I haven’t seen any film as often as I have seen Sam Raimi’s 1981 debut. In fact, The Evil Dead was the film that taught me VHS cassettes don’t last forever, as my tape eventually wore out just at the recitation of the Necronomicon. I grew up watching and loving horror films---my two earliest movie memories are of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Hellraiser [don’t worry, my parents made me cover my eyes at the scariest bits]. I didn’t discover The Evil Dead until later on, actually as a function of seeing Army of Darkness on a Sunday morning on WGN when I was probably ten or eleven.
There are so many things about The Evil Dead that have made it one of the most appealing horror films ever made, and one of the most important films in my life. First and foremost, the film shows off that horror can be fun [though, I will admit that the infamous tree sequence hasn’t aged well and is frankly tough to watch]. Unlike its sequels, The Evil Dead is a through-and-through horror film, with only a few openly comedic beats, but its innovative filmmaking keeps it playful. Despite its obvious shoestring budget, it never dips into “so-bad-it’s-good” territory, mostly because of its incredibly focused vision.
As soon as the first Deadite appears on screen [in the form of Ash’s sister Cheryl], you know this is something unique. A mix between the Romero zombie and The Exorcist, the Deadite is incredibly creepy, but it is their mischievous, treacherous personalities that land them in the movie monster hall-of-fame. Their tricks, such as briefly taking back their human hosts’ forms, even give off a tinge of sadness. Once they arrive, the film’s intensity immediately and dramatically increases; their presence adds unpredictability and quickly shifts emotional stakes for the rest of the film. Before the franchise would shift to be a star vehicle for Bruce Campbell, the imaginative use of the Deadites provides more than enough fun entertainment.
Sam Raimi would go on to become one of the biggest directors in the world, though he’s never strayed far from his Evil Dead roots. His innovative camera work, most notably the famous point-of-view runs through the haunted forest, can be found in every film he’s made no matter the budget. The second half of The Evil Dead especially shows off his craft---the large-scale practical effects scenes, fluid camera, quick editing, shot composition, and experimentation with lighting effects, so many tricks are on display. Raimi’s fascination with the Three Stooges gives The Evil Dead its trademark slapstick humor, but also just works in the overall rhythm and movement of the film.
If Raimi is the brains behind the series, star Bruce Campbell is the soul. He became one of the most beloved cult actors in Hollywood, but Campbell is almost unrecognizable here [not necessarily in his appearance, but in his demeanor]. If you’ve only seen Evil Dead II or Army of Darkness, you know a much different Ash. At the start, the character is a fresh-faced, innocent and quiet young man, though some of his intensity does start to come through as he becomes increasingly terrorized by his undead friends. By the end of the film, he’s made the unmistakable star turn. Campbell is obviously much more beloved for latter entries in the series when he’s working at 1000%, but there is something admirable and wonderful about his performance here that never gets any less surprising---I discover the blossoming of a star every time I revisit the film.
The Evil Dead has endured and remains as popular as ever, now over 30 years since its original modest release. Aside from the film franchise, The Evil Dead has spawned comic books, video games, a theatrical musical, a better-than-average remake, and has recently crossed over to television in the enjoyable and faithful Ash vs. Evil Dead [season 2 premiering September 23]. The Evil Dead launched the cabin in the woods horror genre, broke all of the rules of zombie films, introduced us to the greatest B-movie actor of all time, and has continued to terrify us while cracking us up. And it all started with a group of high school buddies raising $350,000 and spending a few days out in the woods.
Here’s all the coverage you can expect this week:
- A dive into the film’s stunning special effects
- A profile of star Bruce Campbell
- A Related Review of Campbell’s memoir If Chins Could Kill
- Horror-comedy streaming suggestions
- And more!