For me, The Evil Dead stands as a defining film in the history of horror films. The same sentiment has been said a million times by cinephiles and film reviewers who have said it better than me, and that’s because this campy, gory, rollercoaster of a movie deserves all the praise it receives. Sam Raimi’s first feature film about a man fighting off the demon-possessed corpses of his former friends in a remote cabin not only spawned a devoted cult following that persists today, but also is responsible for countless imitators, both thematically and stylistically.
The Evil Dead starts off with Ashley “Ash” Williams (Bruce Campbell), his girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker), Scott (Richard DeManincor credited as Hal Delrich), Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) and Shelly (Theresa Tilly credited as Sarah York) all piled into a yellow 1973 Oldsmobile Delta and headed to a run-down cabin in the Tennessee wilderness. After crossing a dangerously unstable bridge, they settle in and eventually discover a flesh-bound book and tape recorder in the cellar (along with a movie poster for The Hills Have Eyes (1977), to which Wes Craven responded to by having The Evil Dead playing on a TV in the background of A Nightmare on Elm St. (1984)). They decide to gather around and play the recording for kicks, and the words spoken by the recording (the voice of the late Bob Dorian) are translated passages from the “Book of the Dead” that they hold in their hands.
This awakens an ancient evil in the woods, which is represented by a POV camera racing through the woods with ominous sound effects to back it, and this kind of shot is one of Raimi’s trademarks. I think it might have been said before on this blog, or maybe just in passing conversation with my fellow editors, but it seems to me that the most memorable directors, those that really elevate film to an art form, all have their trademarks; you could be watching one of their films without knowing they had directed it and it would still be fairly obvious. The rest of the camera work is equally impressive, it wouldn’t surprise me if Raimi’s flair for camerawork and editing is what convinced studio executives to hand him 2002’s Spider-Man.
Afterwards, Cheryl wanders out into the woods, where she is summarily attacked and raped by tree branches and vines. This infamous scene was banned in several countries* and caused enough controversy for Sam Raimi to have said he regrets having put it in the film. When she returns, she insists on leaving and enlists Ash to drive her back to town. They discover the bridge has been destroyed and the metal support beams bent backwards into the air, giving it a clawed-hand-like appearance. This is a genuinely creepy shot, as Cheryl and Ash both realize they are trapped and that there is definitely something out in the darkness that doesn’t want them to leave.
When they arrive back at the cabin, Cheryl transforms into a “Deadite,” a possessed corpse intent on making her friends join her in her newfound state. The next half of the film consists of Ash fighting off his former friends, trying to keep Cheryl down in the cellar while she mercilessly taunts him, and finding the resolve to “bodily dismember” his girlfriend once she has been taken by the Deadites. While the first half of the film is mostly a tension-building affair, the second half is a no-holds barred cornucopia of body parts, white-eyed Deadites cackling maniacally as they assault Ash with fire-pokers and knives, and literal gallons of blood coming from all directions. The violence is so absurd and over-the-top it verges on comedy at times, something that is taken to its logical zenith in the remake / sequel Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987).
On that note, given its exceedingly meager $350,000 budget and the myriad of production troubles that Raimi and co. had getting this film made, the special effects are quite impressive, especially the stop-motion that is used for some of the later scenes. Of note is that all that blood and gore (a mixture of Karo syrup, food coloring and non-dairy creamer) took its toll, and the shirt Bruce Campbell was wearing became so saturated that once it dried, his attempt to put it back on caused it to break into pieces. That’s a lot of blood.
The performances in The Evil Dead are somewhat lacking, but truth be told, the whole affair is so campy that it doesn’t really detract from the film, and Bruce Campbell has noticeably improved his acting chops in the sequel. Really, all that is required from the actors is to be suitably terrified at their situation and then sadistically deranged when they portray Deadites, and they’re perfectly sufficient in this regard. It’s hard not to be caught up in the mayhem and chaos that is The Evil Dead, and this is truly its greatest strength, it really is the cinematic equivalent of a horrific carnival ride.
And, at the risk of sounding like a film snob, those who don’t like The Evil Dead 9 times out of 10 don’t get it. Maybe they’re put off by the obvious low budget, or the somewhat stiff acting. Maybe they can’t appreciate the absurdity of the violence, or maybe they simply dismiss any movie that’s too gory for their tastes. In any case, this film, which is truly a labor of love from its creators, is a true modern classic of the horror genre.
Hail to the king, baby.
*Coincidentally, The Evil Dead was listed in Britain as one of the “Video Nasties,” and was shown in court to demonstrate the idea of what was considered a “Video Nasty.” A cut version was released with an X rating on video, and though The Evil Dead was listed many times, it was never prosecuted successfully in court.