Sam Raimi, perhaps better than most people, understands the draw of B-grade horror films. It’s no shock that Raimi would eventually direct a super hero franchise; most of his work strongly suggests a comic-book style of overemphasizing cuts and performances married with a macabre sense of humor that wears a straight face to cover the occasional giggle of perverse enjoyment. It’s much harder to fathom that his sensibilities would shepherd a new era of horror filmmaking with the most stomach-churning, unfathomable gore since Dawn of the Dead and scenes of death, torture, and sex that go so far into the depraved it’s impossible to escape without a laugh. Raimi poured his heart and soul into The Evil Dead and made the greatest B-movie of all time.
The idea that five friends would go to a remote cabin in the woods and discover an archaeologist’s translation of an ancient Sumerian text that wields the power to summon demons of old may not seem distinctly new by modern standards, particularly since The Cabin in the Woods steals this premise directly. The setup is simultaneously reminiscent of Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft, a marriage of depravity with ordinary people exploring forces way beyond their control. Raimi may not have been the first to do this, but he was certainly the best.
Many scenes are preposterous beyond belief. A girl running into the forest only to have her clothes torn off by vines before being violated by a stiff branch is so simultaneously taboo and ridiculous that it’s impossible not to stifle a laugh while feeling distinctly uncomfortable.
In a fitting modicum of The Evil Dead’s place in film history, one scene features a possessed friend jamming a pencil into someone’s ankle and twisting it around such that the artifice of the prop is laid bare, but the relentless digging and accompanying laughter makes the moment indelible, showing a horror predicated on dragging something terrible out well beyond an unspoken boundary of good taste and screen length.
In an interesting parallel, The Evil Dead’s mythology is such that it could logically be stretched into an entire set of doctrines, but in the film, the demonically possessed, who are essentially zombies with superpowers, are capricious tricksters who exist to torture their victims physically, emotionally, and psychologically. To what end? World domination? Resurrection of a demon god? The sheer joy of causing pain and anguish? The answer is that it doesn’t matter; one could interpret the creature of The Evil Dead as a dizzying vacuum of chaos without imperative, or an excuse for a movie that will scare the crap out of you.
While much of The Evil Dead is full of terrifyingly senseless violence, there’s enough tongue-in-cheek moments to engage even the most jaded viewer in a belly laugh. A favorite moment comes when the Necronomicon is burned simultaneously with the rising sun, causing the remaining possessed bodies to freeze up in precarious positions before one body falls over disintegrating and apparently oozing cornmeal from his sleeve.
While Bruce Campbell would later become a legend, here he is simply one of the anonymous few, and mostly a wuss at that. Nevertheless, his screen presence is undeniable, particularly toward the end when the ordeal has begun to make him crazy.
With enough of a budget to do many in a long list of bizarre special effects, Raimi is free to indulge himself and focus on the film’s style. While fog-ridden forests and point-of-view shots may not strike stylistically at first, all of Raimi’s tools are emblematic of the genre, and while there are plenty of show-stopping zombie dismemberments, he remembers that reservation and allowing the unseen to dominate the proceedings are preferable to constantly seeing rubber masks.
Because The Evil Dead has become such a cultural touchpoint and informed the approach of many low budget horror films, particularly The Return of the Living Dead and Cemetery Man with a few colorful jabs present in Shaun of the Dead, the effects and style are more comic than they were initially. Rest assured, however, that nothing can tarnish the power of the original, particularly as it is followed by two excellent sequels. The Evil Dead will remain a right of passage for any horror fan for centuries to come.
One particular note that bears mentioning about The Evil Dead is that it is widely available in 1.33:1, the standard format in which it was shot, and 1.85:1, the widescreen format which Raimi had originally intended. Fortunately, no matter what your preference, this blu-ray on Amazon has both as well as the best framing of the 1.85:1 ratio. There’s a style guide here.