EVIL DEAD 2013 And The Politics Of Tree Rape

What happens when you take an ugly element from an exploitation movie and put it into a slick studio remake? 

There are minor spoilers for the Evil Dead remake within. Most of the spoilers, such as they are, have been revealed in trailers and clips released online. 

The most disturbing part of the SXSW premiere screening of Evil Dead 2013 came after the tree rape scene, when the hundreds of people in the Paramount Theater erupted into applause. “YEAH!” shouted a guy from the balcony. I had been having a hard time getting into the film, and that reaction really pulled me right out of it.

I won’t judge that crowd too harshly (well, the “YEAH!” guy probably needs to be put in jail, but the rest...) because I suspect what was happening was they were responding in a Pavlovian fashion to a callback from the original film, which also featured a brutal rape by tree. There were a lot of moments like that in the film, tons of Family Guy-esque ‘This reminds me of the time there was a chainsaw in the previous Evil Dead movies,’ bits of fanservice.

The tree rape itself... well, it’s problematical in general. Before we get to why, let’s talk about the history of the tree rape, and it was presented in The Evil Dead.

According to Sam Raimi, he regrets having it in the original film. Talking in this video interview, Raimi says, “I think it was unnecessarily gratuitous and a little too brutal. And finally because people were offended in a way that I didn't...my goal is not to offend people. It is to entertain, thrill, scare...make them laugh but not to offend them.”

He chalks it up to being a kid when he made the film, a kid who maybe wasn’t thinking it through. “I know that a lot of nineteen year olds that are stealing cars and murdering people. Not to make that comparison but I think my judgement was a little wrong at that time.”

The original The Evil Dead tree rape is actually incredible filmmaking. Raimi, even when he’s going too far, is an impeccable craftsman, and the sequence is horrifying and creepy and powerfully intense. There’s a moment where Ellen Sandweiss' Cheryl, pinned to the ground by prehensile roots and branches, desperately attempts to cover her bare breast as the tree rips her hand away. It’s sheer exploitation, but in Raimi’s hands it’s almost shattering in its depiction of Cheryl trying to maintain any of her dignity. The actual penetration is fast and brutal, but Raimi doesn’t linger on it - there are a lot of shots of smoke in front of lights, representations of Cheryl’s point of view intended to counterpoint the Deadite POV through the early parts of the rape.

I could make an argument that the original tree rape is interesting in that it dramatizes the way that the world itself seems to be menacing women, in the way that rape culture is almost part of the landscape, but that isn’t what Raimi was going for in 1981. He was trying to make a totally over-the-top, no holds barred exploitation movie in line with stuff like Last House on the Left and I Spit On Your Grave, but with a nightmare quality those two ‘realistic’ films lacked. He was going for surreal ugliness and nastiness, and he succeeded.

Thirty years later, the tree rape is back. Director Fede Alvarez has said that it was included in the remake at the behest of the producers; I’ve heard from behind the scenes folks that it was Rob Tapert who thought it was a vital addition to the remake. He’s certainly correct that it’s one of the defining moments of the original. But in this new, slick, studio movie it takes on strange and new connotations.

There’s an attempt to ‘soften’ the tree rape by not having the tree actually rape anybody. Instead the tree restrains Jane Levy’s Mia while an undead witch rapes her with some kind of a huge tongue worm that also impregnates her with Deadites or something. This adds a strange new psychosexual element to it all, a lesbian side that’s meant to... make the rape less about rape culture? Less male-induced? To bring a sense of gay panic? Is the metaphor here that a dyke rapes a girl and brings her to the other team? There’s some credence to that, because later in the film Mia, locked in the cellar, attacks another girl by making out with her. That girl also becomes a Deadite.

It’s all part of Evil Dead 2013’s confusing and contradictory gender politics. There’s a scene where Jessica Lucas’ Olivia, in the early stages of possession, looks at herself in the mirror and begins cutting her face off. Her boyfriend, played by Lou Taylor Pucci, comes into the bathroom to help her and she attacks him with a hypodermic needle, trying to stab him in the eye. Here, in one scene, is an extraordinary metaphor for how the male gaze impacts women and how they want to fight against it. Then Pucci crushes her head with a toilet lid and nobody ever questions why he just murdered his faceless girlfriend. The revolt against the male gaze is put down and all is right in the world. What a weird mixed message; just from a narrative standpoint it would make sense for the other characters to question Pucci’s actions, since nobody was in the bathroom with him when this craziness went down.

I don’t think much of this is purposeful, but rather a symptom of an attempt at making a movie that’s gory and roars from scene to scene. The movie, as I wrote in my review, drops its central metaphor of drug addiction as possession as fast as it possibly can so it can just get to the gore. That means it’s muddled and confused.

This is where the tree rape ‘problem’ comes in. The original The Evil Dead is a nasty movie. It’s kind of mean-spirited. It has that Raimi glee in there, but it’s nothing like the splatstick of Evil Dead 2, which is the movie most people think of when they think of this franchise. The tree rape is, as noted above, UGLY. Scary. But Evil Dead 2013 isn’t really like that. While Fede Alvarez does, admirably, try to get really disturbing along the way, the film is mostly a gory Gallagher show, where it’s guts in your face instead of watermelon. In that context the tree rape is weird. And it’s even weirder because it’s only in the film because it was in the original film. Aesthetically the tree rape doesn't feel part of the whole of Evil Dead 2013.

I’m curious how the tree rape is going to play with general audiences. I suspect more people will see Evil Dead 2013 this weekend than saw The Evil Dead in its entire theatrical run. And the people who will be seeing the movie are not the kind of people who are educated in the exploitation history of the film. To jaded horror dweebs like me, tree rape is just a thing, but to the people coming to the new movie starring that girl from Suburgatory... well, it’s going to be a real shocker.

My old boss, Nick Nunziata of CHUD, has already discovered that. He got into a small brouhaha after a free screening of the film - you can read about it here. Nick has said that his joke at the screening was taken out of context in the Tumblr post, and I don’t doubt it, but what he’s missing is that the context of the moviegoing world itself has changed. This isn’t just a movie for us, it’s a mass market movie, which makes some of the rougher and more gratuitous stuff - stuff that Raimi felt went too far when he was making a grindhouse film - stand out all the more.

As a guy who has watched absolutely despicable films like Hot Summer in the City, the Evil Dead 2013 tree rape didn’t phase me. But its purposelessness in the film - the way it’s just there because fans want it there, the way it’s been ‘neutered’ in such a manner as to actually make it more offensive - did. And that guy in the balcony, the guy who yelled “YEAH!” - he keeps getting into my head. I keep wondering what it says about this movie that I think this guy had the reaction the filmmakers intended.