The Evil Dead (1981)

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“Five friends travel to a cabin in the woods, where they unknowingly release flesh-possessing demons.” — IMDb

Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead really needs no introduction… but I’ll give you one anyway. Raimi and Bruce Campbell have been friends since a young age, and actually shot several Super 8 films together. When Raimi became determined to make a horror movie, he first made a $1,600 short called Within the Woods as a prototype, but needed $100,000 for his larger project. Him and Campbell approached everyone they knew and finally got the funds they needed, and then put an ad in The Detroit News to fill out their actor roster. The film was shot when Raimi was barely 20 years old (which makes every accomplishment of my 30ish years so far seem weak in comparison) in the woods of Tennessee with a crew of mostly friends and it was ROUGH. They couldn’t even afford a camera dolly, so they made do with whatever they had on hand or could make themselves on the cheap. They burned furniture in the last few days of shooting just to stay warm during the winter nights, they wore contact lenses that were thick “like Tupperware” to achieve a demonic look, they injured themselves… all in the name of art.

One could say that Raimi has been lucky, but I think it’s his unbridled passion that helped him achieve the success that The Evil Dead has experienced — not just in its initial release, but as a strong cult film and horror classic even to this day. Stephen King, after first viewing the film at Cannes, proclaimed it to be the “most ferociously original film of the year”, which helped garner attention from critics that might not normally have noticed it, and, despite it being dubbed a “video nasty” due to its extensive gore, it was and still is a benchmark in horror history.

** SPOILERS! **

I’ve seen The Evil Dead several times over the years and it has aged like a fine wine. Every time I watch, I notice new things that I love. This time I was all about the camera work. Raimi pulled no punches when it came to making sure this film was unsettling at every turn, and a large part of that was using his greatest weapon: the camera itself. It bumpily hovers over the car as it snakes its way along the path to the all-but-abandoned cabin. It captures its subjects from up high, down low, at dizzying angles. He has Ash and Cheryl scuffling, lit as if by spotlight in front of an idling car with its spotlights glaring. It stares in, boldly and voyeuristically, from outside of the windows to emphasize how all-encompassing the demonic presence is, and even breaks through a window to continue this theme. It becomes covered in blood, filming through a viscous red filter, as a demon is hacked. It turns on its side, making wild jumps, to express the disorientation and madness that Ash feels in the finale. They even put it on a bike for a seamless last shot, zooming through errant branches in the woods and busting through doors in the house. It is brilliant how well he wields this tool, and how much of it was planned and executed on the fly (they went into filming with very little in the way of story boards).

The whole thing is just nonstop chaos, and that was his intention. He had seen plenty of forgettable amateur horror films — and even some not so amateur — and noticed they all had a similar formula, one that included a decent amount of down time when the story slowed. He thought, “why not have the good stuff the whole time?”… and, really, why not? The madness never ceases: limbs are hacked into quivering piles, demonic faces spew milky white substances as they steam and sputter, blood pours like a damn fire hose, bodies collapse into puddles of vomitous goo, possessed creatures hiss and taunt, shrieks echo and distort to a maddening crescendo… it’s brilliant.

It’s not even the technical skill involved that makes all of that so disturbing — the effects are really quite crude. On one hand it’s subtle — clocks ticking a little too loudly, a bench banging rhythmically against the outer wall, Linda smiling just a bit too widely as she rocks and giggles — and on the other it’s so over-the-top it’s absurd — Linda’s headless body ejecting a cascade of black-red blood onto Ash’s face, collapsing Scott’s eyes in with his thumbs, a dang waterfall of blood from a pipe in the basement. It doesn’t care how it does it as long as you’re unsettled.

Maybe the best part is how Ash, the beta male of the pack — nervous, soft-spoken, sentimental — ends up being the last man standing. Hopeful music plays and he limps from the ravaged house, broken but relieved, only to swallow up whatever desperate, demonic force has been encircling him all along. Maybe one of my favorite ending scenes of all-time.

If you’ve never given this absolute masterpiece of unpolished, unapologetic gore a go, you’re missing out.

Rating: 8.5/10 | Director: Sam Raimi | Writer: Sam Raimi | Music: Joseph LoDuca | Cinematography: Tim Philo | Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Richard DeManincor, Betsy Baker, Theresa Tilly

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