From among the Video Nasties

The making and production of The Evil Dead has become a legendary campfire story in its own right: writer-director Sam Raimi, looking to make his first feature, creating a demo short and forcing it upon potential investors; borderline-inhumane working conditions for most of the cash-strapped location shoot; a rapturous, career-making rave review out of the Cannes Film Festival from Stephen King; enough gore to net one of the 72 spots on the British Department of Public Prosecutions' infamous Video Nasties list (though it was not one of the films successfully banned); a spotty history on video for years and years that turned it into a totemic object and finally a cult movie so beloved by so many that "cult" is here used as an honorific more than an actual descriptor.

All these things are known. And they are easily found. Let us then not bother rehashing all of it, for though it is fascinating and fun trivia, it ultimately has sweet fuck-all to do with the movie itself, except insofar as it explains why even in the most polished, lovingly-remastered video editions, it still looks undeniably shitty.

Instead, let's just try to settle down with The Evil Dead itself, free of any outside notions or irrelevant distractions, if it's possible to do that after so many years have elevated it to the pantheon. Years that have also, more importantly, given it a sequel; irrespective of anything else, there's almost no way to talk about this film without the knowledge of Evil Dead II coloring the conversation. Firstly because, put simply, Evil Dead II is a better movie (I'm not sure if that's consensus or not, but there's absolutely no doubt in my mind, anyway), and as much good as The Evil Dead certainly does, it's sort of difficult to appreciate any of it without feeling a bit dismayed that the outrageously low-budget horror picture isn't as impressive as the normally low-budget horror picture. Secondly, because Evil Dead II is very unmistakably a black comedy in addition to being a horror movie, and there has been a temptation ever since 1987 to read that back into the original movie and decide that it's some kind of extremely straight-faced joke. It's not without any humor at all (the noisy draining sound effect that accompanies a gush of blood when a demon-zombie has a large stick removed from his gut leaps to mind), but the burden of proof to my mind, is clearly on the side of anyone who wants this to be different from the most obvious possible interpretation: like the label says, it's the ultimate experience in grueling terror.

The Evil Dead is such a great, genuinely unnerving horror movie, that it's with some surprise that as one really picks at it, it's guilty of virtually every crime that genre buffs and moralistic critics alike tend to fling at early-'80s horror. A cast full of virtually indistinguishable young people all lined up to die: absolutely. It takes forever to learn the names of anybody other than Scott (Richard DeManincor, as "Hal Delrich") and Linda (Betsy Baker), and the details of who the five friends are or what they have to do with each other are largely limited to Linda's Michigan State sweatshirt, a very clumsy scene of her boyfriend Ashley (Bruce Campbell, in the role that made him a star to a very limited, but very enthusiastic fanbase) and a magnifying glass necklace, and the throwaway detail that Ash and Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) are siblings, revealed far too late into the movie to do any good. Character #5, Shelly (Theresa Tilly, as "Sarah York") is there solely to beef up the cast and provide Scott with a sexual partner.

The movie relies on disgusting gore effects for most of its success: hard to dispute, though it's not as big a problem as it sounds; we're not in Friday the 13th territory by a long shot. The characters have to act like complete idiots to drive the plot: hell yes, it's obvious that things are going wrong before they even enter the creepy old cabin in the woods where the movie happens, and Cheryl needs to make an unbelievably dense decision to kick off the rising action. And so on, and on. The Evil Dead is schlock, basically, except for the fact that it's really not at all.

Indeed, much like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre from 1974, one of the few American horror movies that is genuinely greater in its artistry and bleaker in its brutality, the most important point about The Evil Dead is that its superficially dubious screenplay matters nothing at all, compared to the extraordinary filmmaking prowess on display: even if we allow that The Evil Dead is poorly-written (and I'm not so sure that's the case), it works because of Raimi's incredibly bright directing, which still doesn't feel stale after three decades of copycats have sucked all the freshness out of cinematic tricks that were, in 1981, hugely radical. The things that Raimi and DP Tim Philo did with a camera in making this movie are stupefying: not just the speeding, low-to-the-ground "Raimi-Cam" effect, either, though it's hard to imagine The Evil Dead being half as wonderful without that freaky little gesture, achieved through the most barbarous kind of DIY filmmaking technology, giving us a nonstop awareness both that Something is out in the woods, and that it's Something Beyond Our Comprehension. Besides that, the number of shots in this movie that are doing something really peculiar and unsettling easily number in the dozens: low angles, upside-down camera, shots of a car hiding behind fog with its headlights glaring like the eyes of a hulking predator. Not to mention the elaborate sound effects at every turn, a mixture of otherworldly rumbles, disembodied shrieks, and jagged musical tones that accompany the visuals in peculiar and alarming ways (favorite part of the soundtrack: the metallic chords that accompany the beams passing by the camera as it tracks along with Campbell from overhead) It's beyond-astounding style for a first-time feature, and while huge budgets and years of practice have polished Raimi's techniques considerably, he hasn't yet exhausted the basic aesthetic toolkit established in this very movie.

Coupled with editing that's almost deliberately anxious to eradicate continuity between shots rather than create unity (the editor, Edna Ruth Paul, was assisted by a certain Joel Coen, who with his brother Ethan become close to Raimi as a result - but none of that matters here), The Evil Dead does a smashingly good job of creating a feeling of terrifying dislocation on an almost cosmic scale, especially in its back half, when all of the really crazy stuff begins to happen. There's no way that this is an accident: the movie's inciting incident comes when the five youths hunt around their remote rental cabin to find the flesh-bound Naturon Demonto, the Necronomicon in all but name (and the sequel would even correct that tiny oversight), with a reel-to-reel audio tape of an archaeologist (Bob Dorian) recalling how he found the book in ancient ruins in a forgotten city. It's impossible that something could skew this close to H.P. Lovecraft by accident, and so we're already tossed into a world of great nightmarish secrets even before the first hideous, rotting-flesh demon possession happens to the group. As the evening wears on and the friends are reduced to just Ash, trying to hold it together until dawn, the movie increasingly takes the shape of an illogical nightmare. Certainly, as a "hold out against zombies" feature, The Evil Dead makes no sense: if the undead perversions of his friends wanted to kill him, they'd surely be able to: three of them spend a good chunk of the movie not just in the same tiny cabin but in the same tiny room of that cabin with their presumptive victim.

Instead, they play mind games on Ash, and in this, the best part of a very good movie, The Evil Dead becomes the closest thing English-language cinema has produced to the nuttier, supernatural strains of Italian horror, though it's unlikely that Raimi was thinking in these terms: the films his debut most resembles, Lucio Fulci's Hell Trilogy beginning with City of the Living Dead, weren't available in the U.S. until after The Evil Dead has finished shooting. I find it impossible not to respond with the utmost enthusiasm to the complete fearlessness of the filmmakers to jump right in with this sequence and create an impression of absolute, horrified disorientation, punctuated by the most impossible explosions of gore that's more unsettling than gross, because it is so divorced from human proportion.

Not that the rest of the movie isn't up to snuff: on the contrary, the whole thing is singularly well-made in some very cunning ways, particular with the use of background imagery that sneak up on us subtly (clouds creeping over an uncomfortably large superimposed moon, weird lighting effects). It's an excellent creepy movie, full of mist and trees and the general sense, from a narrative standpoint, of the kind of stories kids tell in a dark room, light on depth and heavy on detail. And it's for that reason that I think the apparently dreadful script is actually deliberate, and smart: it's stripped down to the bone, offering just enough to keep the characters from being ciphers, because the point isn't who this happens to, but what happens; it's a movie about an overwhelming and very fast-paced sense of ominous evil, getting its affect from piling phantasmagoria on us, not from forcing us to watch people we like or even particularly comprehend suffering. It's a spooky campfire story, told with a level of intensity that can shock and terrify an adult - all that inexplicably over-the-top bloodshed is a way of stunning a viewer unlikely to be as susceptible as an 8-year-old to creepy stories of haunting noises in the woods.

It's not perfect. For one thing, it suffers from a pointlessly cruel scene, the notorious tree rape; there are a lot of ways that the same plot point could have been gotten across without indulging in such lazy, lingering grind house misogyny, and it doesn't help that this and only this moment involves brutal supernatural violence happening to a person, rather than a demonic corpse. The other is that, well, the cheap movie looks cheap: sometimes in a way that works to its benefit, in that it has an aura of gritty persuasiveness, like a found footage movie only done exceptionally well. Mostly, though, not: it's almost certainly the fault of overzealously cleaned-up digital masters that some of the visual effects are a bit more visible than we'd like ("hey, it's the moon! in a giant charcoal-grey matte that clashes with the rest of the night sky!"), though the Naturon Demonto looks unmistakably like a prop, crisp and well-drawn and not at all like a centuries-old book from an archaeological site (seriously, they couldn't even have somebody step on the pages with their shoes on?), and the creepy basement of the cabin looks too much like a set, with its famous copy of the poster for The Hills Have Eyes, looking awfully brand-new itself, and why does a middle-aged scientist have a copy of that poster in his study area in a remote cabin in the woods, again? The acting, outside of Campbell and Sandweiss, is mostly wretched, though Baker's taunting as Demon-Linda is well and truly creepy, with a lilting, little-girl attitude that contrasts horribly with her appearance.

You can't blame a movie for being what it is, of course. And I apologise for having just done precisely that. But no matter how good The Evil Dead is as a work of filmmaking and storytelling technique, it has its limitations. And here again, I feel compelled to compare it, inappropriately, to its sequel, which had many of the same limitations and blasted past them. But just because Evil Dead II is a stone-cold masterpiece, that shouldn't be permitted to diminish how truly eerie and distressing The Evil Dead is in its own right, one of the few horror movies that I've found which can really knock me for a loop, even after multiple viewings.

Nastiness Rating: 5/5, truly Nasty. Clearly, the film got on the DPP's hit list because of the tree rape scene; and the tree rape scene is certainly queasy-making enough all on its own. But the amount of gore that gets flung at the viewer here is really nothing shy of extraordinary.

Reviews in this series
The Evil Dead (Raimi, 1981)
Evil Dead II (Raimi, 1987)
Army of Darkness (Raimi, 1992)
Evil Dead (Alvarez, 2013)