The Evil Dead (1981) / Horror
MPAA rated: NC-17 for substantial gore and violence, nudity, and language
Length: 85 min.
Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Hal Delrich (Richard DeManincor), Betsy Baker, Theresa Tilly
Cameo: Ted Raimi, Sam Raimi
Director: Sam Raimi
Screenplay: Sam Raimi
Review published February 24, 2013
Sam Raimi's (Darkman, The Quick and the Dead) directorial debut, The Evil Dead, is one in which the target audience, i.e., lovers of good ol' gory horror flicks, will relish every second of, while your casual moviegoer with a passing interest may find a bit mystifying on the whole. Those who read this site regularly will know that, with some exceptions, I tend to not give bonus points for sheer bloodiness or goriness alone, and generally will be bored or off-put if that is all the filmmakers toss at us for the duration, especially if it is in place of storytelling or interesting developments in the plot.
That plot, such as it is, is very basic. Five college students are on a road trip when they decide to stop for a night in a seemingly abandoned cabin in the woods of Tennessee. As they begin looking around the place, they discover what appears to be strange drawings, artifacts, a book, and a reel-to-reel tape recording featuring the voice of an archaeology professor describing the book's contents, a "Book of the Dead" that contains foreign words that, when recited aloud, are said to be able to bring dormant demons out to inhabit the bodies of the living. Those possessed will be purely evil destructors, and only dismemberment can stop them in their path to murder. Unfortunately, the tape played contains the incantations, and now that they've played aloud, the demonic presence soon make itself known.
The reputation and making of The Evil Dead are probably more interesting than the film itself ends up being, as Raimi, who is basically fleshing out a short film he made called Within the Woods, would make the entire film working with a meager budget of about $50,000-350,000, depending on what source you believe. That wasn't exactly chump change back in 1981, but still less than your higher budget slasher flicks that had been churning out of the Hollywood system around the same time.
Its gore, blood and violence quotient is still quite potent, and would be the reason why it had difficulty finding a way to be distributed in the U.S. for a couple of years, though it did make an appearance at Cannes in 1982. Eventually, its reputation helped it to gain a following, especially as it would be banned in some countries, piquing the curiosity of genre fans. Though the special effects are quite artificial looking, and though there is a campy tinge to the entire production that keeps it from becoming oppressive, there aren't enough tongue-in-cheek laughs that Raimi's other films possess, especially in what would end up being the second and third films of the series, to appease much more than just the audiences looking for lots of stabbings, impalings and dismemberments.
The Evil Dead would go on to become quite a cult hit, especially on video, and would spawn two sequels, each one higher in scope than the last. It did put Sam Raimi on the filmmaking map, and when one looks at the film today, even if it is uneven in many spots, one can see the eye for cinema that would bode well for his style in higher budget flicks down the road. He does blend some nifty roving camerawork, finding clever ways to encapsulate what's going on in the small cabin that keeps the mostly one-location environment from becoming static and redundant. The synthy score by Joe LoDuca (Brotherhood of the Wolf, Boogeyman) is effective and unobtrusive.
I'll likely rile up the film's staunchest fans by stating that, though it is an impressive showcase for Raimi's prowess as a director, there just isn't much else to recommend to anyone not into high levels of gore. The simple story's pace crawls (some critics have called the film 'fast-paced', but I definitely disagree), even at a modest 85 minutes, while the actors are all over the map, either overly hysterical and nonchalant in the face of what should be sheer terrifying moments. Nevertheless, lifelong friend and fellow Michigander Bruce Campbell (The Hudsucker Proxy, The Majestic) would eventually emerge as one to watch, and would be featured (or make a cameo appearance) in most future Raimi projects
Even with all of the gore, The Evil Dead isn't particularly scary (unless you're one to fall every time for even the most predictable of false scares/jump scares) and, though occasionally campy, only mildly funny at best. With more plot developments, or better characterizations, Raimi could have had more than just well-shot, atmospheric schlock-shock. For gore-fiends (and perhaps the morbidly curious) only.
-- Followed by Evil Dead II (1987) and Army of Darkness (1992). Remade in 2013.
©2013 Vince Leo