US Release Date: 10-15-1981
Directed by: Sam Raimi
- Bruce Campbell, as
- Ashley 'Ash' J. Williams
- Ellen Sandweiss, as
- Richard DeManincor, as
- Betsy Baker, as
- Theresa Tilly as
Bruce Campbell in The Evil Dead.
The Evil Dead is one of the most legendary cult films of all time. Only a moderate success upon its release, it has since gone on to develop a huge following. Stories and legends of its making abound across the internet, not all of which agree with each other. What is definitely true is that it launched the careers of director Sam Raimi and star Bruce Campbell. It also launched a long running, multimedia franchise that includes film sequels, video games, comic books, and even a stage musical.
Raimi and Campbell were childhood friends from Royal Oak, Michigan, an affluent suburb of Detroit. As teenagers they made short Super 8 films together, with Raimi behind the camera and Campbell in front of it, reportedly because Campbell was more popular with girls. Still just a teenager, Raimi made the short film Within the Woods for just $1,600, with the intention of using it to attract interest from producers to make a full length version. To raise the nearly $100,000 that he estimated he would need, Raimi borrowed and begged, eventually scraping enough funds together to begin filming what would become The Evil Dead.
The plot is quite simple and having been imitated and spoofed so many times since, seems very much a cliché. A group of 5 young people rent a cabin in the woods for vacation. Ash (Campbell), his sister Cheryl, his girlfriend Linda, his best friend Scotty and his girlfriend Shelly are the only speaking parts in the film. In the basement of the cabin the group finds some old and spooky equipment, including a tape recording and a book made of human skin. The tape recording contains an incantation that raises demons and one by one the group becomes possessed by them.
By today's standards, the film looks quite crude, but in many ways this adds to its charm. The special effects, while limited are fairly ingenious considering the low budget. Raimi was working on something like 1,000 times less the budget he would have when he made Spider-man 3. This lack of funds required ingenuity and Raimi makes clever use of his cameras to compensate. The spirit in the woods, for instance, is never shown. Instead, whenever it appears, we see things from its point of view. It's a very effective technique.
The low budget and somewhat amateurish acting is most noticeable at the start. Once the scares, gore and-in the most shocking scene-rape by tree, begin, you'll be too busy enjoying yourself to notice or care. And at just 85 minutes, the film flies by quite quickly. Once the action and creepiness start, they rarely stop.
Although not nearly the comedy the sequels would become, there are some funny moments here as well. The amount of gore is so over-the-top that it eventually becomes hilarious. Campbell is drenched in blood and decaying demon bits by the film's end. Some of the stereotypical behavior of the characters is also chuckle-worthy, such as when Cheryl hears a noise outside in the dark and goes to investigate, asking the inevitable question, “Is anyone there?” Rather than outright funny though, this film is more about a sense of fun, despite the horror.
The Evil Dead would make close to $2.5 million worldwide upon its initial release, most of it overseas. Despite some high profile praise in the United States, including the enthusiastic endorsement by Stephen King, it only ever saw a limited release here. Over the years though, its reputation would increase, and is now considered a cult classic and has influenced many other films. 2012's The Cabin in the Woods was clearly heavily influenced by it and 2013 saw a remake, written by Raimi, but not directed by him and featuring Campbell in only a cameo.
Raimi has since gone on to a highly successful career as a director, but in many ways, this tiny little film has cast the biggest shadow out of all of his work. It has lived on and grown in stature in the over 30 years since its release. Not bad for a 20 year old kid on a shoestring budget.
Bruce Campbell in The Evil Dead.
Not since George Romero's Night of the Living Dead in 1968 had there been such an original and iconic horror movie that advanced the art of screen gore as much as The Evil Dead. There are many parallels that can be drawn between the two movies. Both were made by young unknown directors working on shoestring budgets with inexperienced actors. Both movies are set in an isolated house where the basement plays an important role (in both movies the actual basement was really located in a different building) and both movies would forever change the horror genre in their groundbreaking levels of gore.
And of course both films spawned franchises that continue on to this day, as well as influencing many other horror movies. Zombies have been all the rage for the past decade, and how many movies since 1981 have recycled The Evil Dead's plot of placing young coeds in an isolated cabin in the woods and having them get picked off one by one? The biggest difference between them being that while Romero's seminal zombie flick took itself very seriously, The Evil Dead contains a self-aware, and at times ironic, sense of humor.
The most audacious moment is the now infamous rape-by-tree scene. It is the moment this film lets you know it's going to another level of graphic gore than any previous American horror movie has ever gone. The carnage keeps escalating until -as Scott wrote- it eventually induces a sort of macabre humor. But it's an uneasy laughter that includes a queasy feeling at the pit of your stomach.
The Evil Dead was shot during the winter of 1979/80 at a real-life abandoned cabin in a remote area of Tennessee. The shoot was fraught with problems but director, cast and crew persevered. This was in the days before CGI and so nearly everything you see on the screen existed in a real-world version. Some of the effects, like the look of some of the stop-motion puppetry, haven't aged all that well, but others, like the decapitation by shovel scene, maintains its sickening power to shock. As does the climactic moment when Bruce Campbell gets monster guts (really creamed corn dyed green) splattered all over him. Audiences had never seen anything as realistically grisly.
Crude and amateurish in many ways, The Evil Dead is nonetheless one of the most important horror films in the history of the genre. In terms of onscreen gore it was a game changer to the extent that you can classify all other horror movies into pre-Evil Dead and post-Evil Dead eras. It is the first movie in a celebrated trilogy but also stands alone as a true horror classic. Not a bad feature film debut for its director Sam Raimi and its star Bruce Campbell, indeed.
Photos © Copyright New Line Cinema (1981)