Friday, April 9, 2010

REVIEW: The Evil Dead

The Evil Dead
Director: Sam Raimi
Year 1981

The Evil Dead is an atmospheric low-budget gorefest, where a group of friends travel to a secluded cabin in the woods, only to unknowingly unleash an ancient evil by playing a taperecorder that recites passages from the Book of the Dead. This evil entity begins to possess the group, plaguing them with demons from without and within. The paranoia of not knowing who to trust and how to stop the evil from overtaking them all, is a blood soaked fun ride and one that never lets go as they all one by one surcome to the possesions of the demons. This film has an engaging style and an excellent cast that literally go through hell in order to complete what is considered, in my eyes as, a masterpiece of horror cinema and one of my favorite films of all time. Let's get on to the good stuff.

The film starts out with five friends as they drive, a now legendary Oldsmobile Delta 88, to a cabin in the woods. This car will show up in almost every one of director Sam Raimi's films from here on out. They cross an old rickety bridge where they almost get stuck, until they finally make it to the long dirt road that leads up to the cabin. This long shot that introduces us to the cabin is really something special, and Raimi decides to track behind the car with a graceful and plodding take that coasts along beautiful until they reach their destination. The cabin is almost beautiful in its grotesque and haunting stillness. The only sound that can be heard is the banging of the front porch as it violently connects with the outer wooden walls of the cabin. This is how you create a soundscape and one that pulls the audience in and feels the character's tension.

Scott, played by Richard DeManincor, is a bit
apprehensive about going in first and who can blame him.

This attention to detail in the soundscape, really creates a sensational scene and sets up a brilliant and haunting introduction to the mystery that surrounds this ominous cabin. As Scott goes to unlock the front door, the porch swing eerily stops for no apparent reason and stays perfectly still like some unseen hand had quelled its temper. This abrupt cut from the loud rhythmic banging of porch meeting cabin, to the quiet stillness of the silent forest is quite unsettling and strikes a foreboding nerve with the audience right off the bat. There are so many scenes like this one, that rely on the sounds to build up a sort of tension and make us aware of our surroundings. They're all done with what would seem a result of years of experience, only this is Sam Raimi's first feature film, and what a debut it is.

Bruce Campbell, as Ash, can
make a damn good toast. Party down!

Another one of these well crafted chilling scenes occurs as the group is having dinner. We are given a shot that focus mainly on the group as they talk and laugh, but on the left side of the frame our eye is drawn back to the background of the room where a trap door is subtly lit. The framing throughout the film is impeccable and quite unorthodox, but only serves to make this film that much more interesting and fresh feeling. 

As we watch the friends enjoying dinner, suddenly the trap door swings open by an invisible force and we're treated to a haunting score by Joseph LoDuca, who will go on to score the two sequels, Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness. The impact of the music is felt right away and you know you're in for a treat. Joseph really lends his ear to the piece and brings his morbid melodies in at just the right time. This soundtrack is bar none one of the main reasons that this film excels in placing you right smack dab in the middle of this secluded cabin with these kids. You feel the isolation of this place through the music and you get the unsettling feeling that something is watching you from the darkness of the woods. I can't compliment Joseph enough for what he has accomplished with this score and I believe that there wouldn't be an Evil Dead series without his added touch to make an unsettling and frequently creepy musical score.

A wonderful angle of the three girls as they
watch Ash descend into the basement.

I realize that this is Raimi and company's first try at a full length feature and they filmed this during their college years, but the acting is surprisingly great in this film. These are some of the most natural performances that you could ever ask for in a low budget mood piece like this and the fact that they were put through hell with all the makeup effects and were payed virtually pennies for their time, is really a credit to the resolve that they had when tackling this film. They treated the material with respect and never veered off the path of portraying a serious horror film. When a film crew does something like this, they earn my respect and these guys earn a whole hell of a lot.

For instance, Ellen Sandweiss who plays Cheryl, really puts herself into her role. She throws herself to the ground and climbs through dry straw-like grass as she runs from the unseen evil as it chases her through the woods. She's dirty and disheveled and you believe that this is happening to her because she puts so much of herself into the filming of this movie and that's a sign of a true actor.

Run Cheryl, Run!

The same can be said for the entire cast. They all shared the burden of wearing layers of latex make-up and having their bodies covered from head to toe in fake blood. The punishment of this harsh shoot brought about a more realistic portrayal in the bitter end and it shows on screen. As they struggle and fight to stay alive, we can see it and it translates perfectly into a believable sequence of events.

Their efforts make the idea of an unseen evil as something tangible and grounded in this film's reality. The selling of the evil's trademark point of view cam is sold by the tremendous acting of the dedicated cast. We see the horror in their eyes and we get it. We don't need a gruesome effect or visual for the evil that lurks in the woods, when we have the reactions of the actors to go by and the haunting sound effects of the evil's vocals as it chases down its prey. The creative ideas that the filmmakers were forced to come up with because of their budget restraints, really makes this film much better for it and shows how amazing a film can be when you have the drive and skill to pull off a labor of love like this film was for Raimi and company.

A striking silhouetted shot that has been burned into
my memory from my first viewing of this film years ago.

The possession scenes are literally and figuratively, off the wall, as our demonic cast turns into the most wretched beasts imaginable. It must have been a grueling ordeal to have all of the make-up effects applied before rolling around on the ground in wild fits of rabid rage and foaming at the mouth. These possession events are frightening and no one seems immune to the sickness. I remember when I first saw this film. It left such a dynamic impression on me by how raw and powerful the horror aspect was delivered, that I couldn't shake how demented the whole affair was. Till this day, I still connect that unsettling feeling to this flick and that is such an amazing thing to accomplish.

A demonic spirit possesses Cheryl and
proceeds to freak out the rest of the group.

The location of the cabin is so amazingly shot and expertly framed that you can tell that Sam Raimi really brought his A game to his first feature picture. The foggy night air and the warm lights emitting from the inside of the cabin really strike at the audience's sense of insecurity and gives us that overbearing feeling of solitude and helplessness that the characters are going through. This cabin feels like it's in the middle of nowhere, which it was. The movie was actually filmed at an existing cabin in Michigan and the real life location lends so much creditability to the overall look of the film. It is such a beautifully macabre place and one that brings nothing but horrors to mind when viewed through Raimi's expressive lens.

Shelly, played by Theresa Tilly, looks
out her window just before evil strikes.

The effects in this movie are phenomenal and never let its low budget hinder its effectiveness. This can be credited to all the amazing work that Tom Sullivan has put into this film. He also did the design work for the actual book of the dead and I must say that the thing is a work of hideous genius. His artistic flair lends heavily to the overall look of the entire Evil Dead series. His concept for the possessed look of the deadites, what is known as the demons in Evil Dead lore, is absolutely terrifying in its grotesque and decayed fashion, with their listless eyes and open scabs. I've had the pleasure of meeting Tom a few times as he's always willing to talk about his work on these films and more then happy to show a few works of art that were made specifically for The Evil Dead franchise. He's a great guy and deserves a large part of the credit for making The Evil Dead the success that it is.

A disgusting look at a possessed
Shelly, courtesy of Tom Sullivan's effects.

Sam Raimi also doesn't skimp on the gore. He brings it on in buckets and seems to relish the site of red as it splashes across the screen with great gory effect. Many of the shots where the red stuff is flowing, is actually rather beautiful in its composition as it takes up parts of the frame. A single shot of an ax as it is lifted up after delivering a few blows, splashes a crimson mess on the walls behind the ax and delivers an artists interpretation of a murder scene in the style of an abstract painting. The canvas that Raimi works from is rarely clean and always worn and dirty and covered with whatever sick and twisted substance that he can get his hands on. This gives the impression of a world that is lived in and one that feels believable, even if it is a bit on the surrealistic side.

A dynamic shot of a bloody ax with
its crimson canvas in the background.

Another actress that gives it her all is Betsy Baker who plays Linda, Ash's girlfriend. Her possession scenes are unsettling, but in a different way then how the other girls portray their demons. She plays a demented child-like character that sings nursery rhymes about possessing the surviving group. This scene is sick and twisted in its delivery as Linda sits indian style in the middle of the doorway saying, "We're gonna get you. We're gonna get you." Just thinking about it makes shivers run up and down my spin. She even gives us a good freak out scene when Ash drags her outside the cabin and leaves her to thrash on the ground like a person having a seizure, all the while foaming at the mouth and making an ungodly animalistic growling sound. Needless to say she doesn't hold back in her performance and her efforts are  much appreciated.

Betsy Baker can play one creepy-ass and demented demon.

There are so many memorable moments in this film that have such striking visuals that really pack a punch. One of these instances happens when Cheryl's possessed demonic face peers up from the locked trap door and she attempts to bust her way out whenever someone starts getting attacked by another demon. Her fervent blood lust reaction is unsettling and she makes for such a powerful presence even though she is locked up and her face is only inches off the floor, but I think this has a lot to do with how Raimi filmed those scenes of her in the basement. He really gets the camera low and to the ground, bringing the lens up close for an in your face shot of Cheryl's gaping, bloody, and decayed teeth and her glossed over eyes. This shot is just amazing and rather creepy in its delivery and action.

Holy shit that is crazy looking! What happened to her eyes!

We also get a lot of inner struggles with the character of Ash, played by the immortalized Bruce Campbell. He has to come to terms that his girlfriend is gone and the only way to stop this demon that has possessed her is to dismember her body. Interestingly enough, he can't bring himself to do it and later suffers the consequences of his actions by getting his leg all torn up by the recently buried corpse of Linda. Bruce does a great job with portraying the confusion that someone would go through while deciding on what the right course of action would be when your friends begin threatening to tear you apart and swallow your soul. He's not as daring as he is in later parts of this trilogy and I rather like his passive character in this first film. He is more grounded to earth and realistic and fits with the serious horror tone of the film.

Ash tries to come to terms with
what has happened to his girlfriend.

There's another great scene that follows Ash's leg being torn up. Linda proceeds to rise from her grave and lunge for Ash as he lays on the ground dumbfounded. He grabs a shovel and swings with all his strength, loping Linda's head clean off and allowing her headless body to fall on top of him. Now this is where it gets really weird. The body continues to struggle as it pins down Ash, spurting buckets of blood from its stumpy neck and covering him in a fine crimson liquid. The decapitated head lies to the side of Ash seemingly enjoying this morbid tussle in the hay. It's a scene that seems like it would fit right in with Peter Jackson's, Dead Alive, and its a precursor of where the series would be heading in the future.

It was a bad time for Linda to lose her head.

Raimi showcases his pension for making skewed compositions as the film progresses into chaos for our character Ash. He enjoys tilting the camera in every which way, even arching the camera over characters heads and placing them upside down in the frame. This free form play with the direction, makes for some interesting shots and unique sequences that branch off from the usual images we get in other horror films. It's abstract in its execution and offers a genuinely off kilter way of conveying the confusion that Ash is going through as he fights for his very existence.

Ash searches around the cabin
for any sign of the recently possessed.

Each sequence of this film continues beautifully into the next and there is never an abrupt change of events that takes you out of the film. The direction is spot on, letting you flow freely from one segment to the other as Ash goes from one battle to the next. The scenes never falter into the mundane and don't  disappoint in bringing visually stimulating compositions and images. It really is an impressive debut for a director that would go on to make a very big impression in hollywood.

Scott is back for another round of soul swallowing.

One of the things that these series of films are famous for is how Sam Raimi seems to relish in putting Bruce Campbell through hell. He dumps so much fake blood onto Bruce and puts him through so many punishing scenes that it begins to be exhausting as we watch Ash be put through the rigger over and over again. Now this may be an exhausting performance, but it never over stays its welcome as each set piece is more elaborate then the rest until we get up to the final climax where Ash is having his legs torn at by a possessed Scott, while demonic Cheryl is clubbing his sides with a hot iron poker. It gets pretty brutal, but by the luck of the draw, Ash figures out a way to destroy these undead fiends and deliver them back to the hell from where they came, with a stylistic stop motion schmorgesborg of gory delights.

Bruce being Bruce. Bruised, Battered, and Bloody.

The entire film is an exhausting exercise in seeing how much we can put a single character through without them losing their mind. Ash's character goes from being a passive kind of guy that sits back while Scott does all the hard work, but once he is left to fend for himself, he comes into his own and shows that he actually has a backbone and the courage to back it up. Bruce does a wonderful job here and he will reprise his role in the next two films, developing his character into something else entirely. It's interesting to watch this metamorphosis of Ash in his humble beginnings to the bad-ass that he will later become in the third installment. This film is just a wild ride that keeps the horror coming by the bloody buckets full and never lets up and stalls in its overall attempt to put something glorious on the screen.

What a peaceful ending to this bloody story. Or is it?

The Evil Dead is a gritty and intense horror opus that uses its talented acting and artisan crew to its fullest ability. The craft that went into making this intimate yet epic low budget film is ahead of its time and should be a staple for anyone wanting to break into the horror genre. The love and dedication that went into making this film is seen across the board and this is one film that I'm proud to display in my collection, in multiple formats and editions. Raimi and company knocked it out of the park with The Evil Dead and went above and beyond what a normal debut feature length film typically does. This film will go down in the history books as being one of the most innovative, creative, and down right marvelously bloody good times that anyone can find at the movies. This is recommended for anyone who loves gore, horror, and a movie that never holds back its punches and goes straight for the jugular.

Me back in 2003, with the amazing cast of The Evil Dead.
The friendliest bunch of demons you'll ever get the pleasure to meet.

5 out of 5 stars            One of My Favorite Horror Films of All Time!


  1. This film is genius. The score. The acting. A prime example of how low budget does not have to mean low quality. Last year I persuaded a friend of mine to watch it for the first time. She was utterly horrified. She said the score was too creepy and threatened to stop watching it during some of the best scenes. She survived, but swore she would never spend Halloween with me again and called my horror marathon a "stressful event" which is perhaps, an accurate description.

    This is a true gem and one of personal favorites.

    And nice photo with the cast!

  2. You're completely right and that's awesome that you scared the crap out of your friend. Not too many people appreciate this little gem and I'm stumped on why they feel this way. In my mind it's one of the best horror movies around and it's an absolute blast to watch.

    Yeah the photo's funny. I don't know what Shelly, Theresa Tilly, was attempting to do to me, but it's pretty hilarious. She kind of just grabbed me out of no where and pulled me in. Good times and a great bunch of people.

  3. Excellent film. A classic. Highly recommended for all audiences!