Ah, splatter. A singular genre, only achievable in its most fully realized form in a cinematic format, seemingly crafted solely to delight. But there must be something within the way we react to the films of this genre that says something about us, whether that response is deliberately in the artist’s intent or not. Splatter’s fundamental function is as a parody of violence. The Crank films (and to a more tonally botched extent, Kick-Ass) would also apply. Splatter removes all traces of reality from the situation (see the blood fountain from Evil Dead II or pretty much all of Dead Alive), distancing the audience from the debauchery by exaggerating it to the point of hilarity. The visceral response of glee triggered by seeing such goofy gore finds its roots in the same base instincts so apparent in little boys’ and girls’ love of the disgusting. We have such a base fascination with repulsion that having framed as attractively as possible is just a pure delight.
Of course, one must wonder if there is more of a satirical comment underneath all of this, or if it’s all a wonderfully perverse visceral spectacle to see comedic gore. Well, it depends on the film. Let’s use the two biggest and best entries in the subgenre, Evil Dead II and Dead Alive, as examples. Given the tone of Dead Alive, there isn’t much going on under the surface here other than Peter Jackson making one of the most delightfully ridiculous pieces of pure entertainment to hit the screen. One can argue that the priest’s shift from kicking ass for the Lord to sex-crazed zombie signifies a critique of the paradigm shift from a Christian to a secular society, but even if one were to wax analytical over any of the peculiarities, they’d still come up with little in the way of substance. There is the more explicit arc of Lionel’s shift from mama’s boy to hero, but even that’s completely minor and poorly executed. Bottom line, the film invites us to indulge in the onscreen madness and sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with just plain fun.
Evil Dead II, which is almost certainly the better film, provides a different framework for the blood to flow in. It’s more firmly rooted in the horror tradition, so it’s less one-note and has two tones it needs to juggle and compare. The source of the comedy is mainly the Candarian demons screwing with Ash, tormenting him in ways they find hilarious. The comedy is downplayed here (crazy to see that word used in reference to this film, right?), as pretty much every one of these events is a scare first, or at least an odd, disturbing, tension-building element. It’s never really overtly hilarious as it is in Dead Alive and that’s the kicker. The film becomes a metacommentary on both of its clashing genres by way of the other. On the horror of comedy, the maxim “Comedy needs a victim,” at least in slapstick, is played up to make us feel for that victim. It’s incredibly impressive how Bruce Campbell can invoke schadenfreude and pathos in each beat, and the latter is the key to unlocking the film. On the comedy of horror, the demons give the audience exactly what it wants to see, exposing something twisted in our own souls. The audience’s sympathies are always with Ash, which allows us to feel all of his confusion and fear at his being made the butt of the joke. It’s comedy commentary rather than actual commentary. The transcendent bit where he dances with the lamp? It isn’t so brilliant because it’s so funny, it’s because tormentor and victim are in sync, the latter dancing the former’s dance of laughter in a manic desperation to please his audience. This refers to us as much as the Candarians, made even more obvious by the look into the camera at the beginning of the scene. We’ve been forced into the role of observer demon here (as we are in the iconic scenes of the chasing camera), which ends up being more disturbing than hilarious when you consider your reaction to the film. Our most base instincts are demons, clamoring for hurt and death of our fellow man. This can still be a comedy even if we realize Ash’s pain, as we can never really separate ourselves from that schadenfreude being so directly played upon. If we’re able to realize that the atrocities inflicted upon us can be comic on at least some level, we’ll be able to get through this heartless suffering known as life together much easier; that compromise with evil is really what the laughing scene is about. Shrug it off, but don’t lose sight of the core humanity.
There’s much more to be said about at least Evil Dead II, but that intersection of pure entertainment, schadenfreude, and violent satire is really what splatter is all about. It can help us understand how and why life is suffering and reframe it so life is fun again, thus confirming the purpose of art. In a way, it’s the purest form of cinematic expression, so the dearth of films within the subgenre is heartbreaking. Sam Raimi, come home.
— Autumn Faust