I can’t remember exactly how I first encountered the Evil Dead films. I think a high school friend of mine introduced me to more than ten years ago, in 1994. I became fairly obsessed with all three movies, but The Evil Dead (1981) and Evil Dead II (1987) hadn’t been released on videocassette in years.
But my parents, who had frequently proven their willingness to go the extra mile to get me a hard-to-find Christmas present, obtained copies of both movies from a Canadian video store that year. I quickly came to prefer Evil Dead II, followed by Army of Darkness (1992). Languishing at the rear of the pack was The Evil Dead, which, prior to my recent viewing, I may only have watched two or three times.
Of course, now the Evil Dead films have achieved a level of nerd notoriety second only to the likes of Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings. The films are reissued every couple of years in pristine anamorphic super-special-edition DVD sets, a treatment many Oscar-winning films have not received. Bruce Campbell has become a cult icon as well as a New York Times bestselling author, while Raimi has had some success with a little film franchise called Spider-Man. There are comics, toys, and videogames based on the film, and a remake of the first film is being bandied about Hollywood.
The origins of The Evil Dead are legendary. Filmed on a relatively small (but not shoe-string) budget by director Raimi and starring a babyfaced Campbell, the film was notorious upon release and was even banned in a number of countries for its graphic violence and almost unprecedented gore. The film got a big boost thanks to an early accolade from Stephen King and eventually made quite a bit of money for a horror flick made by a bunch of high school buddies from Michigan. It’s become a cliché to refer to The Evil Dead as “the Blair Witch of its day.”
After recently discovering a love for zombie films, I thought I might revisit The Evil Dead, which has a lot in common with zombie flicks. I really enjoyed the film this time around, and while it still has a lot of amateurish flaws (mostly budget-related), it may have creeped past Army of Darkness in my estimation.
The story is simple and familiar: a group of guileless teenagers drive out to an abandoned cabin in the forest, where they inadvertently awake evil spirits that possess them, turning them into murderous zombies. The teens include Ash (Campbell); his girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker); his sister Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss); and his friend Scott (Richard DeManincor) and Scott’s girlfriend Shelly (Theresa Tilly).
The first third of the film is fairly low-key, not unlike The Shining, as the teenagers journey to the cabin and explore its creepy interior. Raimi makes good use of ambient noise (such as a porch swing thumping, almost willfully, against the wall) as well as near-silence to unnerve the audience.
As I was watching the film, I was surprised to read on the DVD case that it was only 85 minutes long. The film feels a lot longer than that. This is due to the film’s relatively slow pace; in taking his time with many scenes (presumably to conserve money), Raimi ends up building some almost Hitchcockian suspense.
The supernatural horrors begin when Scott and Ash discover an old book, bound in human flesh and inked in blood, in the cabin’s cellar, along with a hideous knife and a tape recorder. Being teenagers in a horror film, they play the tape recorder, and being a recording in a horror movie, said tape recorder includes a phonetic recitation of demon resurrection passages from the flesh-bound book (called Naturum de Monto here, and the Necronomicon in Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness).
The nature of the demons in the Evil Dead mythos is unclear. One does not have to die in order for one’s body to be possessed by a demon—simply being injured seems to be enough. Once the body has been possessed, it appears to enter a rapid state of decay, as if the human body could not handle the demands made on it by its demonic host.
While the first half of the film is slow, the second half builds to a delightfully chaotic Grand Guignol, an orgy of gore featuring some of the most disgusting special effects ever committed to celluloid. The possessed victims spew milky substances as their flesh rots and oozes like rancid mashed potatoes. The vaguely clown-like demonic make-up effects only make the undead monsters that much more frightening.
The film is probably best known for the infamous “tree rape” scene, where an actress is molested by the forest. I wish I could pass the scene off as “not that bad,” but it is pretty graphic, and part of a slight and unfortunate adolescent misogyny that runs through the film—though I suspect it’s more of the “girls are icky” variety than anything else.
What I enjoy most about The Evil Dead are Raimi’s crazy camera angles. Raimi has often taken an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to cinematography, and there are some very cool shots here, including one where Raimi filmed Campbell while hanging upside-down from a beam on the ceiling. Many shots are reminiscent of comic books, anticipating much of Raimi’s future career.
The film also manages some genuine scares, largely through effects such as foreground reveals, bizarre soundtrack cues, and even some stop-animation, as well as the usual shock moments.
While Evil Dead II remains by far my favorite of the series, The Evil Dead well deserves its cult status. It’s also a historical showcase of Raimi’s early talent. I’d rather watch the low-budget antics of The Evil Dead than half the horror films Hollywood has been foisting upon us lately.