2020 Film Reviews

Fantasia 2020 Review: Steve Villeneuve’s ‘Hail to the Deadites’

Hail to the Deadites Documentary

Fandom, specifically the act of being a fan of an artist and/or a particular work of art, is as old as the arts themselves, creating a symbiotic relationship that art and artists require to exist. Fan culture, on the other hand, is relatively new, and as such is still having growing pains — fan conventions have become a booming industry over the last couple decades, and along with them the concept of fandom has grown out of control, with fans demanding more access and more creative input into the movies, books and TV shows that they purport to love. It’s odd to say that, in an age of Marvel and DC characters dominating pop culture, there are a group of fans that are still relatively unsung, but such a status could be given to the horror fan. It’s indeed become much more fashionable and acceptable to be an unabashed horror fan since the 1980s, when the genre was still viewed as morally suspect by culture at large. Yet the fandom still carries a stigma with it, with some people baffled as to why so many folks deeply love, say, films involving total bodily dismemberment. Explaining who these people are and why they love what they do is the focus of Steve Villeneuve’s documentary Hail to the Deadites, which examines and celebrates fans of the Evil Dead franchise. Compared to comic book movies and other fan favorites gone mainstream, the Evil Dead series is still a relatively alternative property, making a movie about its fans illuminating and unique rather than treading too familiar ground. 

Villeneuve does the film a bit of a disservice at first, as its shape and aim takes a while to come into focus. The doc begins with a series of talking heads mixed with clips from various fan films, and it quickly becomes clear that Hail to the Deadites will not contain any footage from the actual Evil Dead movies or TV show. While this choice was likely due to avoiding rights issues (which the series sadly has a lot of), this means that the statements from fans or interviewees discussing a specific scene or moment is at times contrasted with footage that echoes but doesn’t really correspond to the example they’re describing, which can feel jarring, and might very well be confusing to someone not already familiar with the franchise. After the first 10 minutes, the doc switches gears to footage of Villeneuve and friend Martin Bruyére beginning a trek between their native Canada and America to attend various horror conventions to meet the filmmakers and fans while their progress is explained via an unnamed narrator, making the film feel like an episode of a reality show. Hail to the Deadites feels a little unfriendly to the uninitiated, not spending much time properly introducing the films it focuses on —The Evil Dead (1981), Evil Dead II (1987 and Army of Darkness (1992) — which is an odd choice, especially given how it makes the point that the majority of fans have different entry points into the series, with some not realizing for years that Army of Darkness was a second sequel, for instance. 

Hail to the Deadites Documentary

After the initial awkward start, however, Villeneuve’s goal with the doc begins to be revealed, and the film really comes into its own. Hail to the Deadites isn’t about the minutiae of the Evil Dead franchise but rather the fans themselves, pointing out how much celebrating these kooky, weirdo genre movies means the world to them. The film tells a series of parallel stories of several fans, including a couple who get engaged in front of The Evil Dead’s makeup effects man Tom Sullivan, a cosplayer who may or may not have gotten a donation to attend a convention from series star Bruce Campbell, and a radio DJ whose sickly son was named after the series’ hero, Ash. It’s through these stories that Villeneuve shows how diverse the fanbase is, especially with regards to background and gender (there sadly aren’t a lot of fans of color on camera, a missed opportunity). At times, these segments can get into the fan weeds a bit — detailing some people’s large and varied memorabilia collections, for instance — but overall don’t require an Evil Dead fan to appreciate them. 

While there’s less emphasis on input from the cast and crew members actually involved with making the films, what contributions there are helps paint a more detailed portrait of the fandom. Many of them are seen to be both baffled and humbled that such low budget films had a huge impact on a great number of people, and attempt to explain the phenomenon in their terms — one actor compares con goers to followers of classic rock bands. There’s a section on star Campbell and the public persona he’s willfully created over the years toward the fans, becoming their own personal insult comic yet always leavening his ribbing with a wink like a tough-love uncle. Villeneuve also includes some nice contributions from professionals who are also fans, like Blu-ray special features producer Michael Felsher, Fangoria’s Michael Gingold and film professor André Loiselle, who point out some reasons as to why the series gained such a passionate fanbase — everything from the first film’s relegation to “video nasty” status in England to apocryphal stories of the making of the movies to their diversity of tone and content, providing a little something for everyone. 

Hail to the Deadites Documentary

It may sound strange to call a documentary about fans of a gory horror franchise “sweet,” but that’s exactly what Hail to the Deadites is — it’s no surprise that it comes from a Canadian filmmaker. Villeneuve’s movie is an undeniable labor of love, stuffed full of contributions of not just short films but music and artwork from fans, its making spanning the past seven years. That time gap means that the TV show Ash vs Evil Dead is barely mentioned, along with the 2013 reboot film, making the chronicle of the fanbase (which greatly expanded thanks to those two works) incomplete. That being said, the celebration of the franchise inspiring such love and devotion still rings true. After all, the original Evil Dead began this writer’s journey into a love of horror many years ago, and sparked a lifelong love of filmmaking in general. Hail to the Deadites doesn’t dwell on the dark side of fandom, yet it certainly acknowledges its existence, pointing out how two prominent female fans of the franchise were discriminated against, as well as Campbell telling some stories of some too-intense fan encounters. Yet the movie’s thesis about fans is summed up by the actor: “what they do can be tremendously impactive, for good or bad.” As this doc shows, the majority of fans of The Evil Dead are anything but, well, evil. 

Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City.