Written and Directed by: Sam Raimi
Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, and Richard DeManincor
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďYou will die! Like the others before you, one by one, we will take you."
When marketing hailed The Evil Dead as ďthe ultimate experience in grueling terror,Ē it not only revealed its directorís penchant for hucksterism, but it also revealed itself to be true in a hurry. Sam Raimi and company didnít trek to a remote cabin in the Tennessee woods to make a movieóthey went to craft a demented update of the Grand Guignol that would shock, horrify, and repulse viewers, all while delighting them at the same time. This was the worldís first glimpse at Raimi, an old school, consummate showman whoís been dedicated to exploring the possibilities of cinema throughout his career. His resources and budgets have certainly ballooned since his debut effort, but The Evil Dead still acts as a gore-soaked Rosetta stone for all of Raimiís sensibilities as a filmmaker.
Itís easy to say that itís a masterpiece despite its limitations and its apparent tendency towards clichť: five friends decide to trek out for a Spring Break retreat (of course they do) in a remote, dilapidated cabin (of course it is), where they immediately sense some bad vibes, none of which dissuade them from entering (this is not to mention that they should be scared off by a sign that humorously warns them of the ďdangerous bridgeĒ theyíll have to cross before getting there). Their brief trepidation is well-founded once they discover that the cellar houses a Sumerian Book of the Dead capable of raising all sorts of hell. Clearly, playing back such ancient incantations is a bad idea, but Scottyís (Hal Delrich) curiosity gets the best of him, and he unleashes an enigmatic evil that begins to terrorize the cabin by possessing his friends.
So much of that seems rote and standard issue, but thereís a wry sense of awareness to The Evil Dead thatís still refreshing. It doesnít nudge into your gut and wink in the same manner as Scream or other sentient horrors, but it seems to have a conscience that acts not so much as the voice of god, but as the voice of an audience that knows itís stupid to mosey down into a cellar after its door has mysteriously flung itself open. Raimi cleverly plays the moment with a beat that gives everyone a moment to consider just how stupid it would be for anyone to check it out. Scotty doesnít disappoint, nor does his buddy Ash (Bruce Campbell) when he follows right behind him. Both of these dopes should probably be goners, not only because thereís an overbearing sense of dread infused throughout The Evil Dead, but also because a subtle playfulness underlies it all. Youíve seen this horror show before, and Raimi initially seems content to deliver it in slightly knowing fashionóitís not quite satirical or metafictional, but itís a film that knows what it is, and its director is just beginning to have his fun with certain expectations.
Raimiís setup is precisely atmospheric and ominous: a porch swing mysteriously clangs against the cabin on its own, while Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) hears a bellowing, disembodied voice intoning her to ďjoin us.Ē All of it happens under the glare of an impossibly huge full moon and within earshot of howling wolves. Itís more familiar stuff done with unusual panache, but The Evil Dead truly comes alive once it gets rolling and you realize that all bets are off. Cheryl seems to be the typical Final Girl who will outlast her half-wit male companions; after all, sheís the first to sense that something isnít quite right about the place, and Raimi affords her most of the character development up front. Just when it seems like things have settled in, she also does a careless, clueless thing by wandering out into the woods, where the trees in the surrounding woods inexplicably come alive and rape her in the filmís most infamous scene.
I think thatís the moment you realize that Raimi really isnít fucking around with The Evil Dead. Even though the sinister nature of the scene seems to run counter with the filmís playfulness, itís the first hint that Raimi is out to unnerve in the most outrageous ways possible; heís something of a carnival magician out to indulge his audiences in a funhouse freak-show that gets progressively bizarre. Case in point: not long after her encounter in the forest, Cheryl does what any reasonable person (and, thus, no typical horror character) would do: she tries to get the hell out of dodge. However, her common sense is duly rewarded by the unseen, enigmatic evil that wonít allow her or her friends to leave. Before long, our supposed final girl is actually the first to be possessed and boarded up in the cellar, where she proceeds to mock and torment the dwindling survivors, all of whom are left dumbfounded and at a loss as to what to do, especially after theyíre forced to eviscerate their own friends (a very real, natural reaction thatís emblematic of how The Evil Dead starts to take itself seriously).
Okay, maybe thatís the moment the film really starts to click. Thatís sort of the beauty of The Evil Dead: it so naturally enfolds you in a deranged cacophony of effects and spook-a-blast terror that itís easy to miss just how much fun Raimi has in toying with certain expectations. Instead of a final girl, you have a final guy (with a girlís name) in Ash, who is far from the boneheaded, faux-machismo oozer from the sequels. In The Evil Dead, heís just a mop-topped kid who happens to be the last one standing after a grueling endurance test. During the course of the film, Campbell grows into the role; you canít quite imagine that heíll become the wise-cracking ass-kicker from the sequels, but heís obviously comfortable in shouldering Raimiís sadistic proceedings when the time comes (much to the delight of his director, whose early career would be built upon gleefully tormenting Campbell).
For all its interesting subtexts, The Evil Dead is remarkably lean since Raimi wisely allows them to subtly rumble beneath the surface. His subversive tendencies donít comment upon or mock the genre because he has far too much appreciation for it; instead, he employs them like a showman out to entertain his audience. Following in the footsteps of his idol Alfred Hitchcock, Raimi concocts his own Psycho moment with Cherylís surprising fate and proceeds to one-up himself with an incredible display of splattery ingenuity. The Evil Dead is a violent, gory descent into hell thatís driven by its directorís sheer force of will and his unrelenting, propulsive knack for escalation. A thinly scripted gore sketch show becomes a garish kaleidoscope of skewed camera angles and energetic panache under Raimiís remarkably assured guidance. His debut might be short on budget, but itís hardly bereft of ideas or spirit.
There was once a time when The Evil Dead was the most unbelievably gory film Iíd ever seen; itís since been surpassed in terms of sheer volume, but it still stands as the perhaps the most calculated and well-crafted splatter movie of all-time. Its lack of polish is somehow both irrelevant and crucialówhile no one would ever mistake the film as anything but a low-budget production (thanks mostly to the acting), its threadbare aesthetic adds to the filmís rawness and immediacy. The effects are believably grisly, and the cabin is an immaculate set that only becomes more horrific when itís adorned with dismembered bodies and gallons of blood. Raimiís horror bona-fides are never in question, as he masters both suspense and the gory pay-offs in a way few directors ever do. Even referring to The Evil Dead as a splatter movie seems a bit disingenuous since it implies an almost derisive emptiness, but nothing this lovingly and exactly crafted could be mistaken as vapid.
Besides, itís much more of a splatter show; itís obvious that Raimi is delighting in all of this demented stuff, and heís eager to share it with an audience thatís left equally shocked and thrilled. The Evil Dead may be much more of a ďstraightĒ horror movie than its successors, but itís no less fun. It may be savage, grueling, and incredibly visceral, but it never feels like a beat-down. Instead, it toes a tough line between pure horror and entertainment thatís perhaps best exemplified by several of its gags. When Ash is plastered with a face full of blood after severing his friendís head, itís gross but not completely revolting, and it hints at Raimiís reverence for Three Stooges-style physical comedy. The Evil Dead doesnít quite go all the way into splat-stick territory (that would have to wait until the first sequel), but itís subtly gleeful about its effects. And rightfully so: Raimi and company empty the tank of all its gore, make-up, camera, and stop-motion tricks to a resounding success. When the film closes with a final instance of the now-famous ďRaimi-cam,Ē itís an appropriate bull-rush of energy that reminds you that you didnít just watch The Evil Dead: you experienced it.
At this point, its production has become legendary and inexorably tied to the film itself, so I wonít rehash it. Besides, thereís an even better anecdote that captures the spirit of the film after it was completed. Having finally wrapped production on The Evil Dead, Raimi and company set out to debut it in the biggest way possible, so they staged an elaborate premiere at Detroitís Redford Theater, a childhood favorite of Campbell. Complete with custom tickets and ambulances on hand for those too faint of heart, its theatricality recalled another of Raimiís idols in William Castle. That idolatry was not only evident in that premiere but in The Evil Dead itself; unlike many of Castleís efforts, Raimiís debut film didnít exactly need such gimmicks, but the Old Hollywood huckster in him couldnít quite resist it, either. Such an unabashed commitment to gamesmanship crystallizes both Raimi and The Evil Deadóthereís a purity in it that resists empty fetishism and explains why Raimi could never yield to irony. Thirty years since its release, the horror genre has had plenty of bouts with insincerity, but The Evil Dead is a reminder of the power of pure, shameless horror that knows where it came from and where it could go. Essential!
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