CULT CLASSIC: The Evil Dead (1981)

The Evil Dead (USA, 1981)
Directed by Sam Raimi
Starring Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker, Richard DeManicor

When John Carpenter was interviewed for the Masters of Horror documentary in 2002, he commented that his generation of filmmakers (Tobe Hopper, Wes Craven, David Cronenberg and the like) became revered because they could break with the rules and generic conventions more than any generation before or since. Their arrival coincided with huge advances in special effects which enabled them to physicalize metaphors and express terror like never before.
While it may not have the metaphorical or narrative weight of Carpenter's The Thing or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Evil Dead is very much a part of this broad trend of unbridled and unbounded horror filmmaking. Sam Raimi's debut effort remains a milestone in the pantheon of gory shockers, and is tied with An American Werewolf in London as the yardstick for horror-comedy. Most of all, it's one of the most original and demented horror films that you are ever likely to see.
Much of The Evil Dead's reputation is rooted in its notorious mistreatment during the video nasties panic of the 1980s. In the early days of home video, the British censors had no direct power to certify or cut films that were being imported on video from Europe or America. This enabled the likes of Driller Killer and Cannibal Holocaust to be viewed uncut in British homes, resulting in a moral panic and a misjudged remedy by the British government.
The Director of Public Prosecutions drew up a list of imported titles which could be prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act - the definition of obscene being "likely to deprave and corrupt a significant proportion of its likely audience." The Evil Dead was perceived to be obscene because it was visually so far beyond anything that casual film audiences (i.e. non-horror fans) had ever seen before. It was banned on video outright, with a severely cut version emerging in 1992 and the film only seeing the full light of day in 2001.
Whatever one's attitude towards the BBFC and its often draconian policies, it isn't difficult to see why The Evil Dead would have caused so much of a fuss. Raimi's debut is a relentless piece of filmmaking, which treats its audience and characters with no mercy whatsoever. It never flinches in its depiction of violence or the lengths to which it is prepared to go to make us shrink away in revulsion, laugh our heads off, or - most subversively - do both at once.

Raimi famously described The Evil Dead as "a Three Stooges movie, with blood and guts standing in for custard pies." He believed, in other words, that the aesthetic sensibility of horror and comedy were very close, and that pain could and should be funny. The Evil Dead takes the mechanics of slapstick comedy, which is built around physical pain and embarrassment, and covers them in gallons and gallons of blood. We find ourselves laughing at the jokes while being scared to death by the monsters that are providing them, and the whole experience is immensely enjoyable.
If we compare The Evil Dead to An American Werewolf in London, their differences illuminate this mechanism further. American Werewolf is a very close descendant of old-school horror-comedies like Young Frankenstein: it begins as a comedy, then brings in the horror elements to increase the comic potential of the characters, and only becomes truly horrifying in its final act.
The Evil Dead, on the other hand, introduces the language of horror first of all and then applies it to put a unique twist on several comedy elements. The premise of the film is essentially comedic: a group of students go to a cabin in the woods, accidentally awaken evil spirits, and try to stop them without becoming possessed. The film recognises the ridiculous nature of its setup, and pokes fun at the zombie genre while revelling in its revoltingness.
If you go into the film looking for a subtext, you'll very quickly draw a blank. If you wanted to stretch a point, you could say that the film is a satire of the final-girl scenario of horror movies, but even then there is little on show to support this. The film eschews George A. Romero's approach of making zombies allegorical, preferring to use them as relentless sources of comedy, whether the pain is inflicted by them or upon them. The gore is funny because it is so knowingly over-the-top: it goes for a river of blood instead of a steady drip, and has Bruce Campbell repeatedly bashed with a poker when one blow would be more than enough to hurt him.
The horror trappings of The Evil Dead are easy to recognise for fans of the genre. Raimi was greatly inspired by the work of H. P. Lovecraft, with the Book of the Dead being essentially the Necronomicon (a resemblance which the sequels embraced). The demonic force which attacks the cabin is also Lovecraftian, insofar as it has a complete and malevolent ambivalence towards humanity. And the use of fog to create a creepy atmosphere is as old as Gothic horror itself.
What makes The Evil Dead so scary is the way in which Raimi executes the set-pieces, building up unbearable tension, making us scream or flinch and then finding ourselves laughing either at the excess or out of sheer nerves. His camerawork is extremely kinetic, and is structured so that we are see much of the action from the demons' POV. The famous shot of the demon racing through the woods fills us with genuine dread, and as with Hallowe'en it gives the impression that we are constantly being watched. Even in its quietest moments the film never lets us settle: the scale of the onslaught builds and builds so that the silences are as unbearable as the shocks.
The special effects on the film are endearingly low-budget. The running shots from the demons' POV were achieved by mounting the camera on a plank of wood and hanging it between two members of the crew. The make-up is very distinctive, using the old staples of corn syrup and non-dairy coffee creamer to full effect. Even today the final scenes of bodies decaying, filmed entirely in clay and coloured plasticene, have an endearingly disgusting feel to them.
The scrungy, B-movie appeal is cemented in the casting of Bruce Campbell, Raimi's long-time friend and collaborator who became a cult icon through his involvement in the series. Campbell brings an element of irony to the situation: he is the chisel-jawed masculine hero, faithful to convention in a film which follows few rules. He has charisma to spare and brilliant comic timing, embracing the central conceit so well that he never risks feeling like cannon fodder when the evil dead are preying on him.
The Evil Dead is not a perfect film. Even if we excuse and embrace the shortcomings in the acting and effects (as we should), the tree rape sequence is still very difficult to live with. Fans of the film may leap to its defence as an example of the film's absurdity, but it feels nasty for all the wrong reasons, making us feel repulsed without contextualising it among the other scares. Raimi himself regrets including the scene, and sensibly took it out of the sequel six years later.
The Evil Dead remains a milestone in horror comedy and one of the most original debut features of the 1980s. For all its shortcomings, its place in horror history is assured, whether as a balls-out, no-holes-barred shocker or as a truly terrifying adrenaline ride. The level of excess in which it revels will separate the men from the boys, but those who stay the distance will be immensely rewarded and relieved. Above all it's a really great film, even if it takes a long time to work out why.

Rating: 4.5/5
Verdict: A deliciously demented debut


  1. Great review, Mumby! This is my favorite horror film for a number of reasons. You delved into everything with such detail. Bravo. I do think the tree rape scene is quite painful, but I also think it goes along with the film's organization and type. As you can see, I'm a fan. :)

    1. Thanks for your comment Creeper. I still maintain that it's out of context and that the sequel is better for not having it in, but I respect your opinion. Will be sure to check out your blog :)


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