I shall set the scene. It was post Halloween and Friday the 13th, but just before the main thrust of the 1980s horror boom. Along comes a film that has one foot in exploitation with its gore and nastiness, but also one foot in black comedy, giving you just as many chuckles as winces. It’s a film that is unlike anything you’ve ever seen, but it grips you much like a possession, and leaves you wanting more. That film is Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead.
A group of college students go to a remote cabin in the woods. There, they face a horrible evil and are picked off one by one. These days that summary sounds very trite but in 1981 it was a bit more novel, the precursor to the dozens that would follow. What makes The Evil Dead stand out is the raw DIY passion that Raimi and the cast and crew brought to its story of poor foolish mortals facing down their friends possessed by Kandarian demons (later to be known as Deadites).
It’s a rough movie, you can almost feel the budgetary restraints they had to work with in what was by all accounts a gruelling production in the middle of nowhere. The gore and makeup effects are, quite frankly, cheap. However, that is honestly part of what makes them so good. They have texture, they’re gooey, they look totally wrong, and they’re visceral in a way that is all the more stomach-churning. No moment is passed up to have as much splatter as possible.
Bruce Campbell is as intrinsically linked to the film as Sam Raimi is. The two were best friends since school and when Campbell wasn’t acting on the shoot for The Evil Dead he was helping with the camera, props, and just about anything else that needed doing. He also suffered more than a few injuries over the course of the shoot, including a badly sprained ankle, a camera hitting him in the face, and a cut to the forehead. To say that Bruce Campbell’s blood, sweat, and tears are on the screen in this movie is an understatement.
Yet the Ash we see here is very different to the boomstick-wielding walking one liner of Army of Darkness and Ash vs. The Evil Dead. He’s a dopey and average guy, not a stock stereotype that became a familiar element of 80s and 90s teen horror and the subject of reference and ridicule in modern horror. The moments when the screen comes alive are, oddly, when he is completely alone onscreen. From comedic pratfalling that would make Buster Keaton proud, to the more dramatic moments of him doubting his own sanity or realising what has happened to his friends, Campbell’s performance is genuinely great. The same can’t be said for the rest of the cast, and maybe the reason the film works so well when Ash is around is because the rest of the supporting cast are fine but nothing remarkable, Ash is the one we care about. He emerges as one of the few “Final Boys” of horror, still standing at the end of everything.
There is also the elephant in the room, or, rather, the tree in the room to discuss. The scene in which Ash’s sister Cheryl goes into the woods and is attacked and raped by demonically possessed trees has been the subject of much controversy over the years and was one of the reasons why the film was restricted from viewing in Germany for many years. It is an incredibly nasty scene and largely unnecessary, not only because of its violent and explicit nature but so out of line tonally with anything else that happens in the films, even in this one which is markedly darker than its sequels. Raimi has also said since then that he regretted including that scene as it went too far and offended where his intention with making the movie was to thrill and entertain. Offend it certainly did though as the film – whilst never banned in England – was the subject of many “Video Nasties” discussions in the 1980s. This notoriety only pushed the cult appeal.
The real star of the film – besides Campbell of course – is the camera. What is achieved here is truly fantastic and creative with curious angles and trajectories, POV shots, and the often imitated but never truly matched floating and jerking tracking shots – mounting the camera on a plank of wood and having two people run with it. That natural movement of people, as opposed to the smoothness of a camera dolly, gives these shots a sense of sentience, an atmosphere that you feel is both unnatural and up to malevolent intent.
Trashy, funny, gory, and a monument to the low-budget, if you haven’t seen The Evil Dead yet, you really should get on it, and there is no better opportunity than now with its rerelease in UK cinemas. Just in time for Halloween.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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