It’s the end of October and the final installment in this year’s DIY Halloween Horror theme. So far I’ve written about H.G. Lewis’ slapdash birth of gore film BLOOD FEAST, Leif Jonker pouring his heart and soul and a thousand gallons of fake blood into DARKNESS, and Peter Jackson’s goofy and goo-filled alien massacre comedy, BAD TASTE. All of these movies hold an important place in the history of cinema, but now, I come to what is arguably the most successful, influential, and defining DIY horror movie ever, Sam Raimi’s phantasmagorical, ram-o-cam masterpiece, EVIL DEAD.
A group of college aged (though not necessarily college attending) friends load up into a ’73 Oldsmobile and head off for a relaxing weekend in the woods. Ash (Bruce Campbell), girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker), pal Scotty (Richard DeManincor), Scotty’s gal Shelly (Theresa Tilly), and sensitive, artistic fifth wheel Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) make their way to a dilapidated cabin deep in an isolated forest. Unfortunately for them, the previous owner of the cabin left a few things behind, like the ancient Ka’n Darian Book of the Dead and a tape recording of him reciting passages on demon resurrection. The passage unleashes the evil within the woods, and soon Ash’s friends are being possessed in very horrifying ways. Can Ash survive the ordeal, or will the woods swallow his soul as well?
These days, Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson are on roughly the same level of mainstream acceptance. Jackson has a few Oscars under his belt, but Raimi gave the world a jazz dancing Peter Parker, so it’s pretty much even. The big difference is in their first features. BAD TASTE holds little resemblance to any of Jackson’s films past DEAD ALIVE. EVIL DEAD, on the other hand, has Raimi’s directing DNA all over it. This is not just because Raimi occasionally returns to his horror roots. Many of the inventive camera techniques and the off-kilter atmosphere he developed for EVIL DEAD still show up in his movies today. Additionally, he has repurposed certain props over and over throughout the years, like the Oldsmobile Delta 88, and Bruce Campbell.
Not only was EVIL DEAD distinctly a Sam Raimi movie, it was also a technically far superior film. I don’t want to knock BAD TASTE, which is an amazing accomplishment considering the tiny amount of resources Jackson and his crew had access to, but it still feels like a bunch of (talented) friends clowning around and having fun. As rough around the edges as it is, EVIL DEAD is a full-fledged, creative, and incredibly effective horror movie. Raimi shows a mastery of visual and auditory storytelling right from the start. We never need to know what the “evil in the woods” is or looks like, Raimi’s incredible swooping POV shot and the terror on everyone’s faces tells it all. His use of pronounced, repetitive sound effects (the thumping of the swing, the clock pendulum, the sound passing over the rafters) accentuates the creepiness of the cabin. Raimi makes the claustrophobic environment within the woods completely immersive.
The pacing is another of the movie’s strengths. A lot of horror movies spend the beginning establishing the characters and spelling out their relationships to each other. Raimi doesn’t waste time with that. Everything you need to know evolves naturally as the story unfolds. The real action doesn’t start until about half way through, but Raimi keeps an atmosphere of pervasive dread right from the start. Even before they play the demon-raising tape recording, the cabin and surrounding woods are shown as a haunted, malicious place. The recited passages only serve to get the evil fully stirred up. The possessions start when the woods itself literally invades poor Cheryl’s body. As soon as she is fully transformed, the others begin to drop like flies. It becomes a classic siege movie, the survivors trying desperately to keep the demons out of (or stuck under) the cabin. The security of the ramshackle walls is just an illusion, however. The evil is capable of smashing through the window to instantly possess Shelly. In the end [SPOILER?], it abandons all pretense and rams straight through the cabin, in full daylight, to go after a supposedly victorious Ash. It has just been playing with them the entire time.
Incidentally, if there was any piece of Cheryl remaining in her demonified body, I can only imagine that she looked at Shelly and thought “What the fuck, dude? I get assaulted by roots and she gets possessed through the friggin’ window?!? She didn’t even have to go outside. How is that fair? This possession business is rigged!”
These days Bruce Campbell is synonymous with the EVIL DEAD films, but in the beginning there is no indication Ash will be the standout character. This isn’t groovy Ash, it’s just Ashley. Campbell plays him straight, with only a hint of comedy and no swagger. Much like Ripley in ALIEN, he’s just part of the group, as vulnerable as anyone. Even when he becomes the focus of the movie halfway in, it’s because of attrition, not heroism. In fact, Ash comes off pretty cowardly compared to DeManincor’s more assertive (and douche baggy) Scotty. Ash is wishy-washy, he freezes when shit goes down, and he can’t follow thorough. He’s the last person you would think would one day have a sweet chainsaw hand.
By the way, if this had been a modern movie, the scene where he gives his girlfriend the necklace would have guaranteed his death. Guys giving gifts, especially jewelry, has replaced people having sex as the number one indicator they are goners in horror movies.
While we’re on the subject, Betsy Baker does a great job as Linda pretending to be pleased with the magnifying glass necklace. The film goes the extra step to establish what a dumbass Ash is to think, “You know what would really impress my girl, a little magnifying glass on a silver chain.” It might have some unspoken significance with them, but I prefer the idea that Ash buys shit gifts and Linda is too nice to tell him. It comes in handy later, though, so his poor judgment worked out for him in the end.
The movie establishes several traditions that continue throughout the series, including the currently airing TV show. The Bruce Campbell abuse goes without saying, though Ash makes out better in this one than any other installment. There is a reality bending haunted house freak-out, complete with bleeding walls, similar to scenes in the next two movies, but with its own unique tone. Perhaps my favorite reoccurring gag is Ash taking time out to not only bury his dead(ish) friends, but build wooden crosses to mark their graves. The Book of the Dead is present, of course, but it is not called the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, as it is in EVIL DEAD 2 and beyond. Here it’s called Naturan Demanto, and it looks a little grosser. This book seems like it could really have been made out of skin. There is a chainsaw, which Ash never uses, and also a shotgun, single barreled and not cut down like the more famous boomstick. It’s still fun to see the humble beginnings of Ash’s Deadite killing arsenal.
Richard DeManincor only had a couple of small roles after this film. The ladies of EVIL DEAD have had more robust acting careers, though there is a huge gap between 1981 and 2007 when they reunited for a short doc about being the ladies of EVIL DEAD. Bruce Campbell went on to become a legend, and is perhaps the most reliable and charismatic B-movie actor alive. Sam Raimi went on to be an insane cult leader in THOU SHALT NOT KILL…EXCEPT and to be horribly mutilated in INTRUDER. He has also evolved from shooting $350, 000 movies to $350,000,000 movies and has become one of the most famous directors in the world. He keeps close to the source, though, producing the Ash Vs Evil Dead TV series and directing the first episode. Under all the fame and success, he’s still just a man who wants to abuse Bruce Campbell.
EVIL DEAD became a hugely influential film for decades to come. Raimi tapped into the primal fear of being trapped in a place we know we shouldn’t be in, isolated and vulnerable, surrounded by forces we can’t understand. It’s no surprise that cabin-in-the-woods movies are so prevalent in horror, leading up to and beyond the movie CABIN IN THE WOODS. It’s more than just the setting, though. Raimi and his crew managed to overcome their budgetary and physical limitations to make the most of every second of screen time, and they did it with nothing but determination, innovation, and lots of Karo syrup blood. While I think Toby Hooper's TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE matches EVIL DEAD for professionalism, pacing, and atmosphere, and delivers more sheer terror, Raimi's creativity makes EVIL DEAD the benchmark for DIY horror filmmaking. Give it some sugar, baby.