THE EVIL DEAD (1981)
The spirit of independent filmmaking runs deep in the scary movie genre. The instincts of many a first time movie maker have been drawn towards the horror film. Lack of acting experience and Oscar winning screenwriters do not get in the way of crafting a great fright film. George Romero showed what could be achieved with a modest budget and a can-do attitude in 1968, and where Romero led, Hooper, Carpenter and Craven followed. In the mid-seventies a group of Michigan University students joined this pantheon of horror greats. With one of the most tenacious spirits ever to grace a film set, this band of budding film producers gave scary cinema one of the most memorable movies of all time, The Evil Dead (1981).
Experimenting with home made movies created with a Super 8 camera his father had brought home, Michigan State University alumni Sam Raimi quickly gained a reputation as an energetic amateur filmmaker. Pulling together a close group of film enthusiast friends to help him with his projects, Raimi first forays in to movie making saw him create short comedy pieces and charge his college friends a nominal fee to watch them. These shorts were well received and buoyed by the praise of his friends the young director was eager to graduate to a full-length feature film.
Having carried out some market research Raimi and his collaborators, actor friend Bruce Campbell and budding producer Bob Tapert, had decided that a low budget horror film could make a reasonable profit. Raimi and his cohorts put together a prototype for his story called Within the Woods (1978). This thirty-two minute test piece was used to show investors just what they had planned for their horror epic, to be called “The Book of the Dead”. Shopping the half-hour horror template around they managed to obtain enough funds to begin shooting the full-length picture. With around $90,000.00 acquired the group set up their own production company, Renaissance Pictures, and started planning the shoot. Fearing that a harsh Michigan winter might derail their chances of completing the picture Raimi and his small film crew decamped to Morristown, Tennessee. The perfect cabin and woodland location had been found, and a mild mid-south winter would surely make for a pleasant shoot. Twelve weeks later the movie makers were spat out the back end of a movie making process that has gone down in legend.
The Evil Dead’s wafer thin story line follows five teenagers (Ash, Scott, Cheryl, Shelly and Linda) to a deserted forest cabin, for what they hope will be a fun weekend of beer and bawdy behaviour. Searching their new abode they discover an old tape recorder and a strange book in the cellar. The group decide to play some of the tape and find that the recording contains readings from the Book of the Dead, demonic incantations that resurrect evil spirits. The group are unaware of the evil they’ve unleashed but soon realise their fate when a possessed Cheryl attacks the rest of the group. With Cheryl locked in the cellar, one by one the remaining teens become possessed by the evil force. The lone survivor is Ash who must find a way of lasting the night and banishing the evil spirits for good
With a limited budget and even less expertise, Raimi wasn’t concerned with a convoluted plot; hence the story for Evil Dead being able to fit on the back of a postage stamp. What Raimi was concerned with was making an experience for the senses. His first forays into film had been hectic and stylised. With a Three Stooges inspired slapstick comedy element, Raimi’s projects had quickly taught him all manner of unusual presentation techniques. Applying these atypical filming methods to the horror genre made for the wildest cinematic ride the genre had yet seen. Thus, what Evil Dead lacked in narrative it more than made up for in energy and never-before-seen horrors.
Its not explained how the Book of the Dead ended up in the hills of Tennessee or what happened to the researcher who created the tape. We do not find out why the group have chosen a dusty old cabin for a weekend retreat. We also receive no information on the source of the possessing demons other than the aforementioned book and tape recording. But such information will only appease the overly curious; for viewers that have tuned in to be taken on a thrill ride of stupendous proportions such musings are by the by. Raimi swept these plot complications out the back cabin door and focused on the task of battering the audience into queasy submission.
The Evil Dead’s budget limitations are clear from the start, but unlike every other cheaply produced horror movie the film’s lack of financing produced a look that when combined with Raimi style of shooting was remarkable. Twinned with the ratty cabin setting, the films rough-round-the-edges style created an atmosphere all of its own. The unique tricks employed by Raimi and his crew are in evidence from the very first shot, as we glide across a misty swamp. This expensive looking shot was achieved by placing Raimi and a film camera in a rubber dinghy while a soggy Campbell propelled them along from behind. It is an impressive looking effect oddly combined with an inferior film stock, unsettling the viewer from the off.
Past the swamp a traditional in car set-up provides the limited exposition. The grainy look, and, it has to be said, hammy acting, continued but the startling presentation got better and better. With little money with which to draw his villains, aside from the on-actor make-up affects, Raimi continued his alarming construction of the “force” with nothing more than a camera nailed to a piece of wood. With the two-by-four filming device in hand Raimi and a film-hand would swoosh towards and around the cabin at speed, placing the audience in the unique role of aggressor. Cheap but incredibly affective Raimi was able to possess the viewer along with the rest of the cast by utilising this simple “panaglide” technique at key moments of the film. We became the demons when it came time for another member of the group to run for their lives.
When more traditional filming methods were called for Raimi chose the less obvious route. He would place the camera in strange locales (under the cellar door, under a pile of freshly shovelled dirt, etc) to film the actors creating the scene. If a strange locale was not available Raimi would tilt or roll the camera to keep the viewer off guard; watch Ash and Cheryl when they park up by the wrecked bridge and stroll past the camera at a bizarre angle, and the build up to the final showdown shot at an uncomfortable forty five degree slant.
Working just as hard in the editing department Raimi and Tapert made full use of the soundtrack to emphasize the stories growing weirdness. A haunting score by Joe Loduca provided the necessary musical accompaniment but it was the clever and unexpected use of sound effects that completed the off-kilter production. With our eyes adjusting to Raimi’s innovative techniques, our ears are in for equally riotous treatment. The demon voices may have taken cues from The Exorcist (1973) and the howling wind and creaky cabin doors were horror standards, but the remaining barrage of sound was as unsettling as the peculiar camera work. Raimi even slipped in stylistic sounds to emphasize camera movement and moments of strong physicality; watch and listen as the camera follows Ash overhead from the rafters.
The overall affect is disorientating and unsettling, a movie that seems two steps removed from reality, a nightmare that keeps twisting further down a dark hole. And that is before we even touch on the movie’s reputation as a gore soaked tour de force. The only way to match the freakish style of presentation was to provide the audience with a suitable payoff when it came time for the demons to go on the rampage. Raimi was certainly not stingy when it came to the fake blood and appendages. Commencing with Ellen Sandweiss being raped by a possessed tree, the movie builds a collection of startling horror moments unmatched in the genre. Ankles are stabbed, heads are lopped, limbs smashed, and demons explode expelling the sort of bodily fluids you never even knew existed.
Gore for the sake of gore rarely equates to scares, but so extreme is the violence it borders on the slapstick. Throwing in a slice of black humour ensured that the over the top carnage sat in the same surreal arena that the offbeat presentation inhabited. The madcap nightmare is not shattered by a grounding of harsh violence, but elevated by its graphic extremes. Despite the age of the effects and the shoestring budget from which they were created, they still look remarkable. Their irregular nature, the odd purples and greens of the make-up to the bizarre white fluid spewed by the possessed cast, keep proceedings fresh. It is an exhibition of horror so unique it has never been repeated, with the exception of Raimi’s Evil Dead sequel.
The bulk of the movie took twelve weeks to film, finishing towards the end of 1979. What was originally a six week shoot doubled in length due to the depletion of funds and the hastily cobbled together budget that allowed filming to continue. Ironically, Tennessee had an unusually cold autumn and winter compared to an oddly mild season back in Michigan. Raimi’s got the absolute most out of his actors, though The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) comparisons did not stop at movie content and style. The Evil Dead was equal to Hooper’s movie in the painful filming stakes also.
When they were not helping out with general tasks, the cast were being thrown from cellar to chimney breast inside the cabin and soaked with all many of fake demon fluid. Sandweiss had a tough time fleeing threw thorny forest undergrowth in a flimsy top and underwear. Those required to become demons had to shove old fashioned glass Scalero contact lenses into their eyes, so restrictive they could only been worn for fifteen minutes at time. But it was Bruce Campbell that took the majority of the punishment. With no safety padding or stunt double he threw himself into the action sequences with gusto, ending many days of filming battered and drowned in Karo syrup fake blood. Its fitting then that of the small cast its Campbell that fairs the best. Though his acting is a touch unpolished his undoubted charisma set him up for a career well beyond his schlock horror debut. That a mainstream career never quite materialised remains one of Hollywood’s most frustrating mysteries, but Campbell keeps producing excellent work both on and off screen (movies Bubba Ho Tep (2002), books If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor (2002) and Make Love! The Bruce Campbell Way (2005)).
After the twelve weeks filming were up there was still work to be done. Insert shots were filmed, dialogue dubbed, scenes re-enacted (sometimes without the presence of the original actors who had moved on to other projects), and the process of completing the movie began to lengthen. Two years after production began Raimi shopped his finished product around but American distributors weren’t interested. It was not until the British video company Palace Pictures snapped up the rights and showed the film at the Cannes Film Festival that it began to get noticed. Then a review from author Stephen King in the November 1982 edition of Twilight Zone magazine gave the picture a much needed boost. King labelled the picture “the most ferociously original film of the year”. It was in fact the most ferociously novel movie for quite some time.
Palace Pictures made the unusual choice of releasing The Evil Dead simultaneously on video and in cinemas. While it faired well in theatres its impact on video was immediate, quickly amassing 50,000 units sold in its first year of release. Unfortunately, or fortunately as it later turned out, its release coincided with the dawn of video rental. As such, the film hit shelves at the same time as many other cheaply produced horror films. But whereas The Evil Dead was infused with virtuoso filmmaking and a genuinely scary plot, dross such as SS Experiment Camp (1982) and Deep River Savages (1982) were dull and exploitative. Home video consumption was previously seen as a minority interest but when the format caught on authorities started looking at the sort of fare that was easily available in high street shops.
A campaign spearheaded by the self-appointed good taste champion Mary Whitehouse and the Daily Mail newspaper brought the notion of the “Video Nasty” to the public’s attention in the UK. “Ban Video Sadism Now” blared the headline on the Mail’s 1st July 1983 edition. Failing to understand the cinematic values of Raimi’s movie, The Evil Dead was lumped in with all the badly made horror pictures that were seeking to make a quick buck off this new video phenomenon. The Evil Dead being the biggest seller from this new wave of extreme horror films it was branded “the number one nasty”. The Conservative government were facing a forth coming election, so looking to suck in more voters they jumped on the “Video Nasty” bandwagon hoping to clean the streets of this new televisual menace. The Video Recordings Act was introduced and videos now had to seek certification and approval similar to that of cinematic releases. A list of permanently banned videos was drawn up (though a number of them have received a release in recent years following resubmission to the BBFC) but when it came to Raimi’s work cooler heads prevailed. Though it remained banned in some European countries (Ireland, Germany, Finland) it was deemed fit for consumption in England. Raimi’s deadites were free to go on terrifying audiences with gore splattered aplomb, only now his film carried the reputation as one of the most shocking horror movies ever made.
During the selling of The Evil Dead Raimi had managed to secure the talents of film distributor Irvin Shapiro. It was Shapiro who had suggested changing the movies title from The Book of the Dead to its eventual moniker. Sensing a new horror franchise Shapiro also suggested Raimi make a sequel as soon as possible and so sure was he that the director would film it he started taking out trade ads for “Evil Dead II: Army of Darkness”. Raimi had had enough of horror for now though and tested his skills elsewhere with Crimewave (1985). It had all the potential to be a hit, a familiar slapstick comedy basis that Raimi was comfortable with and a script co-written with future movie making legends Joel and Ethan Coen. But the movie had a difficult production process and suffered a poor reception from both critics and cinema goers. With this sour experience Raimi returned to safer ground and agreed to make a sequel to his pioneering first film.
Evil Dead II (aka. Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn) was released in 1987. Perhaps not brave enough to break from familiar concepts the sequel was a remake of sorts, returning Bruce Campbell to a woodland cabin and the character of Ash. Second time around Ash has only his girlfriend Linda (Sarah Berry) for company, until he decides to give the Book of the Dead audio recording another play. Linda is possessed, along with Ash’s right hand, cueing much demonic mayhem. Finally breaking from the original, the sequels finale banished the Book’s demons but inadvertently launched Ash back to medieval times along with Raimi’s trademark yellow 1973 Oldsmobile.
The sequel carried forward the frantic style of the first film, but upped the comedy value with all manner of in-jokes (keep your eyes peeled for Freddy Krueger’s glove in the tool shed) and physical clowning. Campbell’s performance is really something to behold, a fine example of his talents with comedic material. The scares that hung over the original were gone though, the chair jumpers replaced with slapstick chaos, the druggy nightmare washed away by a movie more recognisable as an expensive Hollywood production.
Completing the franchise transformation from horror to horror-comedy, the third film Army of Darkness (1992) (aka. Army of Darkness: The Medieval Dead) rejoined Ash in medieval England. Raimi was once again behind the camera, and Campbell returned in front of it, now fully equipped with acid-tongued one liners and a world-weary cocksure attitude. Ash battles whole legions of deadites with tongue planted firmly in cheek, but the scares were now non-existent. Whilst it made for an entertaining episode, it was closer in design to Saturday morning serials than Saturday night drive-in horror and was slow to recoup its $12million budget, eventually reaching a global take of $21milion.
A bizarre addition was added to the Evil Dead canon in 2004 when the stage show Evil Dead: The Musical debuted in Canada. Far from the farce most people were expecting the stage show was well received and made it all the way to Broadway in late 2006. Things got stranger still in 2007 when Bruce Campbell starred as himself in My Name Is Bruce (2007), a movie where he has to embody most of the talents of his Ash character to deal with a monster in a small mining community.
Campbell reprised the Ash role once more for the Ash vs The Evil Dead television series which debuted in 2015. Finally providing fans with a direct sequel to the third film, Ash has returned from the twelfth century and is living the quiet life as a supermarket clerk. But after a marijuana induced poetry reading with a prostitute that inadvertently includes sections of the Book of the Dead/Necronomicon. Ash reawakens the deadite demons and once again has to do battle with them. Finally invoking all of the style, scares and laughs of the original two films, the series was lauded by critics.
Post Evil Dead Raimi still struggled to secure major Hollywood directorial jobs. Excellent work on A Simple Plan (1998) and The Gift (2000) increased his standing but it was still a surprise when he was tasked with directing Spiderman (2002). Years of toil in the movie business finally paid off though when the movie became the first film in history to pass the $100million mark in a single weekend. Rather than delivering the stock Hollywood blockbuster Raimi made sure Spiderman got a large sprinkle of Evil Dead magic. The twisty camera angles, the warped personality of William Defoe’s Green Goblin, he even found a small part for his close friend Bruce Campbell, a film stealing cameo that he repeated in Raimi’s Spiderman 2 (2004) and Spiderman 3 (2007).
It might seem strange for a man who helped kick start the “Video Nasty” palaver to be tasked with creating the big screen debut of the child friendly web-slinger. But it was not controversial content that helped make The Evil Dead a rollicking fright film; it was the vision of its director. In lesser hands the movie may well have become the run-of-the-mill gore fest that its premise sets it up to be. But with a faithful crew and the bravery to throw the movie-making handbook on the fire, Raimi turned in a film that proved to be one of a kind. That The Evil Dead still has no equal shows just how special a movie it really is.
See also The Evil Dead II (1987), Army of Darkness (1992), My Name Is Bruce (2007), Ash vs The Evil Dead (2015 – 2018)