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31 Monsters #20: The Evil Dead

October 20th, 2009 No comments

As a not-especially-hardcore horror film fan in the early ’80s, I was aware of the reputation of director Sam Raimi’s low-budget shocker The Evil Dead, but hadn’t seen it. That changed in 1986, when I moved to California and found myself with a roommate whose kitchen was decorated in early Chainsaw Massacre, and a neighbor whose monster mask-sculpting business left his apartment looking like a severed head emporium. They taught me about Phantasm and Zombi and even Frankenstein Island. And yes, Evil Dead as well.

The original Evil Dead told the story of five young people visiting an abandoned cabin in the woods for a weekend of debauchery. Among the items left behind by the previous tenant were an ancient text called the Book of the Dead, as well as an audiotaped reading of its passages. When the latter was played, it summoned demons that possessed both the kids and the woods themselves. The sole survivor of the ensuing night of horror was Bruce Campbell’s Ash, who tossed the book into the fireplace and seemingly dispelled the evil. However, in the final moments, an unseen force raced through the woods and threw itself at the screaming hero.*

Truth to tell, I wasn’t very impressed with The Evil Dead the first time around. It struck me as just kinda cheap and nasty. At that point, I still wasn’t schooled enough in the horror genre to appreciate what Raimi and his cohorts had managed to pull off on their micro-budget. It wasn’t until we attended the premiere of Evil Dead II that I “got it.”

Now, I’ve already told the tale of our first, ill-fated excursion to see the premiere of ED2 in full zombie get-up. It was a fun night–and we got our photo taken with star Bruce Campbell, who was himself costumed as his Deadite-slaying character Ash–but we never got to watch the film. It wasn’t until a few days later that I had the opportunity to see it. And I was blown away.

One of the things that I loved about ED2 was the crazy inventiveness of it all, especially the camera work. One shot began on a close-up of Campbell’s face as he lay on the ground, then zoomed rapidly up about thirty feet into the air, spinning as it did so. Another breathtaking sequence was filmed from the point of view of the unseen demonic force as it chased Campbell through the woods and into the cabin. In what appeared to be one unbroken shot (actually involving several hidden edits), the camera blasted through the windows of his car and crashed through door after door, seemingly only inches from catching its intended victim.

Another remarkable thing about the film was its surprising sense of humor. Raimi was (and is) a longtime fan of the Three Stooges, and their influence was obvious, particularly during the sequence in which Campbell’s hand became demon-possessed and embarked on a campaign of self-abuse. Bruce Campbell was forced to smash plates over his own head and throw himself into the cabinetry.

Evil Dead II veered from horrific gore to cartoon comedy, occasionally to disturbing effect. In one quirky scene, Campbell went mad as the contents of the cabin–everything from gooseneck lamps to mounted deer heads–came to life and cackled at him.

And, of course, there were copious amounts of gore. Raimi used fountains of (intentionally) fake-looking blood and ichor, only to have the resulting fluid vanish in the next shot.

Finally, there was the completely-out-of-left-field twist ending. I will not reveal it here, but at the time I viewed it as the ultimate “screw you,” both to Campbell’s character and the audience itself. It made me want to see the next sequel immediately. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be until 1993 that Army of Darkness–also a favorite film of mine in its own way–loped into theaters.

Both Raimi and Campbell seem much too busy these days to produce the oft-requested fourth film of the Evil Dead series, but Raimi’s recent release Drag Me to Hell (which just came out on DVD, as is well worth your attention) returned to his low-budget horror-comedy roots.

*When it came time to make the follow-up, footage from the earlier film was unavailable due to rights issues. Therefore, the first seven minutes of Evil Dead II were  a remake rather than a sequel, with the plot collapsed to its basics and three of the original characters removed from the recap. In much the same way, Army of Darkness reshot and compressed the action of the first two films in its own prologue.