A lot of people find it hard to believe now, but “Evil Dead,” the first film in the “Evil Dead” series (it includes sequels “Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn” and “Army of Darkness”) was actually not a comedy/horror spoof, but a pure horror film. Or Splatter film, since the movie is essentially a retread of the “college students go on vacation and get slaughtered” premise prevalent in many Slasher/Splatter films. The ’70s invented the formula, the ’80s fine-tuned it, and the ’90s made them popular again.
“Evil Dead” stars Bruce Campbell as Ash, one of 5 college students who journey to a cabin in a remote location for a little romance, and finds a whole lot of trouble instead. At the cabin, they encounter a book that can summon the dead and tape recordings made by the cabin’s previous inhabitant, warning of the book’s content and evil spirits lurking out in the woods. The kids, of course, dismiss both book and recording, but soon said evil spirits take notice of the cabin’s new inhabitants and decide to come out to play. After a number of the victims — er, characters — are possessed and turned into ghouls, it’s up to Ash, the whiny coward of the bunch, to find his courage and grab a chainsaw…
Once again, I should mention that “Evil Dead” is a straight horror flick. It was made to scare, and there are very little intentional laughs. Since this is a very, very low budget effort by director Sam Raimi (“Spiderman”), there are plenty of cheap special effects, a lot of bad acting by inexperienced actors, and technical mishaps. All that said, “Evil Dead” scared the hell out of me when I first saw it, and newcomers who have only seen the sequels will find a very rude awakening with this 1979-produced movie.
A very young Bruce Campbell leads the cast and plays his Ash straight in this one. The Ash we encounter here is still very much a coward (although the character never does completely lose the coward label in later sequels), and it takes him quite a while to get into the whole hero groove. Campbell, despite showing inexperience, is nevertheless still the best thing about the film. We can already see that smart-aleck personality starting to take shape here, and it’s quite a treat to see Campbell in the prime of his deadite-fighting days.
Writer/director Sam Raimi shoots the movie with a 16mm camera (the choice camera for all filmmakers with no budget) and as a result the movie looks appropriately grainy and gritty. The camerawork is exceptional and is constantly moving, zipping through the woods and knocking down trees via POV of the (moving) spirits. Once the ghouls attack the cabin, the blood flows freely, people are possessed left and right, and even the trees get into the act by raping one of the girls. (What was that? Yes, you heard me right. The trees rape one of the girls.)
On a completely different subject, it’s quite interesting to see how the deadites (the evil spirits of the series) eventually de-evolves from destructive ghouls out for blood in this original to joke-spouting hags in “Army of Darkness.” I’m still not quite sure why the movie de-evolved so much into slapstick humor and total hilarity, but I suppose it might have something to do with Raimi and Campbell feeling that the series couldn’t go anywhere else except into cartoonish territory. In a way, the series really lost much of its edge (if not all of them) in favor of one-liners and Three Stooges gags, but then again I suppose it was inevitable. As the saying goes, nothing good lasts forever.
“Evil Dead” was certainly one of the best no-budget horror films to come across the landscape back in 1982, and remains so now. I’ve yet to see a film with such limited advantages surpass “Evil Dead” in sheer creativity, enthusiasm, and a lot of hard work and dedication. This one is going to last a while, and even evil spirits and women-raping trees won’t stop its continued popularity.
Sam Raimi (director) / Sam Raimi (screenplay)
CAST: Bruce Campbell …. Ash
Ellen Sandweiss …. Cheryl
Hal Delrich …. Scotty
Betsy Baker …. Linda
Sarah York …. Shelly