Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Richard DeManincor
Run Time: 1 hour 25 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
In preparation for what is shaping up to be a pretty darn cool essay, I've been rewatching Sam Raimi's quintessential horror series, The Evil Dead. This is a film series that would change horror as we knew it, create a massive moral uproar, and ignite a cult following that pulses steadily to this day.
Way back when, before James Franco the Dumb and , before Drag Me To Hell and Spider-Man, Sam Raimi was a young buck with a couple bucks and the determination to make a movie out of it. That movie was The Evil Dead, a horror film with a fairly straightforward premise - five college students spend Spring Break in a remote cabin in the woods where they unwittingly release a horde of Candarian demons that begin to kill and possess them one by one.
You might raise an eyebrow at the whole "demon possession" angle when the poster and fanbase so adamantly insist that it's a zombie movie. Well, you might as well pluck that eyebrow out because human logic has no place in the realm of Raimi.
Our lovely demon zombie beautician would gladly help you with the tweezers.
The Evil Dead is the story of five young men and women: Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell), his girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker), his sister Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), his best friend Scotty (Richard DeManincor), and Scotty's girlfriend Shelly (Theresa Tilly). I listed no personality traits because there are very few discernible personality traits between the five of them.
Scotty's kind of a douche and Ash is the protagonist. That's about it for character development. So, with a bare bones plot and paper characters, what is it that makes this film so dreadfully important?
I'm glad you asked, hypothetical reader.
Behind it all was a young auteur with a lot of talent and something to prove, and from that was born one of the single greatest creative downpours the genre had seen thus far. I'm talking upside down, sideways, crossways camera, I'm talking rapid-fire editing and extreme close-ups, I'm talking zooming improvised Steadicam shots and madcap wall-to-wall sound design.
Sam Raimi blanketed the entire film with his gleeful and energetically creative approach to filmmaking and it's grubby, kinetic, exciting, and unlike anything anybody had ever seen before. The Evil Dead is an unrelenting assault on the senses that is like sweet rain to the genre faithful.
Show this image to any self-respecting horror fan and their pulse will skyrocket. Seriously. Try it.
No, it's not a comedy. That kind of thing wouldn't happen for a while. Although he's frequently lauded for his perfect blend of horror and comedy, Raimi made his start here with a straight genre piece and it is beautiful. And who needs Three Stooges routines when we have unreserved melodrama and geysers of blood?
With this film, Raimi took everything about the increasingly nihilistic horror genre of the 70's and pushed everything to their over-the-top extremes, resulting in a film that is so ebulliently gory and cheesy and disgustingly hilariously bad-good that it transcends its low budget limitations to become something much larger than itself, an utterly perfect genre film.
Because no, it isn't perfect. To be blunt, the film looks like crap. All the Blu-Ray wrangling and color correcting in the world can't change that. The sound is fuzzy and occasionally poorly dubbed. There's a wildly ill-advised rape scene that is almost unwatchable and landed the film on the infamous Video Nasties list in the UK.
[Side bar: I'm not trying to justify this scene at all. Sometimes, there's no accounting for taste. But, to be fair, many first-time horror auteurs will do all they can to shock the audience in whatever is the most depraved manner they can conceive. Wes Craven did it with The Last House on the Left, and Raimi is no different. This leads to some terrible storytelling decisions, but they just need to get it out of their system. Raimi has since expressed his regret at that scene, and let's put a pin in that for now. Rape in horror cinema is about to get its own overlong article, so stick around.]
If you dare.
At any rate, the surface crappiness is heaven for genre fans because it's a filmmaker's playground. Not having to worry about production values allows a lot more breathing room for experimentation, the type of which led to this cavalcade of ingenious and inventive cinematic designs.
And it doesn't hurt that the gore technicians really knew what they were doing. It's impossibly colorful and gooey, fake enough that it doesn't revolt the audience, but real enough to propel the sense of danger through the roof. A scene involving a pencil and an ankle is one of the most memorable gore sequences in my history of the genre and that's before the really good stuff even starts to happen.
Pictured: Good stuff
Raimi's is a world without rules. Things shift from shot to shot, the powers any of the possessed display vary from moment to moment, and whatever is happening in the current scene is sure to be completely divorced in context from the next, all to maximize the disorienting terror of trying to survive the night surrounded by unknowable evil.
The demons could easily kill Ash and devour him chilled with a side of rice, but they instead spend their time playing with him like cats with a particularly fat and delicious mouse. And that's exactly what Raimi does to his audience, poking and prodding us to see how far he can make us bend.
The Evil Dead is my favorite of the franchise for its no-holds-barred low budget mayhem, providing everything I've ever wanted a cult film to give to me. It's no Rosemary's Baby. Hell, it's no Devil's Due. But it revels in its lowly station and provided a jolt of life to horror, paving the way for cult favorites like Re-Animator and From Beyond and inspiring mainstream filmmakers to newer and greater heights.
By pushing the limits of the genre, this twisted little bugger changed it forever. And that was just the very beginning of a long career in filmmaking for one Mr. Raimi. Evil Dead is everything.
TL;DR: The Evil Dead is ecstatically gross, silly, and wonderful.
Word Count: 1068
Reviews In This Series
The Evil Dead (Raimi, 1981)
Evil Dead 2 (Raimi, 1987)
Army of Darkness (Raimi, 1992)
Evil Dead (Alvarez, 2013)