The Evil Dead (1981)
Directed by: Sam Raimi
Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Richard DeManincor, Betsy Baker, Theresa Tilly
(out of 4)
The local strawberry jam is really tasty.
“Boys, my advice to you if you’re making a horror picture is to keep the blood running down the screen.” – Andy Grainger, Owner of Butterfield Theaters
Sam Raimi took Mr. Grainer’s advice to heart – his feature film debut The Evil Dead really does show a scene where blood literally runs down the camera lens. In another sequence (that may have inspired a scene in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter), a battered Bruce Campbell stumbles around the cellar in front of a movie screen while blood pours down in front of the projector. It’s a wonderful image, and it’s backed by an old upbeat jazz record playing on an abandoned phonograph, encompassing everything awesome about The Evil Dead – unrestrained mayhem with more than a touch of the absurd. It’s gore as slapstick – no surprise that Raimi credits a large amount of people at the end as “fake shemps,” in reference to Shemp Howard of The Three Stooges. The level of Raimi’s love for the stooges wouldn’t really be understood until Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness, but here you can see its beginnings.
A remake of sorts of Raimi’s 1978 Super 8 short Within the Woods, The Evil Dead is what they call the ultimate spam-in-a-cabin flick. Two couples from Michigan – Ash (Bruce Campbell) and Linda (Betsy Baker), Scott (Richard DeManincor) and Shelly (Theresa Tilly), along with Ash’s sister Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), spend the weekend in the woods at a rundown cabin, and discover in the basement something called the Naturan Demanto, also known as the Sumerian Book of the Dead (referred to in later movies as Necronomicon Ex-Mortis), a manuscript bound in human flesh and written in blood. A tape recorder is found nearby, and of course they’re going to play it. Once the audio transcription of the book’s passages is spoken, the “deadites” rise to life, coming out of the woods to possess the living. The only way to defeat those who have been possessed by these demons, unfortunately, is through decapitation and other kinds of bodily dismemberment.
Alright, jeez, I'll get you a sandwich...
When I was a kid, I remember my mom reading the plot off the back of the old VHS at the store and refusing to let me rent it. I think she made the right choice; when I first viewed The Evil Dead, I was truly scared and disturbed by what I had seen. Most people go around quoting Campbell’s Ash character from the later films (“Groovy”) and remember them as being more like goofy comedies, but the first film in the trilogy is intense and mostly no-nonsense (and Ash is hardly pro-active – in fact, a coward most of the time). Some comedy is there, but it’s not overt (I do have to chuckle at Ash’s tendency to be pinned to the floor by falling bookshelves). The rest of the movie is a gorefest, with chopped off limbs, spewing all sorts of fluids; a girl is raped by trees in the woods; another’s head is lopped off, then her headless body spews fountains of gore onto her unfortunate boyfriend while at the same time it’s trying to hump him. Over the top? Certainly, but that’s partly what makes The Evil Dead so special – a feeling that all bets are off and anything goes. Raimi wants to raise the bar when it comes to shocking the audience; in a way, he lets us know by a sly reference to Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Wes Craven’s Hills Have Eyes (Craven would later return the favor by having Nancy watch Evil Dead on television in A Nightmare on Elm Street). There’s something meta, also, in the way Cheryl exclaims “I know the car won’t start. It’s not gonna let us leave!” right before the famous 1973 Delta 88 roars to life.
When Raimi isn’t grossing us out, he’s impressing on another level with his inventive direction, giving us glorious camera movements, crazy angles, creative use of sound effects, and tight editing assisted by a then-unknown Joel Coen. After watching it numerous times, the movie’s ability to surprise and horrify wanes, but I’m still left with complete awe at how this low-budget, drive-in 16mm classic was put together so professionally and with such creativity by guys barely out of their teens. It really is a kind of miracle, and a testament to the joys of film-making itself. When viewed with the knowledge of how it was made, by whom, and the arduous process involved in bringing it to screens, The Evil Dead ceases to be just a “movie” and becomes an “experience,” almost a religious one. Its influence on horror cinema is endless.
This is why Ash was moved to Housewares.
Finding the “perfect” copy of The Evil Dead is a tough proposition, recently made much easier by the relase of the Blu-ray by Anchor Bay. This is by far the best choice if you are just looking for the movie itself. The high definition transfers of both the original full frame (1.33:1) and widescreen (1.85:1) are the best this movie has ever looked. The next best choice, if you do not own a Blu-ray player, is to get the Elite Entertainment DVD, which still has a very impressive transfer. If it’s extras you are looking for, you can’t go wrong with the Anchor Bay Ultimate Edition, which is a three disc set. The first disc has the full frame, the second has the widescreen, and the final disc is a real gem – there are many entertaining and informative featurettes involving all the cast members. If you like Tom Sullivan’s effects work, you might want to pick up the Book of the Dead edition which comes in a package made up to look like the Necronomicon, complete with drawings on the inside.
Most editions share certain commentary tracks and special features. There are two main commentary tracks – one from Sam Raimi and executive producer Robert Tapert, the other from Bruce Campbell. Both commentaries are informative, but Campbell’s is extemely entertaining and the best by far. (The Elite and Anchor Bay Ultimate DVDs contain both these tracks). The new Blu Ray does not have these commentaries; instead, it has a brand new commentary track featuring all three guys together, and it’s pretty good, but it’s very technical and mostly covers their film-making process/experience without referencing anything that might be going on in the film proper. Again, if you’re a huge fan of the movie, stick with the Anchor Bay Blu Ray, the Elite DVD, or the 3-disc Ultimate Edition. Finally, I should warn you that the widescreen versions of the film are a bit inferior, since they required cutting off the top and bottom of the image, matting it, and zooming. The result is that information is lost and you are placed too close to the action. (The Evil Dead is shot in 16mm full frame, which is the best way to watch it).
– Bill Gordon
More detailed info on the different versions.
Damn you, Raimi, and these painful contact lenses!
Supplement: Ladies of the Evil Dead and Bruce Campbell (Ultimate Edition)