THE EVIL DEAD (1981)

  • Director: Sam Raimi
  • Writer: Sam Raimi
  • Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Richard DeManincor, Betsy Baker, and Theresa Tilly
  • Accolades: Shown at 1982 Cannes Film Festival
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, and Apple TV

The homemade-ness of The Evil Dead is almost endearing. The thing was made at an actual cabin in the Tennessee woods by a bunch of friends from Michigan who had managed (barely) to raise enough money to make it on an extremely skinny shoestring. But that is still sort a weird thing to say, because it is also a serious candidate for the goriest, most disturbing movie you’ll see in your life. There are movies you shouldn’t watch if you’re squeamish about blood, and then there is The Evil Dead, which spends about two thirds of its running time on various versions of people’s faces falling off while they get hacked to pieces.

The first really bad thing that happens in The Evil Dead is a young woman (Theresa Tilly) running out into the woods and getting raped by trees. This pretty much tells you what you’re in for the rest of the movie. It’s guiding principle seems to be “what would be most disturbing at this moment,” and then it does that. Five college kids head deep out into the woods for some R&R, where there’s a cabin that at first just seems extremely creepy before things get way, way worse. They find a “Book of the Dead” bound in human skin, accompanied by an audio tape saying never to read the book or you’ll unleash evil Sumerian spirits. But then they keep playing the tape and there’s a guy reading ancient Sumerian and guess what? It unleashes all the evil spirits.

Before too long, every one of them is an extremely ugly, cackling possessed zombie thing, except for Ash (short for “Ashley”), played by Bruce Campbell, who spends the final act running around with a chainsaw, an axe, a shotgun, etc. At one point he chops off the head of his girlfriend (Betsy Baker) with a shovel as she’s attacking him, and her head rolls several feet away, still laughing, as her headless body… I think tries to make out with him or something? Ash spends more time completely soaked in blood, viscera, and various fluids than pretty much any other movie hero I can think of.

Director Sam Raimi and Campbell had gone to high school together in Royal Oak, Michigan, and started out by making short films together in their backyard. The pair then met Robert Tapert (the future executive producer of The Evil Dead) while they were all going to college at Michigan State (Tapert happened to be rooming with Raimi’s older brother) and they all ended up putting together a short film called Within the Woods, for the purpose of showing to investors to make the longer movie they wanted. At the time of the shooting of the movie, Raimi and Campbell were each only 20 years old, making Raimi very likely the youngest director we’ll ever feature on this site.

The cabin they found in rural Tennessee really was miles from the next-nearest building, which on the one hand was what they were looking for and on the other hand made the actual logistics of the thing sort of a nightmare. The entire crew had to sleep in the cabin for days, sometimes a dozen to a room. The makeup was so thick no one could see with it on, and they could only shoot for 15 minutes at a time because the actors’ eyes “couldn’t breathe” in the contact lenses. Campbell found himself spending days caked in fake blood that was created using karo syrup, meaning it was sticky and very hard to get off. In post-production, he reportedly had to spend a couple days just screaming over and over into a microphone.

But despite the inexperience of everyone involved, the movie’s visual style ended up being totally different from anything anybody had seen. The makeup and effects are really inventive and cool, there is even fairly extensive use of stop-motion animation that really does work. There is also crazy camera stuff going on that seems to be more because Raimi doesn’t know he isn’t supposed to be doing it. The movie’s signature bits are really fast camera sweeps through the woods, while crazy noises play on the soundtrack, meant to evoke the disembodied evil force that’s flying around. In the absence of actual equipment, this was accomplished by camera guys running through the woods and the swamp as fast as they could with the camera on the end of a wooden board. This low-tech solution creates a very satisfying effect that you still see versions of today, which works precisely because it seems so out of control.

The Evil Dead eventually found a distributor in Irvin Shapiro, who had made crazy amounts of money on another ultra-low-budget horror hit, Night of the Living Dead. Shapiro reportedly said, “Well, it’s not Gone with the Wind,” but he thought it had potential to be a commercial success. Shapiro also managed to get it shown “out of competition” at the Cannes Film Festival. Among the people who happened to be in the theater that night was one Stephen King, who wrote a rave review. King’s “pullquote” calling The Evil Dead “the most ferociously original film of the year” was printed in big letters on all the posters, and the movie found a wide release despite being rated “X” in the US. It ended up as the top movie of the year in the currently-exploding home video market, beating out, among other things, The Shining, which I suppose Stephen King didn’t like anyway.

The movie also made Raimi, Campbell, and Tapert into hot commodities. Raimi has had a very successful directing career, not only helming two sequels (which are often thought to be just as good as the original, in their own separate ways), but also directing a mega-hit trilogy of Spider-Man movies. I also recall being surprised by how good his (admittedly weird) 2009 supernatural horror flick Drag Me to Hell was in a theater. His next movie is set to be Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness for Marvel.

Campbell became an icon for playing Ash, who was not only the main character of the sequels but has since starred in multiple video games and comic book series. Most recently Campbell returned to the character for a TV series, created by Raimi, titled Ash vs. Evil Dead, which ran for three seasons on Starz. Even outside of Ash, he has made a career of playing weird characters in weird movies. He also released an autobiography, titled If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor. Tapert, meanwhile, went on to create his own cottage industry making cheap genre TV series shot in New Zealand, all of which were also produced by Raimi, most famously Xena: Warrior Princess. I also recommend his more recent fantasy series Legend of the Seeker, which never caught on and only lasted a couple seasons but was actually a pretty decent high fantasy TV series at a time when TV wasn’t doing a lot of that. He is also married to Lucy Lawless, which is a win right there.

Few movies have been made for so little and eventually turned into a full-on franchise, and the success of Raimi and Campbell has become an inspiration to kids with cameras ever since. However, from a viewing perspective, I should be very clear that if this is not the movie for you, it is going to be aggressively not the movie for you. I have seen some gory movies and this is on the very top tier of goriness, such that it tips over into silliness. But that is on purpose. One review I read called the effect “splatstick,” and I think that’s about right. But on the other hand, if that does sound like your thing, this movie will pretty definitely be your thing.

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