I know of few films that truly deserve and define the status “cult classics” so well as Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy. By no means cinematic masterpieces, each installment of the series offers something a touch more absurd than the one before it, so that from 1981’s The Evil Dead to 1993’s Army of Darkness, the genre verges from chaotic horror to slapstick action-comedy. Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness particularly have entered the lexicon of memes scrawled upon the moist underbelly of pop culture. Their “cult” credentials are quoted on the lips of Gen X and Gen Y everywhere. And yet all three films are splatterfests, all three offer moments of genuine terror, and all of them drip, skitter, and crawl with Raimi’s inimitable style. It is a matter of wardrobe that classifies Tim Burton as a gothic savant; it is a ruthless violence that marks a Sam Peckinpah feature; nostalgic space opera monologue-dialogues are the wheelhouse of Kevin Smith; but Raimi, well, Raimi is a kooky dude.
Sam Raimi has served up all sorts of films, and his career has been an interesting if not always consistent one. A full discourse on his warp and woof would necessitate extreme detours in tone and content, but it does seem, even after his blockbuster Spider-Man trilogy, that his Evil Dead films offer the truest (perhaps rawest) glimpse into his distinct sensibilities.
Irreverent may be the easiest way to define the Evil Dead. It sums up the totality of the series but doesn’t quite do justice to the craft behind the mania. The best way to smell what Raimi’s cooking is to dissect the individual entries. So let’s dig in.
The Evil Dead (1981)
In 1979, Sam Raimi and his friends put together a short 8mm horror film (Within the Woods) to interest investors in a full length feature. It was the prototype for what became The Evil Dead (originally titled Book of the Dead) and earned them enough money to start production. Just enough. The lengths Raimi and his longtime friend and star Bruce Campbell had to go to to achieve the effects they wanted are detailed in several hilarious chapters in Campbell’s autobiography If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor. Additional humor and anecdotes can be gleaned from the commentary tracks on The Evil Dead DVD (in fact, every Evil Dead film has a great commentary track filled with Raimi, Campbell and various crewmembers riffing on each other and the films). While the effects information may be of academic interest to only those interested in pursuing careers as Hollywood creature and makeup artists, the direction of the film stems from this mother necessity: What Raimi and his crew did not know how to do they had to invent whole cloth. What they did know how to do, but not cheaply, they had to improvise.
The Evil Dead is no Citizen Kane, but the innovative tricks that comprise its guts are remarkable. Raimi tied himself upside down to the rafters of the cabin to shoot Bruce Campbell from just the right angle. To achieve the POV shot of the evil force speeding around the woods, the 16mm camera was mounted on a 2 x 4 and carried by the crew at a gallop, or even strapped to the front of Raimi’s motorcycle. They could not afford stuntmen, so actors had to fling themselves into walls or bookshelves. They didn’t have candy glass, so they shot real windows with a real shotgun. The actress Ellen Sandweiss would paint the dolly tracks with her blood when she ran half naked through the frigid Tennessee underbrush. This first film was a boot camp, filmed over the course of years alternating between Michigan garages and Tennessee winters. The task would even call on the young Coen brothers to help edit the hours of footage and pickup shots.
This is a lot of preamble to discuss a splatterpunk film, one whose artistic merits are submerged in its extreme elements. But if The Evil Dead has merits, they are in the stuff that holds the crudity and the gore together, the experiments with foley, the Dutch angles, the undercranking, the overcranking, the camera shots that pass by on a first viewing but on a second or third begin to frustrate the mind as it wonders just how exactly the men behind this sleazy thing did that. The Evil Dead has outlasted many of the “video nasties” that preceded it (and followed), and much of that has to do with the latter two installments in the franchise and Raimi’s success as a filmmaker, but the original has survived on the visible essence of an artist learning his craft and willing to get very messy doing it.
How does this mess begin? With five friends driving up a mountain road in the backwoods of Tennessee. It is today a staple of the genre, the “cabin in the woods” trope that this film gleefully catapulted to the vanguard of horror. There are two couples, Scott and Shelly and Ashley and Linda, and Ash’s sister Cheryl. (I’ve always wondered just what Cheryl was hoping to achieve as a fifth wheel on this vacation, but she eventually ends the night as the only member of the group to get lucky – in about the worst, unluckiest and most notorious way in cinema history.) Unbeknownst to the group, their cabin was recently the home of Professor Knowby, who retreated into the woods to finish his translations of the Naturom Demonto,* a book bound in human flesh and inked in human blood. Recitation of the Sumerian passages gives demons license to possess the living. Cheryl knows something is off the moment they arrive, but it is not until the boys discover Knowby’s recordings of the passages that their waking nightmare begins.
Here’s where we get into what truly works about the horror in this horror film. It is not the dialogue, and it certainly isn’t the acting. Of the five young actors, it is only Campbell that expresses any real emotion, and whether that is director favoritism or the low bar set by the script, it doesn’t matter. The first element that works so well is the lack of a clear protagonist for the entire first half of the film. Ashley (Bruce Campbell) has few lines at all in the opening minutes and is specifically written to hide amongst the cast. He is less sure of himself than Scott (Richard DeManicor), and less prominent than Shelly (Theresa Tilly) or even Linda (Betsy Baker). It is Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) that actually seems like she may be our main focus character, but that expectation (like so many in this film) is soon violated. Film 101 teaches that a clear protagonist is of the utmost importance, with good reason. But the subversion of that dictum and so many others is exactly Raimi’s game.
Furthermore, Raimi has no illusions about the disposability of his stock characters. That Ash eventually emerges from this group as a survivor, not out of strength of will but dumb luck and circumstance, is a small twist that plays into the larger scheme of the demons’ own twisted pleasure.
We come to the second element of what makes Raimi’s horror so unique, and indeed what has ensured the survival of the Evil Dead series. The creatures that are unleashed from the book are malevolent on a level so far removed from the typical evil archetype that their tortures straddle absurdity and terror effortlessly. There is a reason that Evil Dead belongs to Raimi and why its imitators fail time after time to hit that sweet spot of ludicrous hysteria, and it is these antagonists, if nothing else.
The Kandarian demons that possess the living are very much in keeping with the Lovecraftian conceit that there are creatures beyond mankind and we are less than toys to them. Wikipedia has a great passage from Lovecraft’s 1929 story, the Dunwich Horror, that details just what is inside the Necronomicon:
“Nor is it to be thought…that man is either the oldest or the last of earth’s masters, or that the common bulk of life and substance walks alone. The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be. Not in the spaces we know, but between them, they walk serene and primal, undimensioned and to us unseen.”
But unlike Lovecraft’s cosmic monsters, that exist in realms past death and simple morality, the Kandarian spirits are sadistic, playful, juvenile, irreverent, and perverted. There are legions of movie monsters that are just monsters. Tales since time immemorial have given us versions of devils and demons that exist purely to foil good. The dark spirits of the Evil Dead get off on torment that is inexorable and prolonged.
When the group in Knowby’s cabin begin to be possessed, there is no rhyme or reason to what makes them vulnerable. There does seem to be a hint running throughout this first film and the second that the spirits enter through wounds sustained by the possessed, but for all intents and purposes that possession is random and unstoppable. To torment is their desire, not power or the need to feed on souls. Prime example: When the possessed Shelly attacks Scott with a knife, he cuts her wrist. Rather than continue her attack, Shelly chews off her own hand. Her own hand, not because it hurts or it’s holding her back, but because it’s psychologically disturbing. She does it for the benefit of her victims. It takes a long time, and the audience is treated to her chewing and chomping through her tendons and skin. (According to Bruce Campbell’s commentary, Sam Raimi provides the voice of the demonic Shelly, and they used carrots, celery, and chicken bones for the crunching noises, as well as a turkey baster for the “squishy goo sounds.” Delightful.)
The third element that pushes The Evil Dead beyond the ordinary is its relentlessness. Yes, its characters are flat, but even these flat characters, when attacked by the overwhelming nastiness the book has sicced on them, present authentic faces of terror. To watch their friends and lovers rot and scream, to hear their infantile singing (Linda’s repeated “We’re going to get you” and breathy laughter is unsettling after every viewing), is too much for the mind to bear. And as the group’s numbers diminish, the remaining demons only grow more insidious. But there is nowhere else to go.
The woods harbor all manner of nightmares. And the cabin, for all its evil, is a remote island in a sea of dread. The Evil Dead are so powerful that reality warps around them. This extends to the plants and trees, to the furniture, to what humans see and feel. The Kandarian influence is total, and if their aim was merely to kill, death would come swiftly. But the demons are more sinister by far.
The first real evidence of this comes after the group has listened to Professor Knowby’s recitation of the passages. Now loose and on the prowl, the evil lures Cheryl out of the cabin and deep into the woods. You or I would not pursue strange sounds into the dark Tennessee wilderness, but perhaps such scenes exist to give us reason to bark at the screen. Infamously, Cheryl is attacked by “the woods themselves” in a graphic moment of molestation. This “tree rape” scene is one of the many reasons The Evil Dead did not go to the MPAA for a rating. Instead, the film was released to theatres unrated.
It is not possible to defend this scene on any artistic grounds. It reveals a bare breast, which is par for exploitation films, it goes much farther than the audience is likely prepared for, to up the shock factor, and according to producer Robert Tapert’s wife, prior to marrying him, she wondered what sick bastard thought up this monstrosity. In Raimi’s small defense, on the commentary track he notes that they shot the sequence out of order and over the course of several months, and it was only once the individual pieces were finally put together that he realized how extreme it was. It is indeed, and in that sense it does its job very well. However, Campbell and Raimi both admit that they completely understand why women walk out at the thirty minute mark.
Once that tone is set, the film proceeds to layer scare on top of scare. And yet, even in this first outing with the book of the dead, when horror is undoubtedly the intent, infernal humor seeps into its cracks. While the jump scares are sure to put the fright on any first viewer, certain limitations in the puppetry or “fake shemp” body doubles occasionally distract the eye. The sneaky comedy that infiltrates the action may be a secondary effect, but even when it is at its most earnest, there is a self-awareness inherent to the film that, instead of limiting it, pulls the experience into a third realm, between camp and terror, giving us gems like this exchange between Ash and Scott after Scott has dismembered his demonic girlfriend:
Ash: “What are we going to do?”
Scott: “We have to bury her.”
Ash: “We can’t bury Shelly, she’s a friend of ours.”
Scott: “Ash, she’s dead!”
Not Shakespeare, but it will make you giggle. After you’re done throwing up. (Incidentally, if you haven’t thrown up yet, may I point out that Shelly’s limbs were stuffed with bologna to simulate the proper amount of chunkiness.)
The film overcomes its scripted limitations when Ash is finally left with no one to talk to. In the film’s strongest and most terrifying scene, a lone Ash, after burying his girlfriend, has to stumble down into the cellar for a box of shotgun shells. There is a long ten minute stretch where he hardly speaks a word, yet all around him the cabin creaks and roars. Most of the interior shots are canted at 45 degree angles, keeping the audience permanently off balance, out of their safe zone, unable to orient themselves and left waiting in suspense for the normalcy to return. From this point forward there is no going back, and the foreboding builds and builds. The camera flies over the rafters, and each individual rafter issues a dopplered “whomp” sound. Ashley tries to get a grip on himself and reaches out to touch the mirror – and his hand passes right through it like it was pond water.
There is a similar scene in all three Evil Dead films (in Army of Darkness the haunted windmill scene was cut from the theatrical version), and in both this film and its sequel they showcase Raimi’s fiendish control over the nerves of his audience, and victims.
When the film ends, it ends the only way it can, with all the sound and fury its bushwhacked and amateur crew can muster. Of the current three Evil Dead films – and likely the only ones to be directed by Sam Raimi – this one, for all its rough edges, is the most relentless, the most bombastic. Irvin Shapiro, distributor of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, saw promise in it and allowed Raimi to screen it at the Cannes Film Festival. Popular horror author Stephen King was present for one of the showings and described it as “the most ferociously original film of the year.” His praise led to The Evil Dead gaining prominence in the public eye, and attention from Fangoria and other major publications eventually led to New Line Cinema agreeing on a deal to distribute the film domestically in 1982.
Thankfully, the best was still yet to come with 1987’s remake/sequel Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn. Join me next week as I exhume that beautiful monstrosity.
The Evil Dead (1981)
Directed by Sam Raimi
New Line Cinema
*The book becomes the Necronomicon ex Mortis in Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness, as a nod to H.P. Lovecraft’s mad poet Abdul Alhazred. The remake will retain the original title due to copyright issues.