Director: Sam Raimi
Writer: Sam Raimi
Cinematographer: Tim Philo
Producer: Robert Tapert
by Jon Cvack
I’m not sure the last time I’ve seen Evil Dead, recalling a moderately cheap indie film per the likes of Halloween (1978), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), or Friday the 13th (1981), and while it definitely has some cheap moments, it’s by far the greatest of the major franchise indie kickstarters; featuring craft and effects of the highest order, starting off with the gawkiness found in all of the “group of teens on a road trip” format, filled with cheap dialogue and bad coverage. But with the 16mm grain popping strong, saturating the colors as they drive deeper into the woods, what’s most effective with the movie is that Raimi knows there’s no use in wasting any time. At only 81 minutes, the only thing that matters is getting to the good stuff.
And so they arrive at the cabin in the woods, hearing the bench swing bumping into the cabin as they exit out and make their way inside. They grab their rooms and Ash’s sister Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) draws a picture of a clock which stops in the middle of her illustration, her hand freezing up and becoming possessed and drawing what we learn is the Naturom Demonto.
Later, Ash and his Scott device head down into a cellar to explore, discovering the Naturom Demonto, shotgun, and a tape recorder. They bring it up top and play the recording, discovering an academic researcher examining the Sumerian Book of the Dead, soon reading the incantation which triggers the dead and we get that signature handheld, ground level wide shot, rushing toward the home, with fog pouring out from the trees.
Later that night, Cheryl hears some noises in the woods, and - against all logic - heads out alone to investigate, discovering the trees possessed by demons whose branches go on to rape her in what remains one of the most terrifying horror sequences in history. Breaking free, she runs back and demands that Ash take her back to town, which he reluctantly agrees to, finding the bridge to the cabin collapsed in what is an incredibly impressive set piece; the girders, metal, and wood seemingly collapsed into the ravine, trapping them in.
Any great horror film operates from a simple premise - a deranged Texas family slaughters whoever arrives in town; a masked supernatural killer kills his sister’s friends in trying to find her; a monster living in dreams kills teens in their sleep; teens recreate the horror movies they grew up with, killing their friends; victims of some ornate lethal traps are forced to either escape or die; one night per week, for twelve hours, people are allowed to kill one another.
The Evil Dead is the horror film that every aspiring filmmaker tries to recreate, whether aware of this movie or not. Four kids are stuck in a cabin as they’re attacked, whether by crazed rednecks or supernatural demons; a budget friendly plot as everyone knows someone with that cabin in the woods where the entire production can live for the shoot. To think it’s been nearly forty years since this movie was released and with the exception of maybe Cabin in the Woods (2011; maybe in that it was in no way an indie film; or all that great of a horror film, for that matter), no one has ever replicated the formula, as even Raimi himself would abide by the same plot for the sequel (albeit with bigger everything).
From the bridge onward, everything in this film is perfect - the fog, the handheld demon POV, the creepy red lights rising from leaf filled forest floors, and of course the make up. I’m not sure why I assumed that this movie was as cheap as I remember. And while the first thirty minutes live up to my memory, the last two thirds are a thrilling, hilarious, and shocking amount of gore, violence, and fun; in which it was clear that Raimi had one mandate - make the make up and effects as ridiculous and over the top as possible, keep the energy high, and up the ante until the very last scene.
Back at the cabin, Cheryl grows possessed, becoming a full fledged demon, stabbing Linda in the foot with the Sumerian dagger. They lock Cheryl in the cellar, provided just enough room for her to lift it up and reveal her head and essentially operating as the play by play host for the movie; taunting, degrading, and making fun of Ash and the others as they then battle Shelly after she’s attacked and becomes a demon who Scott then seemingly kills and Ash and Scott decide to bury the body rather than dismember it, who then rises from the grave and is decapitated by a shovel.
It leads to the final sequence, as Cheryl escapes and Linda resurrects as a demons, with some of the most over the top and stunning gore from any movie from the period; with pools of blood, guts, and magnificent effects (especially for being such a low budget) providing both horror and hilarity, culminating in Ash tossing the Book of the Dead in the fire which freezes the demons who then melt down into a mess of blood, guts, and bones, rotting into mold, before turning to dust and blowing away.
Reading both Bazin’s "What is Cinema? Vol. 1" (1967) and Munsterburg’s "The Film: A Psychological Study" (1916) before writing this, both writers refer to cinema’s “plastic” nature - that is, showing a true reeality that takes the effect of a logical dreamstate - is what differentiates it from other art forms. When similar effects are mimicked via computer, they don’t take on the same feel; we know they’re completely artificial and therefore they’re ineffective, unable to age due to the limits of the technology. Watching a movie like this, the fun is in how much more grotesque and absurd things will get, testing the limits of our ability to stomach them, knowing that this was created out of talented crafts people applying their best skills, given the limitations. It’s not at all what I remember, and might now be my favorite low budget indie horror debut of all time.
BELOW: The performances. The effects. Perfection.
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