The Evil Dead (1981) Retrospective Review

Sam Raimi's Evil Dead 1981 Horror Film

Evil Dead (1981)
Sam Raimi
Screenwriter: Sam Raimi
Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Richard DeManicor, Betsy Baker, Theresa Tilly

Reading the synopsis of this film, you may snort and roll your eyes at this supposedly shagged-out horror trope, but such a dismissal would be depriving you of a highly enjoyable and thrilling movie experience. Evil Dead is the defining Cabin in the Woods movie, with all others being mere pretenders in its presence; it even manages to reinvigorate this premise as the film still feels fresh and without cliché after repeated viewings. More importantly, it is the shining example to all aspiring filmmakers of what is possible on the tightest of budgets when you have bucket-loads of passion.

Evil Dead is the resulting baby of the self-confessed film nerd. School pals Rob Tapert (Executive Producer), Sam Raimi (Director/Writer), and Bruce Campbell (Ash – always the actor due to being the “looker” of the trio), had made several Super 8 films together before its release. To get this film to the big screen, the lads had to take out bank loans to expand the film to 35 mm: such dedication and passion becomes apparent throughout the whole fabric of the film; passion that goes hand in hand with the resolve to solve all the issues they came up against leading to genuine filmmaking innovations.

The storyline itself is very basic. A bunch of kids drive out into the woods for a nice, cosy holiday on the cheap with plenty of booze and a likelihood of sex. From the off-set, the cabin is pretty creepy, but the only one who is initially bothered by it is the single, third-wheeling (possibly virginal) Cheryl; all the others are too busy canoodling to notice anything amiss. It’s only with the discovery of a tape-recorder in the basement that the vacation takes a deadly turn. Tensions become fraught over the playback of some incantations from an ancient piece of literature – “The Book of the Dead” – causing Cheryl to freak out and run away into the night. Unfortunately for the Scooby-Doo gang, the incantations seemed to have summoned the evil undead, working to convert their new prey into terrifying “Deadites”, hell-bent on murder and destruction. The only way to stop them: “bodily dismemberment”.

The general besiege basis of the plot has been used tonnes, both before and after this film was produced, but it’s Raimi’s writing and execution which makes Evil Dead so bloody fantastic. On the surface, Raimi as a Director isn’t really thought of for his realism – I think people get too distracted by his sense of humour (also, for your information, Evil Dead is the straightest one of the whole series) – but it is this humour which make his characterisations so believable. Take poor Cheryl for instance… you can tell from the beginning that she is not enjoying herself: she’s the only one there who is not a part of a couple, and the awkwardness is uncomfortable (yeah have fun drawing in your sketchbook all holiday, Cheryl). Of course, because she is already feeling uneasy, she’s the first one to get spooked. With the paranoia and absolute belief that they’re all going to die, she is far more vulnerable to the machinations of the evil spirits, and naturally gets the worst experience of them all – including a scene of questionable taste with insidious trees that even Sam Raimi regrets having in the movie. On the other hand is Scott, reminiscent of the arsehole everyone has met in their life. He is the kind of guy to take a joke too far, so of course the raising of the Deadites can be blamed wholly on him. However, it is this reckless and selfish personality which gives him the power to become the apparent hero, smacking demons right and centre – even his own girlfriend, Shelly. But, eventually the night takes its toll on him and the audiences get to watch his satisfying comeuppance. Then there is Ash, the beta-male of the group, unable to rein in Scott’s douchery with his proffered compromises, and is rendered useless on many occasions as he is perpetually smashed into shelves by the Deadites. So, it’s absolutely brilliant that he ends up being the last man standing, quivering in the corner with a shaky shotgun in hand. It is also quite wonderfully tragic as Ash is obviously a sentimental and romantic guy, and is tortured by the sight of his girlfriend and sister succumb to the forces of evil.

Beyond the portrayal of his victims, Raimi created a very unique horror movie experience by the way he frightened his audiences. Most modern horror flicks blindly chain themselves to the same typical scare techniques: build up the tension (with some appropriate scary string music) released in a sudden jump scare, or overuse of blood and gore. Instead, Raimi remains in control throughout the whole of the movie with each shot being part of a very deliberate choice and action to push viewers way out of their comfort zone and into a prolonged state of distress. For example, the build of tension goes beyond seconds, it can be several minutes before the climax is reached. This stroke of genius leads to audiences being lulled into a false sense of security before the scare finally comes, catching you completely off-guard. Raimi also never leaves the audience time to recover from a fleeting fright; instead he goes with unrelenting terror, as seen when Scott and Ash defend themselves from a possessed Shelly. Now, this could have all been very unoriginal with Shelly being knocked to the ground, followed by a few seconds of calm, only to leap back up and finally be killed for good, but Raimi instead provides us with a 5-minute sequence of stabbings, beatings, bodily fluids gushing from orifices and stumps, and some God-awful relentless screaming which is only silenced after an axe makes burger meat out of Shelly. My nerves are shot every time I see this and I feel like I need to have a lie-down.

This particular sequence also illustrates Raimi’s mastery in weaving different aspects of filmmaking into his scenes: varied, swooping camera angles, and the beautiful organic touch to the physical effects used, combine to create an honest horror and disgust. Other than fake blood, a milk-like substance splurts out of the mouths and the wounds of the Deadites: in the final defeat scene, porridge was used as the bodies of the possessed began to decay – horror has never looked so texturized in the years since and it does achieve a more genuine repulsed reaction due to said authenticity. The sound is also fundamental to the frightening element of the film: background noises such as a ticking clock and a heartbeat are distorted and unnaturally loud; the screams of victims are several voices mixed together producing a far more hysterical noise. The sound of the wind in the forest is itself a particular spooky-inspired invention as Sam Raimi recorded the eerie wind from his bedroom window. This willingness to take advantage of a muse when it comes along (in the midst of trying to sleep no less), leads to practical and effective ideas and solutions to add to the frightening and nauseating effect of the movie. Swooping, low-lying shots were achieved by pushing cameras out on dinghies or by literally dragging the camera across the ground. My personal favourite is when Ash leaves the car but limps at a freakish, wonky angle; achieved by parking the car on a slope and aligning the camera with the angle of the incline. Simple but clever, as the scene achieved the intended dizzying effect.

So, can this movie do any wrong? Well, it can be argued that one of Evil Dead’s biggest flaws is the performance of the actors – “it’s not exactly Gone With the Wind”. Bruce Campbell himself has admitted that he cringes at himself upon every re-watch. Personally, I feel like it adds to the movie. If you were suddenly attacked by psychotic demons, your speech and movements would probably go quite funny. It’s realism, I’m telling you. Also, Campbell’s awkward performance as Ash makes his status as last man standing that bit more brilliant and satisfying as you witness the poor fumbling fool get the absolute crap beaten out of him. It could also be said that the stop-motion animation makes the movie look dated, but yet again I disagree: the animation produced the intended scares and had the unnatural quality which again contributed to the overall horrifying effect of the film. It’s not as if the animation used was of a poor quality, it is in fact reminiscent of Harryhausen and, in my opinion, has a more ageless quality than much of the cheap CGI used in many current Horror productions.

Importantly, Evil Dead has stood the test of time to the point it can put a lot of modern horror movies to shame. Horror has been an important and popular genre in cinema since the silent era, with filmmakers using Horror movies as a platform for social issues and a portfolio for new talent, as well as to make a cheap buck. They also have an enduring effect on audiences, with subsequent generations inspired into filmmaking by these flicks: an instilled enthusiasm to use the horror genre to innovate and push the boundaries of the art form. Raimi, Tapert and Campbell used Evil Dead as a vehicle for their auspicious talent, but it is also a film for the love of film. It has been cited by both crew and cast that filming Evil Dead was a horrible experience – it was filmed in the freezing cold while living in a hovel of a cabin. Furthermore, principal shooting finished after 6 weeks whilst editing took over a year: the film must have been fired by the ambition to make a thumping good movie, that much is clear. It’s such a tragedy that modern horror movies seemingly don’t follow Evil Dead’s suit as the genre has moved from the hands of independent filmmakers to major film producers. It seems to no longer be about the love of horror, but instead the money it can produce, that dominates these movies, replacing heart and charm with generic murder and gore.

Score: 21/24

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