Back in 1981, a small group of twenty-somethings from Detroit, Michigan released a small independent horror movie into the wild. Financed by pleading with dentists, shot in hellish circumstances in a freezing cabin in Tennessee and entirely crafted from the ground up with nothing more than pure initiative and sheer bull-headedness, Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead is a DIY horror sensation.
The plot (what there is of it) is delightfully simple: five teens head to a cabin in the woods for a rustic time out and find a creepy old book, a ritualistic dagger and an old tape recorder in the dilapidated fruit cellar. This being a horror movie, naturally the kids turn it on and the ancient rites spoken aloud awaken dark, demonic forces deep within the woods which possess the teens one by one and turn them into cackling, snarling ghouls. The only way to stop them? Total bodily dismemberment, of course!
Devoid of subtlety, nuance, or even a serviceable budget, The Evil Dead’s greatest asset is that it ever got made at all. A masterclass in ingenuity and raw filmmaking talent; what it lacks in polish it more than makes up for in ferocity, it’s perceived weaknesses actually becoming it’s strengths, it’s runtime dedicated to an unrelenting pace, there was nothing like this ragged, hyper-active gore opus at the time (the pencil in the ankle is still excruciatingly wince inducing).
Of course, not only did the movie act as an eventual calling card for Hollywood bigshot Sam Raimi, but it gave the world it’s first taste of the peerless, prat falling antics of one Bruce Campbell, confirmed (by me) as the greatest B-movie actors in the universe. While his somewhat geekish portrayal of Ash (a role he would go on to play in 2 sequels, 3 seasons of a tv show and voice in numerous video games) may not be vintage Campbell (Bubba Ho Tep, Army Of Darkness and Evil Dead 2 are his crowning achievments), he still puts in an earnest performance and takes his many lumps with style. Not many actors can get back handed through a book case quite like our boy Bruce.
There’s some neat retro-active feminism going on here too (regrettable tree sequence aside, but more on that later…) where we fundamentally have a film in which it’s the women who turn into monsters and terrorize men who panic and scream and freak out in a very un-hollywood, non-macho way.
And now the bad points, which to be honest, can only be described as nitpicks, because a film made with so much love and vigour on only a buck-oh-five is technically critic proof.
First, yes, it’s that damn tree rape scene. It felt out of place when I first saw it in my early teens and it still
feels unnecessary now. It just doesn’t fit the tone of the rest of the movie and even Raimi states it’s always bothered him and it skews way too hard on the wrong side of exploitation into empty shock value. But then maybe my opinions on tree rape are just old fashioned…
Then there’s the time-old worry that new viewers won’t get on with the old (read: classic) effects and just see the film as merely “silly”, well let me break this down for you.
A love for The Evil Dead is a love for the art of film making. Proof that anyone with a camera, a dream and a desire to beaten in the spine with a cast iron poker can go out and make a movie. Never have I felt this more than in this wacky little motion picture, an actual torch being passed through a screen that signifies, nay screams at you that “yes, you too can make a movie”.
So why only four stars? Because years later Sam Raimi and company came and gave mankind Evil Dead 2, it’s greatest contribution to our way of life since the invention of penicillin, preserving (and improving) the original’s furiously lunatic tone with cooler toys and better effects.
But credit where it’s due. The original classic has an irresistible, impish energy that’s tough to match, let alone beat.
“Join us!” gibbers and leers one of the deadites from a locked trapdoor.
You really should.