next 80 minutes was created by Evil Dead fans” reads the blood-red text that opens Steve Villeneuve’s documentary, before the last three words are slashed away and replaced with “Deadites”. Make no mistake: Hail to the Deadites is a film by the fans, for the fans and about the fans of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy. Indeed, it is barely concerned with the trilogy at all. Rather it is peripheral, marginal, taking up its position at a self-conscious remove from the features around which it orbits.
Himself an Evil Dead collector, Villeneuve (Under The Scares) teams up with fellow fan Martin Bruyère to scour conventions and festivals across Canada and the US in search of other hardcore fans, to find out who they are and what drives them. The answer to that second question fast becomes clear (and runs parallel to the documentary’s own goals): these compulsive enthusiasts long “to be a part of, and connect with, anything and anyone associated with the franchise”. This they do by collecting memorabilia, of which the most sacred are actual props used in the films, through cosplay and by getting photographs with, or autographs from, the ageing cast and crew.
In these strange rituals of worship, the pantheon is a hierarchy. Secondary cast members of the original films are surprised but flattered by the acclaim that they have earned, often from people who were not even born when the films were made. Make-up and effects man Tom Sullivan is happily approachable, and gives fans a direct line to the films’ props, which he dispenses sometimes in tiny, treasured fragments (like religious relics). The holy grail is a meeting with Bruce “The Chin” Campbell himself, who played the franchise’s hammy hero and catchphrase king Ash Williams. Campbell is a gracious star, and certainly makes himself available, but he is also somewhat puzzled by how little his adoring fans have to say for themselves or to him. Interviewed in Hail to the Deadites, Campbell suggests that many of the fans are “socially uncomfortable” and “live vicariously” through their onscreen hero, while his assessment of everyman Ash’s popularity – “he doesn’t really know anything, so I think people can relate to that” – is also somewhat backhanded about the nature of the audience.
The chief deity in this little world is writer/director Sam Raimi, whose name is mentioned in reverent whispers. He is also a remote god – or as Heather Seebach (founder of viewerdiscretionadvised.net) puts it, with reference to the horror conventions: “Obviously he doesn’t do these sorts of things.” Likewise Raimi does not appear in this documentary, although his brother Ted, himself an avowed genre fan, regularly attends the conventions, and is given the final word in Hail to the Deadites, asserting that the Evil Dead franchise continues “the tale of America – the individual man vs the collective”.
Everything here is second-hand. Instead of punctuating the documentary with footage from the Evil Dead films themselves, Villeneuve sources his visual accompaniments from a dizzying array of rip-offs, homages, stage musical versions and fan films, while the soundtrack is pieced together from different songs about the films’ narrative universe. There are occasionally academics or critics (like André Loiselle and Michael Gingold) to furnish professional commentary, but for the most part Villeneuve lets the amateurs tell their own story.
Much of that story is horse trading, collection comparisons and obsessive cant, monomaniacal in its focus and often far from interesting – but to a degree that is part of this documentary’s point. For like Alexandre O. Philippe’s The People vs. George Lucas, this turns its attention from a popular franchise to the people who make up its cult – who fill their homes with its objects of worship, who marry (and divorce) under its infernal iconography, who name their children after its characters, who save up for pilgrimages to encounter its key personnel, and who live their lives by it.
For those who have already been initiated, Hail to the Deadites shows a familiar world of adepts seeking to come into ever closer communion with the hallowed objects of their adulation – while for the more profane, less involved viewer, these enthusiasts may bring puzzlement, but also a certain fascination, at least of an anthropological kind. Part of the problem here, though, is that Villeneuve himself may be just a little too close to his subjects, and the result feels more like a fan film than an impartial documentary.
This review was originally published during FrightFest 2020.