REVISITED: The Evil Dead (1981) – by Chris Barnes
I can categorically guarantee everything that is scrawled below about this particular 1981 masterclass has been done to demonic death and beyond, folks. If you haven’t seen The Evil Dead and need to be told just what Sam Raimi’s cult classic is all about, then, of course, read on (before crawling back into your dark cellar of ignorance, Horror Heathen!). Or, if you just have to revisit the perfect torment this gem provides every so often (either through re-watching or reading other people’s musings, memories and nightmares) then read on also.
What’s the old line about imitation being the greatest form of flattery? Well, The Evil Dead, in my humble opinion, is the most imitated genre movie in history and should forever be celebrated as such.
The plot? You know it already:
A car-load of friends head off to a remote cabin for a few days away. When sinister events lead to the discovery of an ancient book in the cellar, and an old tape recorder, the gang sit down for a little harmless investigation. Nosey buggers. However, as the ancient rites on the recording disturb an evil presence in the woods, our protagonists become more and more isolated from each other and very fucking possessed! Sound familiar? That’s because it is.
To a generation, Raimi has always been a Hollywood filmmaking God, but way back before he cast Tobey Maguire as a fresh, exciting new Spidey and never-ending rip-offs of his movies were conceived, himself and a novice nursery of nutters decided to make a low budget demon flick, and it has become (to me) THE masterpiece of shock and visceral debauchery. The Evil Dead is a cinematic heavyweight and delivers what it promises: ‘the ultimate experience in gruelling terror’. Even with its occasional ropey acting, it shocks and spooks the audience through chilling atmosphere and some of the most brutal effects ever burned onto celluloid. Honestly, I was even too scared to hold the VHS box at the video rental shop back in the late 80s!
From the first second, the camera work is truly masterful. By mixing eerie meandering shots with relentless aggression, Raimi has created an oppressive world that is sometimes intolerable to look at but too entertaining to turn away from due to its sheer unpredictability. His unmistakable style is perfectly shown in one of the most captivating openings I can think of; a lesson in pace, technique and atmosphere, and it gets even more impressive once we get to the dilapidated old cabin. Some shots hold us by the short and curlys for an age and if you weren’t getting such a creeped-out, macabre thrill from them you’d be praying for it to be over, while others throw a massive, vulgar bucket of cheap gore over our heads and bludgeon our trapped fingers with the arse-end of a shotgun.
Made for the equivalent of Hollywood pocket-change by a group of fanatical friends, it stands as beautiful proof that you don’t need a huge budget to make something truly special and iconic. Raimi’s ability to build tension, hammer us with unrelenting, violent shocks, horrify, enthral and terrorise us with some incredibly imaginative ideas, while perversely making us chuckle in between, is second to none – something that our young director would repeat and crank up ten-fold in the sequel/remake Dead by Dawn and Army Of Darkness.
The Evil Dead also triumphs because it never takes itself too seriously (it’s a low-budget demon film for fuck’s sake, people!) and begs the audience not to do so either. As mentioned before about the shocks/laughs ratio, it also nails an equally cheesy/campy/chilling mix that hasn’t been bettered in all the years since. The sheer fact the film can make fun of itself and the genre as a whole buys it a lot of favours when critiquing some of the acting from the supporting cast…. and on the subject of acting, let’s not forget this badboy also provided the platform for a certain Mr Bruce Campbell to become a cult horror legend.
As our clumsy hero, Ash Williams, he manages to deliver the sharp, occasionally witty script whilst taking punishment of epic proportions. While Dead By Dawn’s comedy angle became his calling card, Campbell is mostly serious here and does an equally impressive job. Don’t get me wrong, while there are a few wry jokes to be had, The Evil Dead is mainly a straightforward exercise in terror and remains as degraded and gritty today as it was 30+ years ago.
Although the majority of the stunts and makeup effects look on par with budget, some are still unbelievably brilliant to this day (the rushing cameras that knock down trees/doors and the pencil in the ankle scene, anyone? Superb) and help ensure it still manages to pack a huge barbaric punch. While a lot of films of this era ended up on the UK’s BANNED list, many weren’t worth the hype or the time. The Evil Dead is essential. Sam and the gang not only created a film that could scare and offend the shit out of you, but also fashioned a cinematic institution that is eternal. The fact Ash’s car (a 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88, I’m reliably informed) has made cameos in many Raimi films since surely says it all?
Forever recycled, never beaten.
Hail to the (original) King, baby!
Chris Barnes (@TheBlueTook)