Sam Raimi struck a magical vein of movie gold when, in ’79, at the age of 20, he went about making a little horror flick originally named Book of The Dead. Many exuberant young filmmakers make many low-budget first-time films. Rarely do anyone but their friends and families watch them. More rarely still do these films launch their directors into the upper tiers of Hollywood directors. Raimi took five actors into a tiny cabin in the woods and came out with one of the nuttiest low budget horror flicks ever made.
By the time it was released in the U.S., in ’83, it had been renamed The Evil Dead, had screened out of competition at Cannes in ‘82 (its distributor, Irvin Shapiro, was a co-founder of that famed festival), been praised as “ferociously original” by Stephen King, had been written up extensively in Fangoria, and all told had more buzz than a bucketful of bees. Raimi had a hit.
A small hit, of course, though huge on VHS, where transgressive cinema thrived. It was lumped together with the shlocky, ultra-violent horror of the era, but of course what sets The Evil Dead apart is its artistry. Cheap and thrown-together as it is, it’s possessed (ahem) of a real sense of cinema. It’s creative and it’s weird and it’s fun.
I saw it for the first time in ages last night, in a theater on 35mm. Never seen it projected before. It impressed from the get-go, with creepy shots of the evil presence in the woods drifting through a swamp and a car full of dopes driving across a rotting bridge to their doom. I don’t know if it was Raimi or his cinematographer, Tim Philo, who keyed in to the wisdom of using wide-screen lenses to evoke dread, but boy does it ever work. The characters, the car, the cabin all warp, twist, and distort as the camera drifts around them, often from the POV of the evil presence.
Raimi and Philo never tire of finding weird and off kilter angles to shoot from. It becomes something of a happy accident that their inexperience leads to the cabin feeling impossibly shaped. It’s never clear which rooms are next to each other, or where doors lead, or why the place seems infinitely bigger on the inside than the outside.
Story-wise, there ain’t nothing complicated about it. Kids go to cabin, find creepy recording left by scientist in which he utters mysterious language from the Book of The Dead, a volume bound in human skin, and are attacked by the evil presence, which one by one turns them into hideous demons, all save Ash, a very young Bruce Campbell, who by the final third of the movie is left to battle the monsters all by his lonesome.
After slicing the head off his girlfriend with a shovel and burying her, the last two demonically possessed monsters decay in a wonderfully odd stop-motion sequence, leaving Ash the lone victor. OR IS HE? Well, no, he’s not. In a final shot presaging the vibe of Evil Dead II, the presence races through the cabin to grab the screaming Ash.
The Evil Dead is no Evil Dead II. By the time of the remake/sequel, Raimi knew what he was doing and why he was doing it, and he did it brilliantly. In The Evil Dead, the ideas all feel like discoveries. Which is a big part of the fun.
Not everything is fun in here. Least fun, and least effective, is the first scene of horror, where Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), wanders outside to be raped by a tree. The vines and branches grabbing her is nicely realized, but the rest of the scene isn’t. She both struggles against the tree and maybe enjoys it too? It’s kind of confusing and unpleasant. Then she runs back to the cabin as if nothing had happened.
Of course character and emotion are not what’s of interest in The Evil Dead. Even the hero, Ash, only becomes something other than cardboard toward the end. So maybe we can just pass off the tree rape as a weird idea in a weird movie and not worry about it. Cheryl turns into a demon shortly thereafter and spends the rest of the movie breathing creepily in the cellar. Perhaps this is the natural chain of events following penetration by demon-haunted tree limb?
Once the movie’s down to Ash fighting demons, it drags a bit. Without the humor and kinetic madness Raimi shows off so well in Evil Dead II, Ash hitting demons with whatever’s handy lacks excitement after awhile. At this point the movie gets by on just being so bugfuck nutty overall. It doesn’t hurt that it’s edited so well (by Edna Paul with her young assistant, a certain Joel Coen).
In terms of low-budget horror debuts, The Evil Dead is one of the best. It’s not up to the level of Night of The Living Dead. Romero created compelling, real characters in a story laced with striking socio-political commentary, and he invented one of the most enduring monsters in American culture: the (modern, Romero-style) zombie. Night of The Living Dead feels like the work of an accomplished artist. The Evil Dead feels like the work of a madly inventive kid having a blast.
With the success of The Evil Dead, Raimi and his star, Campbell, went on to make a comedy Raimi was sure would be a hit, Crimewave. It was not a hit. No one saw it. It’s mostly terrible. And just like that, distributor Shapiro’s desire for an Evil Dead sequel struck Raimi as a wise plan after all. Raimi wanted to send Ash to the middle ages, but the budget wouldn’t allow it (not until part three did we get The Medieval Dead (regrettably retitled Army of Darkness)), so he turned the sequel into an insane horror cartoon.
It’s no exaggeration to say that stranding Bruce Campbell in a lonely, woodsy cabin with a bunch of demons was the smartest thing Raimi ever did. Not only did he jump-start a career with his low-budget horror debut, but its popularity saved him after tanking with Crimewave. With Evil Dead II he found his footing, and took off into the big time. In the world of cult movies, is there a more popular trilogy? It’s so popular it’s nowhere near a cult anymore. There’s a current TV show featuring Ash fighting evil, there’s Evil Dead lunch boxes, even Evil Dead Lego. It’s almost bigger than Star Wars. But still. This first movie. It remains a cult flick. You have to be a little bit wrong in the head to enjoy it.