by Steve Habrat
As far as low budget film projects go, Sam Raimi’s original The Evil Dead is wildly successful with stirring up some hair-raising creatures from Hell with not much at all. I’ll never forget seeing The Evil Dead for the first time in my basement with one of my childhood pals. He came over to hang out for the afternoon and he brought with him The Evil Dead, a film he had just recently seen for the first time and that he was just dying for me to see. I had heard more talk about The Evil Dead II and that it was the best in Raimi’s Evil Dead series, acting as the most terrifying out of all his installments. To this day, I will never forget watching The Evil Dead for the first time. It scared the hell out of me in broad daylight. I went on to see The Evil Dead II several years later, and I have to say I am in the camp that believes that Raimi’s original is the best in the series. Not only does it impress me that he accomplished so much with so little, but I prefer the film’s solemn approach to the slapstick comic approach he used in the second film. Shot on the fuzzy 16mm format with only 150,000 smackaroos, The Evil Dead stands tall on its no-nonsense premise and plunking our hero Ash in the horror all by himself. Talk about a nail biter.
The Evil Dead follows five Michigan State students, Ash (Played by Bruce Campbell), Linda (Played by Betsy Baker), Scotty (Played by Richard DeManincor), Shelly (Played by Theresa Tilly), and Cheryl (Played by Ellen Sandweiss) who are traveling to a secluded cabin for a weekend of fun. When they arrive at the cabin, they begin exploring the chilly basement and stumble upon The Book of the Dead and a companion tape of readings from the book. The group plays the recordings for a little harmless fun, unknowingly unleashing a growling, unstoppable force that begins to posses them one by one and turns them into deformed homicidal maniacs. As the group slowly shrinks, Ash finds himself pitted against forces beyond his comprehension and drastically searching for a way to save what is left of his friends.
The Evil Dead is a film that refuses to crack a smile, or perhaps maybe I have never seen it. Many see this film as coated with a thin layer of black humor. I have to disagree, at least when it comes to the original film. The Evil Dead is resourceful with the little it has to work with, relying heavily on the idea that no help is coming and these kids are on their own. Not since George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead has a horror film genuinely made me feel like the characters are hopelessly doomed to meet a grisly end. Further effective is the way Raimi makes us buy this isolation and sense of being cornered. Raimi careens his camera around the woods at white-knuckle speeds, establishing that there is some form of monstrous force lurking in the thick wall of trees that confine the cabin. What that force is exactly is never fully revealed, Raimi smartly leaving us only horrified reactions for his actors as they flee this force’s wrath. Raimi escalates the horror of this unseen force with ingenious sound mixing, a chorus of angry moaning and demonic growling steamrolling over trees and barreling full force at whoever is standing in front of it.
Much of the anguish of watching The Evil Dead stems from the idea that Ash faces evil all by his lonesome. Raimi understands that when we are by ourselves in the dark, our mind begins to play tricks on us. What was that creak? What is outside lurking in the dark? The Evil Dead relentlessly exposes us to this, slamming the viewer with long, drawn out periods of white noise with the occasional pop. It gives our hero the willies and it will give you at least a few sleepless nights. Raimi presents Ash as an all around good guy with the greatest intentions. He gives Linda a necklace to signify his affection for her, making things all the more gut wrenching when Linda gets possessed. Yet we find ourselves head-over-heels for Ash because he is all we have to grasp to. He has to transform from affectionate/sensitive boyfriend into a macho hero to keep himself alive until dawn.
The brilliance of Raimi’s effort can be found in the way he marries the effect of realism with the sensationalism of watching highly wrought special effects. Raimi effectively manipulates location better than most directors I have seen, using a valid cabin that is the furthest thing from a lavish Hollywood set. He further allows the viewer to get to know every room the cabin has to offer, forcing the viewer to feel as if they are staying the weekend with the kids. This place feels strikingly familiar, like the cabin that belongs to your friend’s parents or your fun uncle. Nothing feels staged with the inside of the cabin. It allows the viewer to feel like they are watching someone’s old home movies that were long forgotten. Raimi fuses this with the idea of sensationalism within motion pictures themselves. When Raimi unleashes his demonic monsters, they are beyond intricate and garish. There is so much going on with their make-up; it is impossible for the viewer to process it all in one sitting. Raimi’s hat trick is revealed when they meet their demise, the ghouls not just dying from a smashed cranium or severed head. Oh no, Raimi goes for overkill, an approach that bombards the viewer visually, showing us entrails leaking out of entrails and pus spewing out more pus. The film is understated and overstated from one second to the next, a stroke of absolute genius that is always hand in hand.
To this day, The Evil Dead still ranks as one of the scariest films I have ever seen and I seriously doubt it will ever fall of the list. On Halloween 2010, I had the chance to show the film to two friends of mine who had never seen it. I can now understand why my friend brought The Evil Dead over to have me watch all those years ago. It’s a blast to see people’s reactions to it on the first viewing. My friends had the most astonished looks on their faces when the credits rolled, like someone had just walked into their home and punched their beloved kitten. Yet the terror is everlasting in The Evil Dead, even if you have seen it multiple times. It still makes your skin crawl and your stomach do somersaults when Ash braves things by himself. It is a happy marriage of extreme and simple, making a wise choice to keep playing things straight and never allowing us to get too relaxed with it. In my eyes, The Evil Dead is Raimi’s horror masterpiece, one that has been often imitated (Cabin Fever) but can never, ever be duplicated (The Evil Dead II). It remains to this day a titan of the horror genre.
The Evil Dead is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.