Evil Dead, The (United States, 1982)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Long before Scream came along to simultaneously parody the horror genre while participating in it, there was Sam Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy (the third entry into the series, Army of Darkness, was released in 1993). Equal parts suspense, camp, comedy, and over-the-top gore, the first two Evil Dead movies didn't take long to attain the status of cult classics. Today, while relatively few mainstream movie viewers have heard of these movies (not to mention having seen them), they have garnered a small but loyal gathering of fans who can recite every one liner delivered by the ultra-cool hero, Ash.

To say that the Evil Dead movies are not for everyone is an understatement. A strong stomach is required. If you can't take copious amounts of blood and gore, this is not your movie. Both The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II have enough vile colored liquids to fill a small swimming pool. Plus, there are assorted body parts (decapitated heads, bodiless hands, etc.). Of course, the extreme nature of the gore isn't beside the point - it is the point. Raimi goes so far over the top in presenting these displays that they take on a campy, almost humorous appearance. It's impossible to take all this blood seriously. So, instead of being sickened, we're strangely amused - and this is all intentional. (In general in horror films, it's the little displays of blood - like a fingernail being pulled off - that cause the most discomfort. The more outrageous a display, the less likely it is to be taken seriously.)

The movie follows the ill-fated expedition of five twentysomethings who decide to spend a weekend at an isolated cabin in the middle of the woods. They are Ash (Bruce Campbell); his girlfriend, Linda (Betsy Baker); his sister, Shelly (Sarah York); and his friends, Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) and Scotty (Hal Delrich). At the cabin, the five discover a strange book whose pages are made out of human skin and whose writing is done in human blood. This is the Necronomicon, or the "Book of the Dead", which "speaks of a spiritual presence - a thing of evil - that roams the forests and dark bowers of man's domain." It also includes incantations to raise demons - spells that are invoked when a tape recording of a man reading them is played. Soon, Ash and his compatriots are the unfortunate targets of an implacable force that lurks in and around their little cottage and, one-by-one, they are possessed or killed.

Although The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II share numerous plot similarities, the tones of the features are significantly different. While both movies contain elements of satire, the first is much more of a straightforward horror endeavor than its sequel. The Evil Dead contains little in the way of overt comedy - its humor comes through accentuating traditional elements of the thriller/horror genre, including drenching the screen in copious amounts of fake blood, allowing the actors to give over-the-top performances, and intentionally placing characters in positions where they do stupid things.

One of the most remarkable things about The Evil Dead is how much it was able to accomplish on such a small budget (reportedly around $50K). Of course, it could be argued that many of the best horror films, including Halloween and The Blair Witch Project, have come cheaply, with the lack of funding forcing the filmmakers to rely more on innovation than special effects. The Evil Dead is at times genuinely creepy, due in no small part to the imaginative camerawork devised by Raimi and cinematographer Tim Philo. The so-called "shaky cam" (in which the camera gave us the point-of-view of the demon rushing through the woods) became a staple of the Evil Dead series, and was "borrowed" by the Coen brothers for Blood Simple. (The Coens and Raimi have been long-time friends and collaborators. Joel Coen is credited as the "assistant film editor" for The Evil Dead.) Also, the evil force inhabiting the forest is never shown in The Evil Dead, leaving all the details to our imagination. In Evil Dead II, when it finally makes its appearance near the end, the result is inevitably disappointing.

Gore provides a key component to both films. Raimi uses it in such copious quantities that the sheer volume of fake blood often becomes humorous. Heads and arms are frequently severed, but it's all done in such a good-natured and over-the-top manner that it's difficult imagining any horror aficionado being remotely distressed by the amount of gore. (It is equally difficult imagining anyone who doesn't like horror films coming within viewing distance of any Evil Dead movie - the pictures are intended for those who appreciate the genre.) We get to see a partially dismembered body quivering around on the ground. With the Evil Dead movies, Raimi successfully illustrates that gore can be used for purposes other than grossing out an audience.

Neither The Evil Dead nor Evil Dead II will win any acting awards. Aside from Bruce Campbell, who has forged a nice career in offbeat productions, the films are populated by a cast of unknowns, many of whom list their respective Evil Dead movie as the only acting job on their resumes. It's understandable why - the performances are uniformly bad, being either wooden and stilted or over-the-top. My assumption, based on the evidence at hand, is that this is intentional - another way for Raimi to raise the level of parody a notch. Good acting would not have served the material well, since it would have diluted the comedy quotient and made the campy elements seem cheap and cheesy.

In the years following the release of the Evil Dead trilogy, Sam Raimi's career has taken off. But, for die-hard fans, the Evil Dead films will be Rami's legacy.

Evil Dead, The (United States, 1982)

Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Hal Delrich, Betsy Baker, Sarah York
Screenplay: Sam Raimi
Cinematography: Tim Philo
Music: Joseph LoDuca
U.S. Distributor: New Line Cinema
Run Time: 1:25
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NC-17" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1