The Evil Dead – USA, 1981

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‘The ultimate experience in gruelling terror’

The Evil Dead is a 1981 American supernatural horror feature film written and directed by Sam Raimi and executive produced by Raimi and Bruce Campbell, who also stars alongside Ellen Sandweiss and Betsy Baker. The Evil Dead focuses on five college students holidaying in an isolated cabin in a remote wooded area. After they find an audiotape that releases a legion of demons and spirits, members of the group suffer from demonic possession, leading to increasingly gory mayhem.

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Five Michigan State University students: Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell, Bubba Ho-Tep, Maniac Cop) and his girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker, 2084, Witches’ Night), accompanied by Ash’s sister Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss, Satan’s Playground, The Dread), their friend Scotty (Richard DeManincor), and his girlfriend Shelly (Theresa Tilly), venture into the Tennessee hills to relax in an isolated cabin during their spring break.

The journey quickly escalates from small-talk to a near crash and then a portentous collapse of the bridge leading to their destination just as they’ve crossed it. That night, while Cheryl is making a drawing of a clock, her hand becomes violently possessed by a mysterious entity, causing her to draw a picture that looks like a deformed, evil face. She fails to mention the incident to the others, dismissing it as her imagination.

Evil Dead titles

When the trapdoor to the cellar mysteriously flies open during dinner, Ash and Scotty go down to investigate and find the Naturon Demonto, a Sumerian version of the Book of the Dead, along with a tape recording of incantations – unable to resist, they play the tape and though finding the recording unnerving think little more of it, though the audience is now very aware that the recitation of the words have unleashed something within the woods outside.

Cheryl becomes hysterical when a tree crashes through the window, and retires to her room but is soon awoken by voices beyond the cabin. She goes outside to investigate but away from the cabin and out of earshot, she is attacked and raped by demonically possessed trees. Returning to the cabin after the ordeal, the others do not believe her story but Ash agrees to drive her to town where she can find a place to stay for the night, only to find that the bridge connecting the cabin to the rest of the world has been destroyed.

Back at the cabin, a card game takes an unexpected twist when Cheryl becomes possessed, telling them that demons will kill them, stabbing Linda in the ankle with a pencil – they see little option but to lock her in the trap-doored cellar.

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Shelley too succumbs to possession and is decapitated by Scotty, who buries her outside. Scotty survives another tree attack whilst seeking an escape route – when he returns to the others, he finds only Ash is of sound mind, the two girls now under the control of demons but feigning innocence in a bid to be released. Ash stabs and kills Sally whilst defending himself and, after having second thoughts about dismembering her with a chainsaw, buries her too in the garden…only for her to rise again. Removing her head swiftly with a shovel, Ash finds Cheryl has been freed from the cellar, Scotty too now ‘under the influence’. Now armed with a gun, is there any hope left for Ash to survive the hoards of ancient demons?

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School friends Raimi and Campbell and harboured thoughts of The Evil Dead for some time prior to filming, eventually leading to the making of a short film, Within the Woods, an 8mm effort made for only $1600 (it set a precedent of sorts as it had never been necessary blow up the format for 35mm cinema projection). The film was used as a bargaining tool to gain funding for a full-length film along the same lines but Raimi was informed that a minimum of $150,000 would need to be raised to accomplish this. Raimi approached Phil Gillis, a lawyer to one of his friends, asking if he wanted to invest money into the production of a remake.

Within the Woods Sam Raimi Bruce Campbell

 Gillis was unimpressed with Within the Woods, but offered Raimi legal advice on how to approach further productions. Raimi approached several investors, “begging” for money, and eventually acquired nearly $90,000 of the funds needed and set out to make the movie anyway. As a paen to the writer H.P.Lovecraft, the film was originally to be called Book of the Dead.

 

The cast were recruited via an advert in The Detroit News, though Campbell and Sandweiss were already in place from the previous film. Crew consisted of friends and family, including Tom Sullivan, who was in charge of makeup and effects and Joe LoDuca as composer, already a fixture on the local music scene. A location was found more through process of elimination than choice, though the cabin itself was already in existence and suitably remotely situated.

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It’s of credit to all involved that the budget and lack of experience were more evident to those participating than to audiences either then or now; injuries were common place from trips and falls to eye-lash ripping and the insertion of thick glass contact lenses to approximate demonic possession. To achieve to POV shots of the evil force hurtling through the woods, a camera was strapped to a piece of wood and two operators set off running, armed with the contraption, presumably with those watching praying they didn’t drop it.  In truth, the sound design is critical to the real success of this effect, the low, bassy rumble which seems to emanate from all angles. The cold, wet and swiftly decaying set left the actors miserable and filthy – the copious amounts of blood actually being corn syrup.

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If anything about the film divides critics, it’s the fine line the film skirts between horror and humour. Laughter is often an involuntary defence mechanism against fear which is fine so long as:

a. You’re not sat near anyone who affects this quirk

b. You do not have humour unwilling thrust upon you.

Of the three original Evil Dead films, the original relies the least on humour, the broken resolve of the actors, fast shooting schedule and original intent being overriding factors. The low budget does reduce some scenes to a somewhat comedic level of depravity but the sure relentlessness of the danger, the obviousness of their plight and the impressively claustrophobic setting are an utterly engaging watch. Importantly, it is possible to disengage your brain and watch the film as a straight-ahead horror. The acting is perfectly acceptable and if anything a step above what many slashers made around this time could muster.

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In the case of the tree-rape sequence, one which was highlighted by the BBFC and informed censorship on the film for several years, it’s a scene which sounds much worse than than what is seen on-screen – only three years previously, cinema audiences were being subjected to images of ferocious sexual attack in the film, I Spit on Your Grave, it would be absurd to compare the two further.

A ripped poster for The Hills Have Eyes (1977)  is visible at one point in the cabin. Ostensibly, this was in reference to a ripped poster for Jaws (1975) that appeared in that film; Sam Raimi and the others interpreted this as Wes Craven suggesting that “Hills” was much more frightening than “Jaws,” thus they showed a ripped “Hills” poster because their film was to be even scarier yet.

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If anything, other than time, does a disservice to The Evil Dead, it’s the two sequels and the remake, all of which, perhaps unwittingly, are in some ways at pains to suggest that you need to move on and watch another film instead. The Evil Dead 2 is an attempt to fix alleged issues with the first with an improved budget, the third wants to create a mythology, the remake supposes we’re too dim to understand films and throws in a social angle for good measure. The end result is that two factions have appeared, those who buy-in to the franchise and those who despair of meddling and have reduced their opinion of the original accordingly. This is a shame as the film has a lot of heart and real invention, not to mention some effective jumps and originality.

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The film attracted the interest of producer Irvin Shapiro, who helped screen the film at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival. Horror author Stephen King gave a rave review of the film, which helped convince New Line Cinema to serve as its distributor. King later went on to hail Clive Barker as the future of horror and future endorsements of Ebola and famine seem likely. Though a meagre commercial success in the United States, the film made its budget back through worldwide distribution, and grossed $2.4 million during its theatrical run. Both early and later critical reception were positive and in the years since its release, The Evil Dead has developed an avid following from fans and regularly appears in published lists of the greatest horror films ever made.

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As mentioned, the film spawned two sequels and a remake, not to mention comic book appearances by Ash, console games, a musical, a 2015 TV series, and an unlikely, if cult, star in Bruce Campbell. Raimi is now a major Hollywood director but showed with Drag Me To Hell (2009) that he still has an eye for horror.

Daz Lawrence, HORRORPEDIA

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