Horror fans are hardcore. You know that, I know that, but no-one seems to know that quite as much as Steve Villeneuve and the makers of Hail to the Deadites; arguably the most all-encompassing look at the Evil Dead fandom to date. Pulled together by a mixture of classic talking heads (with everyone from special effects legend Tom Sullivan, to The Chin himself, star Bruce Campbell) and a series of charmingly earnest mini case studies of the most devoted fans around, it’s a lovingly made, incredibly grounded little love letter to a genre and franchise that’s done so much with so little.
Fairly freeform in its structure, drifting from convention to convention with its main crew and director Villeneuve often on-camera as its guiding force, Deadites bills itself as very much a documentary by fans, for fans. And as such it drifts past a great deal of the context of the films themselves, assuming at least a working knowledge of Sam Raimi’s original trilogy from the get-go – an understandable tribute to pay in order to spend longer exploring the fandom, but one that will almost certainly leave outsiders at the door.
Although even for casual fans and regular viewers of the ED series, keeping up with the doc’s subjects can feel like something of a baptism of fire all the same. The level of detail, and die-hard focus on every single moving part of all three films is beyond what anyone outside of such a world might comprehend; from complex latex moulds to the very chunks of clay used to build the chimney in the first film’s key cabin in the woods – to call these self-appointed Deadites ‘hardcore’ would be a massive understatement.
But to experience these fans, dressed head-to-toe as their favourite characters (often Campbell’s majestically chinned Ash), pawing over their favourite collectibles (often action figures of Campbell’s majestically chinned Ash) and revealing their exceptional custom tattoos (often fan artwork of yes, Campbell’s majestically chinned Ash), is to experience joy itself.
To see such ardent and unrivalled dedication, presented in the sincerest, most straight-forward way possible, actually comes as a bit of a shock at first. You’re almost waiting for a “but” or the dramatic dark turn that Netflix and the big documentary machines have conditioned us into expecting. So it comes as a warm surprise when the reality is that there isn’t really much of an underground here; it’s just fans being fans. Finding likeminded individuals to befriend and in some cases, spend their lives with. Using their love of Evil Dead (and yes, Campbell’s majestically chinned Ash) to help express themselves and climb out of what is usually an otherwise pretty ordinary way of life.
Where Deadites feels like it’s slightly missing a trick though is in its depth, refusing to ever really dig too deep under the surface of why these fans love Evil Dead in the way they do. With some, it’s simply a case of reading between the lines, but for most it’s just a blanket “I love it!” and move on. It feels like there’s an even sunnier, wider-reaching message about fandom buried in the weeds here somewhere. The fact that Villeneuve and his team don’t quite find it doesn’t derail things totally, but it does leave Deadites at a bit of a crossroads: a bit too specific for complete outsiders, but enough to pay tribute to the fans that made it happen, and I guess, in the end, isn’t that enough?
Hail to the Deadites is a positively beaming bit of fan-focussed media that deserves a nod from any and every even passing fan of the Evil Dead franchise. It won’t quite turn the heads of the mainstream documentary world, but in keeping things local, Villeneuve and his team see a side to the fandom that few others would manage – the truth. And it’s groovy all the same.
Hail to the Deadites was screened as part of Arrow Video FrightFest’s Digital Edition 2020.