Evil Dead (1981)

Made on a shoestring budget by three guys barely out of their teens, The Evil Dead attracted worldwide notoriety for an extraordinarily graphic rape scene. It was banned outright in many countries and slashed by censors in others.

The Evil Dead (1981)

Most of the individual video nasties have faded into oblivion, with one notable exception, The Evil Dead. Made on a shoestring budget by three guys barely out of their teens, it attracted worldwide notoriety for an extraordinarily graphic rape scene. It was banned outright in many countries and slashed by censors in others. Despite this (or because of it, oh misogyny!) The Evil Dead became a cult favorite, spawning sequels, a remake and a TV show.

Sam Raimi is now an A-list Hollywood director – one who has expressed regret for the rape scene –, but he cut his teeth with Within The Woods in 1978, a short made for less than $2000 which he used to get investors for his feature length project The Evil Dead (1981). After raising around $90,000 Raimi headed back into the woods, and began to put together the movie that Stephen King described as “ferociously original”, and which quickly became a cult classic.

It felt like we were making Easy Rider. The other thing is that it’s a movie where you are there, and there’s no faking it. We are going to rural Tennessee, 1979, where there’s moonshine, squatters, and it was the real deal. The south was the south in 1979. There was no franchise this or franchise that. It was a completely different world and mentality. And another point is that there is no CGI in the whole movie and it’s not a digital soundtrack either, but it’s been remastered. We used real ammunition in the shotgun and we shot it at a real cabin in the woods, with hunters and howling dogs in the background. To me, I like it because it’s so real. You are there.

Bruce Campbell 1

The story is a simple, even generic one; five college students head off to a remote cabin in the woods, and start poking around things that don’t belong to them, namely a reel-to-reel tape recorder left by the previous occupant, a professor investigating the spells contained in the ancient ‘Book of The Dead’. This grisly tome, bound in human skin and inked in human blood, contains incantations which, when read aloud, awaken the evil spirits that lurk in the woods, and open the door to the possession by demons of any hapless humans who happen to be spending the night in a log cabin that isn’t theirs.

Bruce Campbell as Ash in The Evil Dead
Bruce Campbell as Ash in The Evil Dead

There is no Final Girl in the Evil Dead movies, just Ash, the firm-jawed hero, who manages to survive a slew of attacks by evil spirits, brought back to life by recitations from the Book of The Dead, and hellbent on turning him and his companions into green-faced, white-eyed demons. With a blood lust. And a wicked sense of humour.

Raimi uses standard B movie ingredients (isolated location, a time scale of dusk till dawn, a small number of characters who get picked off one by one) when cooking up the plot, and provides the one-time actors with a creaky script that they recite, rather than perform. However, the inspired use of POV camera, which hurtles along the forest floor (attached variously to a motorbike, a 2×4 plank and a dinghy) gives the movie its trademark sequences, and its subsequent iconic status. The kinetic camerawork evokes a squealing, demented demon, dragging hapless cinemagoers along for a murderous ride. While the sequences inside the cabin revel in schlocky gore, with plenty of dismemberment and spurting blood, it is the exterior action, with the camera careening between the treestumps, that sticks in the mind. Sean Cunningham, creator of the Friday the 13th movies, likened watching a horror movie to being on a rollercoaster, and nowhere is that analogy more accurate. The Evil Dead is a ride, with the audience jerked between scares and laughter, and the frenetic pace is maintained until all the college kids are dead. The final shot sees a terrified Ash confronting the rampaging demon, with no weapon to hold it back. The ride stops and the credits roll, but there’s no elimination of the threat. Not one of the trilogy has a happy ending.

The Evil Dead pays homage to other horror movies – there’s a torn fragment of a The Hills Have Eyes poster in the cabin’s cellar. Ash’s judicious use of a power tool references The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, as does the underlying misogyny, and the reduction of women into objects which need to be hacked up and destroyed. Ash is happy to destroy his sister and his girlfriend, once they are possessed, and doesn’t ever consider the possibility of somehow exorcising the demons and getting the ‘real’ girls back. The eye-rolling, tongue lolling hags are swiftly and bloodily despatched, without hesitation, or any attempt to reason with them. One inference could be that the women are somehow showing their true colours, letting loose their inner demons rather than being possessed by an exterior force; they are certainly persistent, with the demon-Shelly battering away at the cellar trapdoor for the longest time. Only the sight of a cheap amulet, recently presented to Linda, his girlfriend, gives Ash the briefest cause for regret. The rape of Cheryl by possessed roots and branches is particularly violent, as she is dragged screeching through the woods and violated by a thrusting twig. She is the spare wheel in the group of five, the overly sensitive one without a man to keep her in line and prevent her from running outside (wearing just a bathrobe) in the first place. She is punished for transgressing, despite being the first one to realise what danger they are all in.

The Evil Dead is still a gripping excursion through the backwoods, innovative and effective. It has a nastiness at its core, however (perhaps best seen in the pen-stabbing-ankle scene), which gives it a chill factor to remember. Raimi makes the best of budgetary constraints; much of the movie was filmed on a second trip to the cabin, with only Campbell and a bunch of stand-ins filling the over-the-shoulder shots (a technique they nicknamed “shemping”). Despite the creative use of limited resources, it does creak in places; the full moon that rises over the cabin does so in a different coloured sky, a square of navy a completely different hue to the rest of the screen. Nonetheless, the box office receipts (especially from overseas) meant Raimi got the backing to have another go.

Evil Dead 2 (1982)

Evil Dead 2(1982) is neither a sequel or a remake of the original, but something of a cross between the two. With ten times his original budget, Raimi picks up any viewers who might not have seen the first movie with a flashback – only this time Ash is alone in the car with his girlfriend – explaining what Ash is doing at the cabin. After despatching the possessed Linda, our hero becomes temporarily inhabited by demons too, only to have them driven away by the first light of dawn. Muddy, bloodied, exhausted, Ash is left on his own to battle the fiends, in an increasingly hilarious spiral of humour and gore. Ash’s hand becomes possessed, and tries to kill him, so he lops it off with a chainsaw. Shelly’s headless torso pursues him out to the garden shed, where he has stuck her head in a vice, the better to slice it in two. Singly, these images might be shocking, but Raimi gleefully slams one into the other, spraying everything with multicoloured gore, knowing that laughter lies on the other side of repulsion. Ash is whirled through the woods, slammed with dishes, dragged up and down stairs, and the audience plays along with this torture which resembles nothing more than a depraved Buster Keaton movie. By the time the Professor’s daughter appears, with her country hick friends, the audience knows that these characters are simply cannon fodder, and relish in their destruction. Evil Dead 2 is full of scares and shocks, but its underlying humour takes away the chill factor of its predecessor. You’ll leap from your seat more, but you’ll sleep better at night.

Army of Darkness (1993) picks up at exactly the point Evil Dead 2 leaves off, with Ash being whirled into a medieval past, and forced to confront a Harryhausen-inspired army of skeletons who are attempting to assault a castle. This can barely be classified as a horror film, being a comedy fantasy trip. The franchise has also inspired a range of successful video games, a remake is in the pipeline, and there is constant talk of an Evil Dead 4 on message boards across the globe. Actor/Producer Bruce Campbell has also become a major cult figure.

Further Reading

Bruce Campbell illuminates the genesis of all three movies in his fun autobiography, If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor.

  1. DVD Talk 2010

Author: Karina

Writer. Historian. Teacher. Story Consultant. Twitter @medkno