There’s something especially comforting about a pop-culture documentary that laser focuses on a topic the viewer is personally passionate about, more so when that subject is a bit off the beaten path. Thanks to the fans of the horror genre tending to love what they love hard, this is none more true than when it comes to the appeal of genre film-focused outings.
In Steve Villeneuve’s documentary HAIL TO THE DEADITES, a cheerful score propels us from dedicated memorabilia collectors to cosplayers talking about the impact the EVIL DEAD films have had on them. “Deadites” are the undead, possession-happy entities in the film series: Here, it’s made clear that it’s also what aficionados of the films are called. (When it comes to cool fan names, it definitely beats out “Trekkies.”)
Luminaries from both in front of and behind the cameras from the series share their positive stories from fan interactions (no Sam Raimi, however), and heartwarming tales about support people found within the community add even more sweetness. Truly, for a horror series that veers back and forth between intense gore and extreme goofs with the grace of a turbocharged ballerina, the glossy and gentle approach Villeneuve used here makes for an interesting framing device.
Interesting, but not without merit: Despite or because of its manic, slapstick-like blood-caked violence, THE EVIL DEAD was both a critical and audience darling from the start. 1981 was full of top-tier horror releases that still endure (MY BLOODY VALENTINE, THE HOWLING, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, THE BEYOND, and FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 to name just a few), but not many have maintained the high level of the good-natured vibrancy of Sam Raimi’s series. As one of the most well-trod franchises when it comes to marketing and expansion into other formats, something about the original’s plucky spirit keeps the movies (and the popular visage of the reluctant hero Ashley Williams on every kind of product you can think of, plus a few you can’t) from wearing out their welcome.
HAIL TO THE DEADITES focuses on devoted fans of the core film trilogy (THE EVIL DEAD, EVIL DEAD 2: DEAD BY DAWN, and ARMY OF DARKNESS); 2013’s EVIL DEAD, and the Starz three-season all-killer-no-filler Ash vs. Evil Dead show are glimpsed only in a few quick promo shots at conventions and in a few scattered pieces of memorabilia.
While the film starts with a straightforward celebration of the marriage between fan and commerce by visiting impressive personal collections from devoted Deadites, once the documentary hits the road to start visiting conventions, we see the real engine of what’s keeping the series so popular nearly 40 years since its unholy birth. From romances blossoming over a shared interest of splatter movies to a heartbreaking story of a fan losing his infant son named Ash, the film does a sensitive job of showing how pop culture passions can grow and evolve into makeshift families and a life raft for the unenviable task of finding friend groups as an adult.
A clever approach HAIL TO THE DEADITES takes is using clips of fan-made projects and short films in lieu of direct footage from the film series. Not only is it a fresh way to present the films, but it also fosters the documentary’s underlying message that a sense of community and support born out of creativity in the fan circles is more common than not. From the behind-the-scenes of a performance of Evil Dead: The Musical to pet projects on a laptop the scope of creativity and dedication on display here is as fun as it is remarkable.
Arguably, the documentary’s star is special makeup effects artist Tom Sullivan. The maestro behind the Necronomicon itself, Sullivan has been a cheerful staple on the horror convention circuit for years, and that’s showcased here in a touching but earnest way. His genuine love of his craft and the fans’ response to it clearly warms him, and his tearful reaction to being part of a Deadite proposal between two horror fanatics might just make the audience a bit misty as well. If Bruce Campbell’s balance of having a private home life while still being the king of fan engagement at conventions (his persona of relentlessly teasing convention-goers is worth the ticket price alone to a pretty hefty swath of diehards) is the alpha of celebrity/admirer dynamic, then Sullivan is the omega — just as active and adored but seemingly wearing much more of his heart on his sleeve.
HAIL TO THE DEADITES isn’t anything you haven’t seen before, but it also doesn’t put on airs that it was trying to be anything other than a glorification of a specific corner in a niche fan subculture. This is full-tilt boosterism.
Dedicated fans of the EVIL DEAD franchise will see a lot of themselves in the subjects of the documentary, all of whom are practically glowing that they get to showcase their respective collections for posterity in a professional documentary. The energy of the horror conventions gets translated nicely here without getting bogged down in filler footage of them, and especially nowadays, viewers might appreciate getting a quick hit of the fun that comes with getting crammed up against hundreds of other likeminded horror hounds.
I’m a huge fan of the EVIL DEAD series (the first two were in the first stack of horror tapes my mom gifted me on my 13th birthday, which fundamentally changed the course of my life), so I found a lot to enjoy here on a fellow fanatic level. Critically, I wonder what a non-fan would think this — if the dedication on display would push them to check out the series — but I doubt an outsider would be attracted to the title or concept anyway. HAIL TO THE DEADITES is a pure clubhouse movie. The members are friendly, but if you don’t already know the secret A Farewell to Arms handshake, you probably won’t notice the possessed treehouse they’re all hanging out in anyway.
HAIL TO THE DEADITES will be available on demand for the length of the Fantasia Festival (August 20th – September 2nd 2020).