CULT CORNER: The Evil Dead (1981)

With Bruce Campbell’s Ash finally returning to our screens next month, Cal gets nostalgic with Sam Raimi’s original experience in gruelling terror. 

Who made it?: Sam Raimi (Director/Writer), Robert G. Tapert (Producer), Renaissance Pictures.

Who’s in it?: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Hal Delrich, Betsy Baker, Sarah York.

Tagline: “The Ultimate Experience In Gruelling Terror.”

IMDb rating: 7.6/10.

For the ultimate paradigmatic definition of a cult classic horror movie, one should simply behold the unforgettable ultra-low-budget Sam Raimi flick The Evil Dead. Back in 1979, Raimi and a cheery gang of friends journeyed out into the woods of pastoral Tennessee with the objective of making a movie. He had previously directed no-budget shorts that seldom received the attention they deserved. Those working on the movie had hoped for it to be shown in a few theatres at most… they certainly never anticipated the cult status it received. Audiences very enthusiastically welcomed The Evil Dead and adored the distinct, unusual, and impeccable blend of over-the-top comedy and gore.

The Evil Dead is a landmark for a number of reasons. For starters, it marks the official feature film debut of Raimi, bringing him into the spotlight. Secondly, actor Bruce Campbell is now an icon after starring as the film’s main character. This fresh-faced performer went on to become the B-movie king for a reason.

Thirdly, it’s one of the only commercially popular films to earn the dreaded NC-17 rating from the MPAA, since Raimi was not afraid to toss around copious amounts of blood and guts. The Evil Dead is a ludicrously gory, silly, absurd yet hilarious horror/comedy hybrid. It’s so violent, in fact, that it makes Arnie’s 80s action flicks seem like pleasant picnics. When you’re not reaching for the vomit bucket due to the grand guignol hysteria, there are many moments that create genuine, spine-tingling terror. All these merits make it a titan of the genre, yet it was made on a shoestring budget of about $350,000. It was also produced outside the studio system, allowing the filmmakers the freedom to do whatever they desired. The Blair Witch Project (1999) also followed this technique, although The Evil Dead surpasses that film by a country mile, in my opinion.

It is a straightforward tale of five college friends who travel to an isolated, abandoned wooden cabin for a weekend getaway. Upon arrival, they’re fairly disappointed with the run-down and ancient structure. A disappointment that gives way to sheer panic. On the first night, they discover a tape recording and a creepy old book known as the Necronomicon, a.k.a. The Book of the Dead. The recording warns the friends that reading it could awaken evil Candarian demons. These spirits are awoken from their “ancient slumber” (as a demon so tenderly describes it), and begin possessing the friends one-by-one. Ash (Campbell) is a coward who can’t help but watch as his friends are helplessly transformed into grotesque demons. The only way to kill a possessed victim is through the act of bodily dismemberment. As the night progresses, Ash’s friends are turned into demonic Deadites (that is, zombies), and it’s up to him to survive the night and battle the living corpses.

In a nutshell: The Evil Dead is not for the squeamish or faint of heart. It warranted the NC-17 with good reasoning. Several sequences cross the line profoundly, including the infamous tree raping scene, which marks it out as an exploitation favourite. And it’s still a scene for the books; possessed roots and branches violate a woman in the most twisted way imaginable, flaunting some highly impressive special effects despite the slim funds available. The violence is slow to begin, but for the final forty minutes, it’s virtually non-stop. The fake blood nonchalantly covers every inch of the set, all the prosthetics and even the costumes. At one stage, Campbell’s shirt was so soaked in blood (i.e. corn syrup and food colouring) that after drying it by the fire, it solidified before crumbling into pieces! But everything looks fake on purpose, and unlike modern gore-fests such as Hostel (2005), the film is fantastic because of the extreme gore. The ideal concoction of over-the-top depravity, black humour, and the use of bizarre and eerie sound effects, creates one of the most brutally entertaining horror movies ever made. It also gives new meaning to the word “gore” itself. The make-up department efficiently used every cent of the budget to ensure the film was as gruesome as possible.

The Evil Dead was never meant to be a masterpiece. In fact, its modest aspirations are what make it one, exemplified in the opening shot of the “evil” roving across the forest floor. The camera rig was attached to a plank of wood and carried at speed to create the point-of-view shots for the demonic force, which are still impressive. Throughout the rest of the film, Raimi injects marvellous energy into the straightforward plot, using his claustrophobic set to his advantage as the audience feels trapped in a restricted space. The film was shot on cheap 16mm cameras, similar to Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). The grainy film generates an incredibly effective atmosphere of dread, permeated with jump-out-of-your-seat shocks and laugh-out-loud moments. The exceptional music adds to this, too, and is effective whenever utilised. Despite modest resources, The Evil Dead convincingly surpasses all similar films. The unusual camera angles and masterful editing showcase that it was ahead of its time.

There are countless moments in the film that can frighten viewers. There are also sequences that will repulse as many people as they entertain. Raimi masterfully merges the ability to develop tension with moments of either horror or humour. In the long run, this sets The Evil Dead apart from any other film of its era and genre. Some will absolutely abhor it, others will love it for what it is. Raimi crafted a benchmark movie that added innovative elements of cinematic elegance and subtle humour to the pale horror genre. He saw horror as the quickest way into the industry, and with visual classiness such as this, any genre could have guaranteed the talented individual a lucrative Hollywood career. The Evil Dead is campy, silly and at times very laughable. It’s shamelessly what the film aspired to be. It’s also excruciatingly dated at times with some second-rate acting, but this is a horror film made by precocious young people with very little experience, so such inadequacies can be overlooked.

This is a genre classic that deserves every accolade it has been handed. Sam Raimi’s tribute to Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Exorcist (1973), and too many horror flicks to mention is an example of the genre done correctly. The film has its tongue firmly in its cheek, it never takes itself too seriously, and audiences continue to delight in mixing emphatic laughter with their screams. Watch it on its own terms, and you’ll definitely “enjoy” it!

Best Scene

Too many great moments. So, here’s a compilation. Groovy.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • The original script called for all the characters to be smoking marijuana when they are first listening to the tape. The actors decided to try this for real, and the entire scene had to be later re-shot due to their uncontrollable behaviour.
  • At the end of principal shooting in Tennessee, the crew put together a little time capsule package and buried it inside the fire place of the cabin as a memento of the production to whoever found it. The cabin has since been destroyed, but the time capsule was found by a couple of ardent Evil Dead fans who discovered that the fireplace of the cabin was still intact.
  • Andy Grainger, a friend of Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi, gave them this advice: “Fellas, no matter what you do, keep the blood running down the screen.” They included the scene in the finished film where the blood runs down the projector screen as a tribute to him.
  • The film was shown to Stephen King, and it was his glowing endorsement (which was later used on the film’s ads and posters) of the film which really sold it to the public. The film was bought by New Line Cinema soon after.

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