In 1981, young director Sam Raimi unleashed his debut horror feature, The Evil Dead, on an unsuspecting populace. Gradually amassing a huge cult following in the years after its release, the film’s anarchic violence delighted fans and horrified Mary Whitehouse.
Here are ten reasons why, almost three decades on, The Evil Dead is still a genre masterpiece…
10. It was endlessly inventive on a shoestring budget
The Evil Dead was essentially an excuse for a bunch of young men to mess around in the woods for a few weeks. With little more than a wooden shed, a few gallons of fake blood and five actors, Raimi and his crew of fledgling filmmakers took to the freezing wilds of Tennessee with a 16mm camera and came back a few weeks later with The Evil Dead. It’s a pattern that has been repeated countless times since, and Raimi’s style of guerrilla filmmaking undoubtedly inspired the likes of The Blair Witch Project and Cabin Fever.
On paper little more than a mindless slasher movie – five students head to an isolated cabin and, one by one, are possessed by an ancient evil – it’s Raimi’s restless imagination that lifts The Evil Dead into the major league of classic horror pictures.
9. It didn’t obsess over continuity
After eight weeks of freezing cold conditions, a grim working environment (the wooden shack that formed the film’s set also doubled as its living quarters) and uncounted hours of gore and latex, it’s understandable that The Evil Dead‘s female cast didn’t particularly want to hang around.
That didn’t stop Sam Raimi and his crew from remaining in the woods for a long time afterwards, creating new effects shots with star, Bruce Campbell, and a series of stand-ins playing the roles of the possessed. Evidence of this can be seen throughout The Evil Dead‘s final cut. Regardless of wigs and make-up, it’s plainly obvious that it’s not Ellen Sandweiss or Betsy Baker terrorising Campbell in certain scenes.
Somehow, none of this seems to matter. The continuity errors, out-of-focus shots and low production values merely add to the film’s gritty atmosphere, and it’s unlikely that The Evil Dead would have been as entertaining had it been made by a more seasoned director.
8. Creative use of gore
Even by today’s standards, The Evil Dead is an astoundingly bloody film. Apparently impervious to pain, its demon-possessed aggressors are subjected to protracted scenes of beating, stabbing and dismemberment that rank among the most graphic of the 80s, and Raimi appears to enjoy the process of throwing as much bodily fluid over his hero (and audience) as he possibly can.
Thankfully, the bloody mayhem is served up with a puckish grin rather than grim seriousness, and The Evil Dead is the consummate comedy horror. Raimi is sensible enough to build the shocks gradually, lining up his scenes like fireworks of increasingly dazzling magnitude.
7. Creative camerawork
As bloody as it is, The Evil Dead is by no means a mere shoddily made gore fest, and there are moments in here that show a genuine talent at work. The POV shots, in which we hurtle through the woods, viewing everything from a demon’s perspective, are occasionally stunning, building up an early sense of menace and later concluding the movie with a final, gasp-inducing sequence that is as aggressive and abrupt as a door slamming in the audience’s face.
6. It was the VHS tape that sparked a thousand nightmares
It was on VHS that The Evil Dead gained wider attention, and the video is arguably its natural habitat. Readers of a certain age will almost certainly have their own memories of seeing the film on tape, probably a copy of a copy, with the blurred, grainy picture quality merely adding to The Evil Dead‘s illicit, forbidden ambience.
When I was at school, The Evil Dead was frequently spoken of in hushed tones. If you hadn’t seen it, you knew someone who had, and the film took on a mythical otherworldliness that would be almost impossible to replicate in today’s linked-in, Internet-enabled society.
5. It has stop-motion animation in it
At around the 75 minute mark, The Evil Dead‘s violence reaches its dizzying apogee. Having already dispatched two of his friends with various blunt implements, an exhausted, wounded Ash is set upon by two remaining demon-possessed compatriots. As he struggles to burn the Book of the Dead, the artefact partially responsible for the film’s hideous events, the two creatures attack him with an iron poker and claw-like fingers.
Perhaps sensing that there’s nowhere left to go with conventional effects, Raimi and effects man Tom Sullivan depict the demons’ final moments with stop-motion animation, an extended sequence that is both grotesque and unexpectedly funny. Incredibly, this laughably over-the-top sequence, with its Plasticine demons melting in cartoon-like fashion, was one of several scenes trimmed by the BBFC, and couldn’t be watched uncut until 2001.
4. The pencil
If there’s one scene that is still capable of evoking a wince, it’s the unforgettable sequence in which the possessed corpse of Ellen Sandweiss stabs Betsy Baker in the ankle with a pencil. The over-the-top bloodletting that follows is as nothing compared to this moment of intimate violence. The effect may be simple (and rubbery), but the audience response is immediate and visceral, the scene unforgettable.
3. It caused moral panic
The Evil Dead was one of the most famous of several dozen movies caught up in the ‘video nasty’ furore in the mid-80s. A time when a sense of moral panic and self-righteous outrage threatened to drown out any calls for common sense (horror movies were even deemed harmful enough to corrupt household pets), The Evil Dead was caught up in a media furore, and wasn’t released uncut in the UK until 2001.
It seems insane, viewed in 2010, that a film such as The Evil Dead could create such a sense of outrage. When the BBFC viewed it back in the early 80s, they ruled that the film could “deprave and corrupt”, with one examiner reporting that their “bodily integrity had been attacked.” While some accusations of misogyny levelled at The Evil Dead are perhaps justified (even Raimi has admitted his regret at including one controversial scene involving a salacious tree), the film is so gleefully camp that it’s hard to imagine anyone taking it so seriously.
Ironically, it was the application of the video nasty label that boosted The Evil Dead‘s profile. In attempting to repress the film, the moral guardians of the 80s merely made it more popular than ever.
2. Bruce Campbell
Like much of the film’s cast and crew, The Evil Dead was Bruce Campbell’s first feature, and his creative input shouldn’t be underestimated. As well as appearing in almost every one of its bloody scenes, Campbell helped out behind the camera, assisted with editing and production, and provided comfort to other actors suffering under freezing piles of make-up and blood.
His camp, knowing performance as Ash is the lifeblood of the film, and it’s now impossible to imagine the franchise without Campbell at its centre. Bravely taking all the grue, mud and body parts his friend Raimi could throw at him, Campbell brought a winning balance of bravery, ineptitude and vulnerability to a stock hero role.
1. Its youthful exuberance never gets old
As I said at the start of this article, The Evil Dead was essentially an excuse for a bunch of young men to mess around in the woods for a few weeks. And while there are elements of The Evil Dead that have dated noticeably (its hairstyles, for example), its imagination remains timeless.
Through a mixture of persistence, talent and perhaps a tiny amount of luck, Raimi and his inexperienced team of filmmakers created a film whose knowledge and love of horror is evident in every frame.
And like the ancient demons that float in from the woods to possess the film’s victims, The Evil Dead‘s blend of humour and gore is both infectious and inescapable.
The Evil Dead is out now on Blu-ray and available from the Den Of Geek Store.