Talking Movies: The Evil Dead

Talking Movies

Released: 15 April 1981
Director: Sam Raimi
Distributor: New Line Cinema
Budget: $375,000
Stars: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Richard DeManincor, Betsy Baker, and Theresa Tilly

The Plot:
Ashley “Ash” Williams (Campbell) and his friends, including his girlfriend Linda (Baker) and sister Cheryl (Sandweiss), drive to a remote cabin in the woods for a vacation. There, they find an audio tape that, when played, unleashes a legion of demonic spirits that possess and torment the group, leaving Ash to defend himself from his zombified friends.

The Background:
The Evil Dead was the brainchild of now-legendary horror director Sam Raimi, who had collaborated with his long-time friend Bruce Campbell on several low-budget Super 8mm film projects in the past. When they hit upon the idea of venturing into horror, Raimi produced a proof of concept on a measly $1,600 that served as the prototype for The Evil Dead and sought financing for a larger project by begging friends and family alike to amass the funds he required. With a cast and crew made up of locals, friends, and family, the film was shot entirely on Kodak 16mm film stock and fraught with mishaps: there were many minor injuries, including Betsy Baker accidentally getting her eyelashes ripped off, the contact lenses used to give the cast demonic eyes were extremely uncomfortable to wear, arguments frequently broke out because of the cramped conditions, and Raimi delighted in tormenting his cast, especially Campbell, to capture more realistic emotions on set. The Evil Dead popularised Raimi’s penchant for unsettling gore and sweeping camera movements; Dutch angles, camera dollies, and use of a cobbled together shaky cam all added to the unique visual presentation of the film. The film was also bolstered by some ambitious low-budget gore; Raimi relied entirely on make-up, prosthetics, and painstaking stop motion to create his gory effects, which included copious amounts of animal meat and live cockroaches. Perhaps the most controversial scene in the film saw Cheryl sexually assaulted by a demonic tree, a sequence with Raimi himself later admitted was unnecessarily gratuitous. Raimi went all in for the film’s theatrical premiere by hiring ambulances to wait outside Detroit’s Redford Theatre to build a sense of atmosphere around the film, which was beloved by legendary horror writer Stephen King and became one of the genre’s most infamous splatter-horror movies. Despite being slapped with a dreaded NC-17 rating or outright banned in some countries, The Evil Dead was surprisingly well-received for a horror film; the film was a sleeper hit, making between $2.7 and $29.4 million at the box office, and critics have praised The Evil Dead’s unnerving atmosphere and camera work and its unique twist on the genre, though its low-budget and obvious flaws were highlighted as failings. Despite its praise and financial success, The Evil Dead failed to launch Raimi’s directing career; he was forced to begin work on a follow-up that was part-remake, part-sequel due to rights issues, and this low-budget splatter-horror soon became a cult franchise that made a horror icon out of Bruce Campbell, allowed Sam Raimi to experiment with other genres before achieving mainstream success, and came to encompass comedy/horror sequels, videogames, and even a stage show!

The Review:
As a big horror fan, I became aware of the Evil Dead films largely through reputation; Ash was as much a recognisable horror icon as any of the top slashers when I was a kid, though my first real exposure to the series came with a completely out of context viewing of the second movie back in my youth that obviously impressed me enough to keep an eye on the franchise. When I finally switched from VHS to DVD, either the first or the second boxset I bought was the Evil Dead trilogy; back then, I would religiously watch all the special features and commentaries and it was amazing seeing this low-budget horror franchise being brought to life and becoming a cult phenomenon. I think it’s only fair to say, though, that it’s always been easy for me to rank the original trilogy; the second is clearly the best for me, with the first and third kind of tied at the bottom for different reasons. Still, it’s a horror staple and has been a part of my home movie collection for decades now and it’s always enjoyable to throw on one of these outrageous splatter-horrors and remember a time when the genre had some serious balls.

Ash and his friends are tormented by an evil force that first claims his sister, Cheryl.

The film centres on five college friends – Ash, his girlfriend Linda and sister Cheryl, Scott (DeManincor) and his girlfriend, Shelly (Lilly) – who decide to vacation at an old cabin in the woods that they rented on the cheap because it’s so secluded, rundown, and preceeded by a dilapidated bridge. It’s always weird rewatching the original Evil Dead and seeing Ash portrayed as a decidedly uncool and dorky college student; compared to Scott, who’s aggressively assertive and cynical at times, Ash is contemplative and bookish, far more likely to fumble his way through Latin than he is to spout one-liners. Indeed, it’s Scott who first investigates the basement and is more inclined towards being brash and outspoken, even pointing a loaded gun in Ash’s face just for a laugh and willing to take his chances out in the haunted woods than wait around in the cabin. In comparison, Ash is more empathetic; while he enjoys a gag, he knows when to stop, unlike Scott, and is more concerned with the welfare of others and figuring a way out of their predicament, though his curiosity concerning the Naturom Demonto directly leads to the evil force being unleashed when he plays Raymond Knowby’s (Bob Dorian) tape. Of all the characters, it’s Cheryl who senses the unsettling nature of the cabin and the surrounding woods right from the start; she’s clearly uncomfortable in the cabin, with its creepy decorations and atmosphere, compelled to draw a picture of the Naturom Demonto, and so creeped out by the haunting voice (Sam Raimi) whispering from the woods that she stupidly goes out to investigate and gets disturbingly abused for her curiosity.

While the romance between Ash and Linda is barebones, the tension and horror are palpable.

The attack leaves Cheryl understandably traumatised, so much so that she demands to leave the area right away, despite the disbelief of her friends and brother. Still, Ash agrees to take her to safety, only to discover that the bridge has been destroyed and they are now trapped in the cabin, much to Cheryl’s dismay as she fully gives in to despair following the shock and horror of her attack. Of course, Cheryl isn’t the only one who shares Ash’s affections; The Evil Dead makes an attempt to explore the romance between Ash and Linda when he gifts her probably the ugliest magnifying glass necklace-thing in a fun romantic gesture, but they don’t get many chances to interact with each other. Linda and Shelly are so bland and interchangeable that I often get the two mixed up or forget about whichever one isn’t wearing the necklace and they only really become interesting to the plot after being infected by the evil. The possessed Cheryl essentially becomes the primary antagonist, growling and watching from the basement, while Shelly violently attacks Scott after being claimed by the evil force and Linda becomes a spiteful, child-like demon who delights in mocking and tormenting her former friends. The entire experience rattles Ash and Scott in different ways; Ash refuses to leave behind his injured girlfriend, and later cannot bring himself to dismember her after she becomes possessed, whereas Scott its perfectly happy to save his own skin, only to end up cut to ribbons offscreen, thus leaving Ash as the sole survivor forced to step into a more proactive role to try and save his friends and destroy the evil force torturing them.

The spiteful, evil force lurking is the woods is unleashed with violent and bloody results.

Contrary to later films and entries in the franchise, the titular “evil dead” is somewhat vaguely defined here. Represented as a disembodied, malevolent force that lurks in the woods, the evil is already present even before Raymond Knowby’s tape is played but is fully unleashed upon the recitation of passages from the fabled Naturom Demonto. A Sumerian text containing ancient burial rituals and incantations, this book of the dead is inked in human blood and bound in human flesh and brings forth an intangible evil that possesses not only the main characters, but the surrounding area. It briefly jerks the wheel of Ash’s prized (if unreliable) Oldsmobile, almost causing a head-on collision, and an ominous voice calls for the characters to “Join us!” all before the book is even discovered, so strong is its influence. Of course, perhaps the most memorable incarnation of the evil force is when it possesses the surrounding trees to attack Cheryl. Cheryl then becomes the principal embodiment of the evil force, levitating and barking threats and being hideously transformed into a demonic, zombie-like being. From there, the horror only escalates; Cheryl attacks her friends, demonstrating incredible physical strength by manhandling them and the evil force is easily able to possess anyone injured while in the cabin following her transformation. Cheryl further degenerates into an ashen, cackling, crone-like monstrosity while trapped in the basement, leaving Shelly to attack Scott, her skin cracked and boiling, clawing at him even as her face splits and melts away.

The Nitty-Gritty:
While far from the first horror film to employ the “cabin in the woods” cliché, The Evil Dead may very well be the most mainstream and infamous example of it. Personally, I’ve always been a little ambivalent and ignorant towards it; I’m not very outdoorsy and spending a weekend in a secluded, creepy cabin isn’t really something we do here in the UK, so it can be a bit of a hit and miss premise since, much like the idea of summer camp, I can’t readily imagine ever being in such a position. Still, despite the questionable performances of the main actors (it’s clear that this is new territory for them, resulting in some clunky and awkward line deliveries), The Evil Dead does a really good job of making the cabin itself as much a character as the actors. Rusty tools, creaking floorboards, an aggravating ticking clock, and unsettling stuffed animals adorn the interior, creating an ominous atmosphere even before the evil force sweeps through the group. I’m a big fan of Sam Raimi’s unique camera work in this film; the evil force is represented through a series of sweeping first-person shots that fly through the woods, barge through the cabin, and is completely unbound by its surroundings, creating a menacing, unseen force that cannot be fought or escaped no matter how hard the characters try.

The film leaves an impression thanks to its gore and controversial content.

The Evil Dead deserves a lot of credit for doing as much as it can with a shoestring budget; yes, the effects haven’t aged too well and are questionable these days, easily being the worst of the franchise, but its commitment to violent gore is commendable. Still, the make-up effects are a bit hit and miss at times; those possessed resemble a combination of the possessed Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair/Mercedes McCambridge) and a zombie, featuring creamy-white eyes, slashes and gouges, a pale complexion, and an abundance of viscera and veins, and they jerk around like puppets with bone-crunching rigidity. The real meat of the horror is in the sickening depiction of gore; pencils are stabbed into ankles and the possessed Shelly is not only half melting but chews her own hand off at the wrist and ends up chopped into quivering, bloody limbs! Later, when Ash is attacked by his possessed friends in full force, he gouges out Scott’s eyes with nauseating brutality and the remains of his friends bubble and melt away as only the finest and most gruesome stop motion can depict. Of course, easily the most outrageous an unsettling part of the film comes within the first thirty minutes when, beckoned by the evil force, Cheryl wanders into the pitch-black woods where the force barrels through the trees and then possesses them, tangling her up in their branches and stripping her naked. The branches then thrash her, choke her, and force her down to be sexually assaulted by them through a combination of reverse footage and in-camera wire work which, while impressive, is maybe taking things a little too far just for the sake of shock value.

After enduring horrendous torture, Ash appears to win the day but the evil seemingly never dies…

If you’re more familiar with Ash as a chainsaw-wielding, shotgun-toting bad-ass then The Evil Dead will be a bit of a shock to you. Ash does use a shotgun in the film, though sporadically and with little effect, and he only fires up a chainsaw one time, though he’s unable to bring himself to chop up his beloved Linda’s body. Instead, he simply tries to bury her alive, resulting in her reanimating and attacking him out in the woods. Although Bruce Campbell would suffer far worse abuse in the later films, he certainly gets a hard time of it here; he’s tossed about by his possessed friends, crashing through furniture each time, beaten with a poker, and ends up caked in blood when Linda’s headless corpse tries to rape him and when he ventures into the basement for more ammo! Still, while he’s more an exhausted survivor than a wisecracking action hero, further study of Knowby’s recording reveals to Ash that the only way to stop the possessed is by bodily dismemberment; though they can fight off their possessed friends and even cause them pain, even causing violent, gory seizures with the Sumerian dagger, they will continue to reanimate unless they’re chopped up. Although Ash is initially hesitant compared to Scott, he’s soon decapitating and beating Linda’s possessed corpse with a shovel and fending off the cackling, mocking games of the evil force. Somehow, he’s even able to remain himself after his leg is gouged by Linda and later chewed on by Scott, potentially because the evil force delights in torturing him, and is forced to find new reserves of resolve to endure the torment. The cabin itself comes to life as the force stalks him, driving him to near madness through fear and exhaustion, and his demonic friends attack in a frenzy for the gore-drenched finale. In the chaos, Ash is able to use the ugly necklace to toss the Naturom Demonto into the fireplace, which causes the possessed to freeze, be torn to bloody ribbons by demonic claws, and then rapidly, sickeningly decompose before his eyes. However, as the blood-soaked and dishevelled Ash stumbles out into the light of dawn, the unseen force charges through the house and seemingly swallows him for one last jump scare!

The Summary:
As suggested earlier, The Evil Dead is far from my favourite entry in the splatter-horror franchise; as a horror movie, it’s pretty by the numbers in a lot of ways and more of a standard, low-budget gorefest that seeks to shock through its violent, bloody, and questionable content rather than provide something with real substance. The characters are all very bland and forgettable, even Ash, who exhibits none of his later bravado and impresses only because he’s the most good looking and he happens to be lucky enough to survive. I suppose you can argue that he balances the traits of the other characters – he’s not as brash as Scott or anxious as Cheryl or as forgettable as Linda or Shelly – and there is a tragedy and charisma to him, but I much prefer the tweaks made to his character from the second film onwards. That basically just leaves the gore, horror, and effects which, while ambitious and impressive, pale in comparison to other horror films and even the Evil Dead sequels. The Evil Dead feels like an extended proof of concept; the ideas are there, there’s some potential here, and it certainly shocks in its outrageous gore and content, but it’s definitely inferior compared to its sequel. I would still recommend it as a cult horror film and an example of how to stretch a limited budget and produce shocking content, and I commend the effort that went into it, but it’s hard to rate it much higher when there are better horror films from this era and the second movie so massively outpaces this one and set the standard for the rest of the franchise.

My Rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Could Be Better

Are you a fan of The Evil Dead? Where would you rate it compared to other entries in the franchise? Which of the characters was your favourite and what did you think to how Ash was portrayed here? What did you think to the evil force and its spiteful, playful nature? Were you impressed by the film’s gore and effects or is it a little too low-budget for you? What did you think to the performances and Sam Raimi’s directorial style? Would you read from a book bound in human flesh and inked in human blood? Whatever your thoughts on The Evil Dead and its franchise, feel free to leave a comment below or on my social media.

4 thoughts on “Talking Movies: The Evil Dead

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