The Evil Dead (1981)
Dir. Sam Raimi
Written by: Sam Raimi
Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker
From the age of 15 until I was about 20, I was totally obsessed with horror movies. I collected all of the modern classics, from Nightmare on Elm Street to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Dawn of the Dead, I loved all kinds of different varieties of horror from the 1970s and 1980s. I started to get out of the genre during the early 2000s when theaters started filling up with half-boiled remakes of classic horror films and ham-fisted adaptations of Japanese ghost stories. Eventually, I even parted ways with many of the horror discs in my collection, losing them or allowing them to get mixed in with the collections of various different roommates in college. I just wasn’t watching scary movies much anymore, and even though I still liked to see the occasional horror movie, there were very few that I felt were worth regular revisits. Of course, there are a handful of horror movies that I haven’t ever been able to let go of, and The Evil Dead ranks highly on that list. It’s an influential classic in the genre and it played an important role in my youthful desire to be a filmmaker, with its low budget, DIY aesthetic encouraging me to try my hand at making my own movies.
The Evil Dead finds Ash (Campbell), and his group of college friends setting off for a camping weekend at a secluded cabin in rural Tennessee. Their journey to the cabin is beset by portentous omens of the danger that they are walking into, but the real terror occurs when they arrive at the cabin and discover a curious book and a recording left by the cabin’s previous occupant, an archaeologist. The book, which is bound in human flesh, is revealed to be the Sumerian Book of the Dead, containing incantations and funeral rites, some of which have been recorded to the tape. When Ash and his friends play the tape, the recited incantations awaken an ancient evil in the forest. Though they are all disturbed by the tapes, the group tries to settle down for the night, but their restfulness is interrupted when Ash’s sister, Cheryl (Sandweiss), is possessed by a demonic entity from the woods, forcing the rest of the group to lock her up in the cellar. One by one, the rest of Ash’s friends begin to turn, and he is forced to fight them off, dismembering and disemboweling them in an increasingly gruesome fashion. Ash is finally able to destroy the Book of the Dead, which causes Cheryl and his friend Scott (Hal Delrich), both under the influence of the demons, to spontaneously decompose into piles of gore and viscera, but as Ash finds out when he limps out of the cabin to greet the rising Sun, the supernatural danger is far from over.
It would be tough to overestimate the impact seeing a movie like The Evil Dead had on me as a young teen. It was more raw, grittier than most of the horror movies I was used to seeing, even the slasher movies that I really liked. The low budget style and the tiny cast started gears turning in my head in the same way that they did when I first saw Clerks. It dawned on me that this was a popular movie, a classic even, and it had been made by a group of amateurs. I knew Bruce Campbell already, and though I didn’t know it at the time, I had already been introduced to Sam Raimi, as he had since graduated to bigger, more mainstream projects, including Spiderman, but seeing their origins as filmmakers was really inspiring to me. While Clerks taught me that movies don’t have to be big and flashy to make an impact, watching The Evil Dead taught me that you can make a truly effective horror movie on a shoestring budget with just a dedicated crew, a little ingenuity, and a lot of Karo syrup and food coloring to make fake blood. The effects in the movie certainly look dated now, but for a young person whose mind was already open to the possibilities of independent cinema, they were ingenious. Though I rarely ever put any of the knowledge into practice, I started reading up on DIY practical effects while I was in high school, hoping to have the opportunity to use them on my own feature film debut one day. Obviously, that day never came, but just because I didn’t follow through on my dreams of becoming an independent filmmaker doesn’t lessen the influence that several of the touchstones of independent cinema of the 1980s and 1990s have had on my taste in art, and on my outlook on life, as a whole.
One of the things that I found most refreshing about The Evil Dead when compared to studio slasher films like Friday the 13th is that the fact that the filming process was not only a labor of love, but a grueling endurance test, is palpable in every frame of the movie. It’s clear that the cast members, who often doubled as erstwhile crew members, care about getting this film made despite the arduous circumstances they often found themselves in. I’ve since read about the difficult shoot that found the cast and crew subjected to freezing temperatures, physical injury, and a grueling shooting schedule, and I think that knowing the difficulty that went into creating this piece of art makes it even more special to me. Even though its premise is obviously absurd, as are most horror movies’, The Evil Dead feels more real than a lot of the slicker, more highly polished gore fests of the period. It shares this grittiness with one of my favorite horror movies of all time, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, another film in which the scares are made all the more effective by the clear duress that the actors had to endure.
Even today, in spite of all of the technological advances that have been made since its release, The Evil Dead retains its power to shock and horrify. I almost never find supernatural horror of this type to be truly scary, but The Evil Dead is a brutal and effective movie. The ramshackle cabin and its remote setting are scary enough without the threat of demonic possession, but Raimi further sets the mood with long, snaking, point-of-view tracking shots that alert the audience to an otherworldly presence living in the woods. He takes his time in the early parts of the film, creating tension in the audience. He allows for a few cheap scares to lighten the mood early on, but continues to use the location and his arsenal of cinematic tricks to set an ominous and eerie mood before the film erupts into full on horror. When it does take its sharp turn, after the demons in the woods have been released by Scott and Ash playing the archeologist’s recording, Raimi doesn’t relent until the film’s end, presenting the audience with classic scene after classic scene of terror, violence, and extreme gore. The Evil Dead doesn’t pull any punches, featuring graphic scenes of decapitation, dismemberment, and torture which result in buckets and buckets of fake blood that coats the actors, the sets, and even the camera lens. This extreme violence not only serves to escalate the film’s horror quotient, it also helped the film gain a great deal of notoriety as it was famously given an NC-17 rating upon its initial release, and was banned in several countries for its graphic, disturbing content.
Though it likely seems tame by the standards of today’s brutal horror franchises like Hostel and Saw, there’s no denying the impact that The Evil Dead must have had upon its arrival on screens in 1981. The found footage aesthetic that the film brushes up against was used by other notorious films of the period such as Cannibal Holocaust, and likely influenced the new swath of found footage horror films that has been popular recently, although I haven’t seen many of them to verify that influence. The film was popular and influential enough to spark Raimi’s ascent as a filmmaker, and to lead to a media franchise revolving around Ash and his battles against the forces of evil. It’s also a testament to the impact that a dedicated, visionary filmmaker and crew can make with their art in spite of technical or financial limitations. Some people prefer the slightly more polished sequel, which is something of a rehash of the original film with a bit more humor, but I have to stick with my preference for the original. The Evil Dead sets the blueprint for the campy, low budget, ultraviolent, schlocky horror film of the 1980s. It’s a genre classic and a must-see for any fans of horror movies.