|The Evil Dead
1981 - NC-17 - 85 Mins.
|Director: Sam Raimi
|Producer: Sam Raimi
|Written By: Sam Raimi
|Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Hal Delrich, Betsy Baker, Theresa Tilly
|Review by: John Ulmer
Stephen King named it the most ferociously original horror film of 1981 and it topped the video rental charts of that year – but then censorship reared its ugly head and Sam Raimi’s "Evil Dead" was brutally chopped and heavily criticized by the more conservative folk of the times. In the UK it lay at rest for many years, considered “dangerous” and unsafe for viewing due to its excessive gore and infamous tree-rape sequence. In the US (where distribution seemed less controversial – see also "A Clockwork Orange") it faced a similar but less consequential fate. Nevertheless the cult base grew and today "Evil Dead" – released on DVD tagged with an NC-17 rating – is hugely popular amongst film and horror buffs. Its star, Bruce Campbell, was as unlikely a hero as cinema had ever had – a fearful, cowardly guy who doesn’t have it all together and isn’t a big macho, gung-ho leader type. It is hardly surprising then that Campbell would be the only actor to establish a successful career afterwards.
Filmed on a $350,000 budget with a cast of no-names, its influential directorial work, excessive violence and infectious attitude would proceed to inspire a legion of upcoming directors – even Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez paid their respects to the film with their cheeseball vampire flick, "From Dusk till Dawn," which is a lot like the "Evil Dead" series – both start out as serious, dark films, and later turn into comedic self-satire.
"Evil Dead II" was less a sequel and more a remake – made with a larger budget and what Campbell himself referred to as “splatstick” humor, it referenced the Three Stooges whilst still maintaining the gore level of the original. Then "Army of Darkness" – the most commercial and childish of the trilogy – became almost totally humor, Campbell’s character “Ash” Williams turned into a chainsaw-wielding one-line-spewing tough guy-comedian, and the grim nature of the original seemed lost in the chaos.
Suffice to say no one can criticize the "Evil Dead" series for lack of creativity or imagination. Looking at "Army of Darkness" it’s hard to imagine it even relates to the original at all – "Evil Dead" is a serious (to some extent) horror film whereas "Army of Darkness" involves time-traveling and the concept of having a chainsaw for a hand. Groovy.
The plot is too familiar – a group of lovestruck teens head out to the woods for a bit of alone-time. Once there they stumble upon a mysterious tape recording and the “Book of the Dead” – once the passages inside are cited aloud, the undead will rise from the earth. So how unfortunate that the tape recording conveniently cites the passages and all hell breaks loose.
The plot doesn’t make much sense. We’re led to believe these demons that lurk in the woods are at rest yet when our heroes arrive at their cabin, strange goings-on occur before the Book of the Dead is even found. There’s also something else that makes absolutely no logical sense whatsoever, but revealing it might ruin part of the story.
Doesn't matter. This isn’t a thoughtful horror film. Continuity is not favored either – shots rarely follow each other in a cohesive manner. The greatness of "Evil Dead" is not its professionalism – instead, the opposite - that for such a low budget, Sam Raimi was able to construct such a chilling and gruesome horror tale unlike any other (at the time, anyway) – he didn’t shy on the comic book-style violence, nor was he willing to sacrifice keeping the audience unsatisfied by slowing down the pace. This is a fast, brutal movie. Bruce Campbell is admittedly more comfortable with himself and the character of Ash in the sequels, but the overall scary nature of the film – its serious horror and lack of over-the-top humor – is more to my personal taste than watching a grown man playing Three Stooges with a couple of skeletons in a graveyard. That’s not to discredit the sequels ("Evil Dead II" is almost as good as this) but if I could only pick one, I’d go for the first – and best – of the bunch. A must-see for film buffs, horror aficionados and anyone who likes a good, creepy, unique film. (It's the only time you'll see someone get raped by a tree on screen -- honest!)