Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #61
Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: October 15, 1981
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $2,400,000
Running Time: 85 minutes
Director: Sam Raimi
Producer: Robert Tapert
Screenplay: Sam Raimi
Special Effects: Tom Sullivan, Bart Pierce, Sam Raimi
Cinematography: Tim Philo
Score: Joseph LoDuca
Editing: Edna Ruth Paul
Studio: Renaissance Pictures
Distributor: New Line Cinema
Stars: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Hal Delrich, Betsy Baker, Sarah York
Suggested Audio Candy:
Joseph LoDuca The Evil Dead
In 1978 a young Sam Raimi and a handful of his friends, including high school buddy Bruce Campbell, made a short super-8 film by the name of Within The Woods on next to nothing as a bargaining tool to seduce potential investors into getting behind a full-length version. It worked a treat, his piece struck a chord and by 1981, after being unveiled at the Cannes Film Festival and championed by none other than horror legend Stephen King, The Evil Dead secured the funding it required and the rest is cinematic history.
For as much as The Evil Dead was a successful venture, it wasn’t without its fair share of tribulation. The BBFC took exception to its misogynistic nature and, in 1983, it found itself on the 72-strong video nasty shortlist. While never actually prosecuted, Raimi himself has since stated that he regrets the inclusion of its notorious tree-rape scene, although I’m sure that he’d retract that after a couple of cold ones. As well as causing a bigger stir than most of its compatriots, it also struck a chord with horror aficionados the world over. Cult classic status duly followed and, despite a number of initial cuts being made, the fully uncensored version eventually hit our screens in 2001.
So how does it hold up over three decades later? Pretty damn well actually, aside from a little crude claymation during its climax. Raimi spent his $375,000 kitty well, working marvels of the funds available to him and throwing in the kitchen sink, faucets and all, and using a real abandoned cabin in Tennessee for his sole location. This, in itself, created numerous headaches as the shack had been left in questionable condition and needed top to bottom renovation to get it shipshape. However, that is the joy of independent filmmaking; everyone chips in and somehow, against all odds, they get it done. There are few movies more testament to this than The Evil Dead.
For anyone who has spent the past thirty years in cryogenic freezing, the plot really couldn’t be more simple. Five university students from Michigan venture off to an isolated woodland cabin for a nice relaxing weekend break. Ash (Campbell), his sister Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker), and buddies Shelly (Theresa Tilly) and Scotty (Richard DeManincor) are having a grand old time until they begin snooping around. After coming across the ominously named Morturom Demonto, which translates just as dubiously to the Book of The Dead, and a dusty old tape recorder which they foolishly play back, it isn’t long before the group are made pay the ultimate price for their inquisitive nature.
Raimi wastes little time in getting formalities out-of-the-way and, by the time the Necrinomicon has been dusted off and tape deck revived, our likeable protagonists had had sufficient time to persuade us that we wish to hang out more. He then cranks things up in magnanimous fashion as the restless deadites gain access to both log cabin and surrounding woodland and the circus goes into full swing. When this happens, The Evil Dead reveals its full spread of bloody feathers and provides balls-out horror the likes of which few have managed to match quite so successfully since. It revs like the proverbial chainsaw but always feels like there is plenty of fuel left in the tank.
Of course, we all know by now that Campbell is destined to become the reluctant hero of the piece but, back then, it wasn’t quite so clear. Raimi is careful not to single him out and his fate is no less secure than any of the others. However, once the wheat is separated from the chaff, he comes bubbling to the top of Raimi’s fine broth without dalliance. Sporting chin like a yacht mast and a stubborn never-say-die attitude that few can boast of, he effortlessly embodies everything we could possibly desire from an all-action hero. Bruce severely sprained his ankle during the shoot and also managed to misplace several teeth after having a camera dropped on his face, but that’s nothing compared to what the deadites put him through.
For all of his swagger however, it is his increasing look of bemusement that makes for such a loveable protagonist. This would become even more evident in the sequel, in which he was subjected to one of the most monumental shit kickings ever committed to celluloid but this was also far from a teddy bear’s picnic for him. Which brings us to the bane of his existence, the opposite sex. Ash may be the ringleader of this hellish circus, but for a large chunk of its 85 minutes, the real show stealers are our menstrual vixens. The girls run amok, chanting the tune of our worst nightmares, and generally acting like pre-scholars.
Joseph LoDuca Love Never Dies
After taunting, teasing and terrorizing the luckless fellas for sufficient enough time, they really get down to business and no tampon on Earth could soak up the grue these merciless minxes are looking to source. Baker came off worst as she was left blinded by her milky contact lenses and, thanks to a mass of facial latex, somehow managed to misplace her eyelashes. However, her turn as Linda is chilling in the extreme and provides one of the many standout moments as a heartbroken Ash decides to call time on their relationship.
The much celebrated tree rape scene is every bit as distressing now as it was way back then and enough to have ladies of a weaker disposition crossing their legs for fear of splinters. These treacherous twigs have no intention of being gentle lovers and, instead, slide in dry without so much as a drop of honeysuckle lubricant. It’s a torturous scene, made all the more despairing by the fact that it is one of many similarly heinous interactions on the platter here.
By the time Ash is lopping off the head of his highschool sweetheart (which continues chanting that incessant verse), I swear it feels like he’s not alone in his compromised sanity and that is the beauty of Raimi’s piece. It steadily grinds down our best defences, then slaps us about with its knockabout pratfall, before jamming a broken off pencil into our Achilles heel for good measure. While Raimi remains very much aware of his limitations, he never once skimps on ambition. It is my belief that, for all the money you throw at a filmmaker, there is never a better indicator of talent than when they produce their first feature on such a premium.
What he achieves with The Evil Dead is nothing short of astonishing and I’m sure we will all agree that his film paved the way forward for anyone aspiring to a career in movies and capable of maneuvering a camera. Possessing the seed of a good idea is only the start of the battle and being dogged enough in your pursuit to make it a reality, far more troublesome. What he did here really isn’t rocket science. He simply found a formula that worked and went for it hell for leather. Sure, King’s endorsement didn’t harm his chances of realizing his vision, but I believe he made his own luck.
Aside from its increasingly profitable sequels, a TV spin-off, off-Broadway musical, numerous graphic novels, and Fede Alvarez’ commendable remake, The Evil Dead also opened the door to Hollywood for Raimi and he has never looked back since so it is fair to say that things have worked out quite tidily for him. For as much as I would love to report that it hasn’t aged in thirty years, the truth is that it has long since been long in the tooth. However, its impact on the independent film industry is undeniable and offers hope to us all. For that, I am in his eternal debt. Hail to the king baby!
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 10/10
Grue Factor: 5/5
For The Grue-Guzzlers: Given any evident budgetary constraints, Raimi still packs it in like an obese teenager at a pie-eating contest. The blood flows so freely here that even the light bulbs fill with deep red at one point. Meanwhile, the particularly spiteful pencil in the ankle gag gives the term “feet like lead” a whole new meaning and Ash’s hapless wingman Scotty is really put through the ringer in no uncertain terms. Sure, you could argue a case against the iffy claymation but you’d be culpable of splitting hairs if you do. Instead it is far wiser to look back at the plentiful moments of awe-inspiring splatter on the platter and be thankful for minor miracles.
Keeper of the Crimson Quill
Copyright: Crimson Quill: Savage Vault Enterprises 2013 (Revised Edition 2015)