The writer/ director was a guy named Sam Raimi and the star was a buddy of his from High School named Bruce Campbell. They found themselves with part of a movie complete and a lot of the cast and crew already gone. So the intrepid Sam, along with his big brother Ivan, his little brother Ted and, of course, Bruce Campbell set out to finish the film by getting their friends and family to stand in for the vanished actors (they were credited as "Fake Shemps", in a great "Three Stooges" reference). There was even a long stretch of filming in which the only actor available was Campbell himself. It took so long that Bruce goes through a number of lengths of hair during the run time of the film.
When they finally finished the film, using every trick the young film makers could pull out of their sleeves, at last the film known as Book of the Dead debuted in a local theatre in Detroit. Then producer Irvin Shapiro went and changed the name of the film to The Evil Dead! What else could go wrong?
Well, from that point, apparently very little. As soon as The Evil Dead hit theatres it made its money back and then some. They picked up a very positive (and immensely quotable) review from Stephen King and distribution deals out the wazoo. In the USA, New Line Cinema distributed the film, before they were NEW LINE CINEMA. Of course the film was so shockingly violent that it had to be cut by just under a minute for its release in the UK and when it came time for its Video Cassette release in the UK it was Banned as one of the Notorious Video Nasties.
That stumbling block aside, the little movie made by a bunch of friends is now considered a horror classic. It has spawned two sequels (both also considered to be classics of comedy) and the trilogy has influenced a great number of successors. It launched the careers of Ivan Raimi, Ted Raimi and Sam Raimi, the last of which has directed some of the largest grossing films of all time and produced a number of internationally popular television series. Producer Rob Tapert's career started here too. But for fans of this genre, the big news was and is the human chin himself Bruce Fucking Campbell.
Campbell stars as Ash Williams, one of five Michigan State students out for a relaxing vacation in the woods. You've got the three girls, Ash's sister Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), Ash's girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker) and Ash's friend Shelly (Theresa Tilly, credited as Sarah York) and you've got the guys, "Ashley" and Scott (Richard DeManincor, credited as Hal Delrich). Three girls, two guys, the odds are looking good for Scotty.
Until they find an old tape recorder and a strange, leather bound book in the cabin. At first it all seems cool and fun to read this Noturam Demondo Book of the Dead and listen to the foreboding words of the man who found it last. But it isn't long before they begin to wake the dead. Ghosts, Zombies and Demons abound, and when they can't do enough damage on their own, they can possess the Cabin-Dwellers and twist them to their own ends.
The kids in the cabin soon begin to experience unspeakable horrors, starting when one of the girls is... raped by a tree! From that point on they are possessed by demons, burned, thrown about by unseen forces and even locked away and chopped up by each other, depending on who is possessed when. But the Zombies don't stop when they've been dismembered, the demons don't slow down when they've been locked away and the ghosts of the forests keep coming.
While The Evil Dead does have a good deal of humorous moments, its more comical sequels have somewhat outshined what was a sparse and daunting horror thriller in its own right. There are very scary moments here as a result of the brainstorming of Sam Raimi and friends to think of as much as they possibly could to scare the audience. The creepy, too-serious score by Joseph LoDuca helps with this greatly as does the shocking and budget exceeding Make-Up and Prop effects by Tom Sullivan and the Special Effects by Bart Pierce. I would mention that Ethan's brother Joel Coen served as assistant film editor on this film, but that would only be for the sake of mentioning that Ethan's brother Joel Coen served as assistant film editor on this film. And that would be just gratuitous, so no.
The sounds in this film contribute greatly to its horror. The relentlessly laughing demons with the little girl voices and the impossibly contorting bodies are very frightening, especially when they turn their psychological magic toward taunting Ash into insanity. To that end, Ash must go from frightened fish out of water to zombie-slaying action hero with or without help on this dreary night in the haunted woods. And the night goes on forever.
Even with all its well-deserved praise and retroactive classicism, The Evil Dead isn't perfect. Lines like "You bastards, why are you torturing me like this? Why?" are still more funny than dramatic. For all the ingenuity behind the special effects, often these look like fright props in a Hallows Eve terror maze. But equally in hindsight, these moments somehow manage to feel intentional. What's more all of this signifies the low budget that worked. The Evil Dead survives (no pun intended) because of what was wrung out of the small budget. The real key is the inventive spirit of the cast and crew that turned this little movie that could into a classic, its director into a bona fide a-lister and its star into a Pop Culture Icon.
In some ways the vast quotability and humor of the later films (both of which are favorites of mine) could be said to work against this film as a stand-alone. Some may look at this funny, yet far more serious than its sequels, film and be disappointed. This isn't the horror of Scream or even Dead Alive. This is a serious horror flick in the tradition of Night of the Living Dead. This also is a true independent film with an inventive cast and crew that helped it to become a great success as a desolate, desperate horror film.
Great notice should be given to Bruce Campbell. Not only did he stay with the project till the end, but he also gives possibly the best independent horror film dramatic acting job ever. Bruce is great to this day, but this was made long before Bruce Campbell became the sarcastic icon and comic classic that he is. Here he succeeds in running the acting gamut from average college kid to frightened, almost cowardly victim, forced to watch horrifying things happen to his loved ones, to reluctant fighter to hero. Interestingly enough his best scenes are those he does alone, allowing Raimi's challenging camera angles and frightening (not cheap) surprises to be his only counterparts. No, I'm not saying that his first feature should have earned him an Oscar! This is a midnight movie for fuck's sake, but the guy gave a very fine horror performance which kept the film working well.
It's still a B-Movie kind of thing especially toward the cartoonish climax when we are greeted with a very long, drawn out stop-motion-animated "death scene". It also has a few logic leaps that one must buy into (why would an abandoned cabin in the woods have a basement bigger than it is?). Keep in mind that all of these things were done on a very small budget with great invention and skill from the very beginning to the surprising end! Due to the skill and care that went into this film, so much of the flaws are lost in the shuffle of suspense and horror! The Evil Dead is definitely among the best independent horror films ever made, and quite possibly the best film (taken for all with all) to have been banned on the Video Nasty List!
Four Stars out of Five for The Evil Dead, Sam Raimi's first feature, and best example of how great things don't always have great price tags attached to them. The measure of a classic is timelessness and The Evil Dead is one that can be watched and enjoyed again and again. This isn't the same kind of thing as Citizen Kane or the like. This is a transcendent B-Movie. Still, no matter how many times it's viewed it stays scary, stays funny, stays fun and stays enjoyable for all kinds of reasons (most intentional, some perhaps not). The Evil Dead is still the Ultimate Experience in Grueling Horror.
It's Christmas Morning and Dawn is Approaching. Unless some monstrous unseen force played by a Fake Shemp has other plans for me, I'll see you in the next reel! Groovy Christmas everyone!
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