REVIEW BASED UPON THE ANCHOR BAY DVD RELEASE
Verdict: 10 out of 10
Every few years a film comes along made on a non-existent budget that has either a ferocious determination to out and out scare an audience, or goes so over the top it becomes a comic book of the absurd, succeeding in maintaining itself with a level of energy and inventiveness that mainstream efforts lack. There are many examples of these sort of films; George Romero did it with “Night of the Living Dead” and “Dawn of the Dead”, Wes Craven managed it with “The Last House on the Left”, Tobe Hooper with “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, John Carpenter with “Halloween”, Stuart Gordon with “Re-Animator”, and Peter Jackson with “Bad Taste”. Here, in his directorial debut, Sam Raimi did it too.
The picture opens as Ash (Bruce Campbell), Scott (Hal Delrich), Shelly (Theresa Tilly), Linda (Betsy Baker) and Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) go up to a mountain cabin for the weekend. In the cellar they find a book bound in human skin, and a tape-recording left by a professor who once lived there, intoning rites that raise the dead. Soon after the tape is played, one of the girls is raped by the trees in the forest and returns possessed by demonic forces. She attacks the others with insane ferocity and strength before she is subdued and locked in the cellar. But her bite infects others, and the remaining friends are forced to fight off the possessed who will not die even when hacked up and dismembered… “The Evil Dead” emerged out of nowhere in 1982. It was made on a budget of only $50,000, shot by a group of friends over several years. Thanks in no small part to a judicious Stephen King quote in the promotion, it was propelled to considerable success. Raimi happily borrows from “Night of the Living Dead”, “The Exorcist”, and a good deal of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, and throws them all together with huge success. Indeed, the film bears many resemblances to a small Lovecraft influenced film “Equinox”, but Raimi fires up his version with an extraordinary energy all of its own.
“The Evil Dead” hits in with enormous vigour and an immense degree of directorial assurance on Raimi’s part. The dead spurt, splatter, snarl, bite their own hands off and use them as weapons, get hacked up by axes, get shot in the face, staked, have their eyeballs gouged out, and finally spend several minutes deliquescing into a psychedelic goo. One set piece follows another in quick unrelenting succession, and there isn’t a dull moment. It’s frankly best described as an entirely kinetic film. It’s quite a remarkable achievement to be able to pack a film as wall-to-wall as this using only a cast of five, and without concern for any of the usual romantic subplots that can bog such movies down. In fact, the scenes of dialogue that intersperse the carnage in some ways only detract from the action that either precedes or follows them.
What you can’t deny about it all is the enormous confidence Raimi brings as a director. Even though he was only shooting in 16mm, Raimi and his crew built home made dollies and cranes, and his camera as it moves from the point of view of the demonic forces prowling through the forest, circling the house and creeping up on cast members, has an assurance that besets many better-budgeted films.
If Herschell Gordon Lewis with his various grotty splatter films such as “Blood Feast”, and George Romero with his splatter epic “Dawn of the Dead”, had put an end to the old horror chestnut about the scariest things being those that remain unseen, then “The Evil Dead” surely nailed the lid on that coffin once and for all. Where Romero in “Dawn of the Dead” created an extraordinary epic fascinated with the ways that zombies could be dismembered and splattered, “The Evil Dead” could be like the same sort of film directed by a hyper-caffeinated speed freak. Both “The Evil Dead” and “Re-Animator” a few years later, created the late 80’s/early 90’s popcorn splatter film, all centred around wildly over the top gore effects and frequently gratuitous nudity. While the commercial end of these films were the “Elm Street” sequels, the undisputed genius in the field was Peter Jackson.
It is hard to believe that all of this, ludicrously unserious as it is, caused a storm of controversy in some places. In Germany the film was banned, in the UK the tree rape sequence was cut with the film later becoming one of the most notorious Video Nasties. Of course, by the time of the sequels Raimi had tamed the ferocity down somewhat – each of the sequels becomes progressively lighter and more slapstick in tone, until by the time of “Army of Darkness” it’s a stretch to even really call it horror at all.
The most iconographic member of the “Evil Dead” cast is Ash played by Bruce Campbell. The only actor to reprise his role in the two sequels, Campbell has gone on to become something of a B-Movie horror icon, even writing his own autobiography called “If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor”. It’s worth bearing in mind though that those who come to “The Evil Dead” after seeing Campbell’s other work or even the other “Evil Dead” films are usually a little disappointed, as Ash the comic hero is not a character that was really refined until the first sequel, and he’s played relatively more straight-faced here in the original film.
Sam Raimi’s “The Evil Dead” is a splatter filled delight. Frantic and fast, the whole thing never lets up or gives the audience a chance to draw breath. Similar to “Bad Taste” in many ways, “The Evil Dead” is a brilliant directorial debut, and an exercise in how to mix humour with gore and horror to the ultimate effect. A genre work that will always stand the test of time.
The Last Word:
It’s “The Evil Dead”… what other recommendation do you need?