Director: Sam Raimi
Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Richard DeManincor, Betsy Baker, Theresa Tilly
Words – Oliver Innocent
One of horror cinema’s most iconic titles, The Evil Dead succinctly sums up the genre’s key themes; a preoccupation with darkness and death. It’s short, snappy and memorable. With a title like The Evil Dead you know exactly what you are in for.
Sam Raimi’s cult classic more than lives up to its title, delivering scares and gore aplenty. However, it does betray its rather exploitative, basic title with a wittiness and imaginative flare rare in such an unrelenting bloodbath. It is this adhering to the basic principles of the genre while simultaneously tearing up the rule book on how to employ said principles, that has led to the film’s classic status.
With its almost schizophrenic adherence to and breaking of the genre’s conventions, The Evil Dead perfectly bridges the gap between the nihilistic grimness and grindhouse aesthetics of the ‘70s, and the over the top humour and slapstick gore of the ‘80s.
Made in 1981, its debt to ’70s indie horror classics like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre can be seen in its handcrafted, rough around the edges charm and unnerving atmosphere of impending doom. The purpose of The Evil Dead is to shock, and it will do this by any means necessary, with the unique strangeness the film exudes with demonic possession.
Where the film breaks away from its forebears is Raimi’s injection of goofy humour and an almost slapstick approach to violence. Raimi’s love of slapstick comedy legends The Three Stooges is no secret, most of his oeuvre paying homage to his comedy heroes. Even in this, his most pure horror and debut feature, his appreciation still shines through.
In fact, the scene where lightbulbs fill with blood and pipes explode with fountains of gore was directly inspired by The Three Stooges short A Plumbing We Will Go.
The Evil Dead’s horror pedigree, however, cannot be denied. The standard genre set up of a group of youngsters trapped over the course of one night in a single location is made more intense with copious amounts of blood and guts. Probably one of the most bloody movies ever made at the time, its meagre budget and handmade effects remain impressive to this day.
Even when some of the bodily fluids look suspiciously like a mix of common household products, they still retain a DIY charm now sorely lacking in the digital age. Others, like the pencil in the ankle gag, retain their power to make viewers wince.
The sound design also deserves recognition. There’s a playful building of tension and audience expectations as moments of near silence are drawn out for as long as possible. The viewer obviously knows something is going to happen, but as the silence is drawn out a few seconds longer than your average horror flick, when that loud jolt of music does come you are guaranteed to leave your seat.
It can also be more subtle. The constant background noise of eerie howling wind seeps into the audience’s subconscious, maintaining a constant unsettling ambience. This ensures that even when nothing particularly scary is happening the viewer remains on edge.
Raimi’s strikingly fluid yet chaotic camerawork ensures the film impresses visually too. This is in evidence right from the off as the camera – acting as the demonic force in the wood’s POV – awakens and prowls through a swamp before hurtling through the trees towards its intended victims. It’s certainly some of the most unique, exciting camerawork to be found in the genre.
The Evil Dead can also be thanked for introducing the world to the cult icon that is Bruce Campbell as our severely unlucky hero, Ash. Over the course of the franchise with cult follow up/comedy re-telling Evil Dead II (1987), Army of Darkness (1992), and the critically-acclaimed but sadly short-lived TV series Ash vs Evil Dead, Ash is tormented by demons, driven insane and coated in all manner of multi-coloured bodily fluids, as he becomes the wise cracking, demon slaying, chainsaw-handed, boom-stick wielding, but still bumbling action hero we now know and love.
Sadly, Campbell announced he had officially retired playing his most beloved character, but has since teased that there are more stories to tell in the Evil Dead universe. Whatever form these new stories take, let’s hope they do the franchise proud, but while we eagerly await further news, let’s take this time to revisit one of the best horror films ever made, the ultimate experience in gruelling horror, The Evil Dead.