When The Evil Dead was released in 1981, it was touted as “The Ultimate Experience In Grueling Terror.” The low-budget shocker, directed by Sam Raimi and starring his childhood friend, Bruce Campbell, is an inventive blood- and ooze-soaked gem.Despite getting caught up in the “video nasties” obscenity bans in the UK in the 1980’s, The Evil Dead went on to become a franchise, with sequels, reboots, video games, and a TV series.
But I didn’t see it back then because I was too much of a scaredy cat and easily grossed out. I came to what has become my favorite horror franchise through the sequel, Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, which I didn’t see until the early ’90s when a friend convinced me that I would love it. He was right — ED II (as fans call it) is a funny, albeit gross, horror romp. Its sense of humor, especially at the expense of Campbell’s Ashley “Ash” J. Williams, is as infectious as a Kandarian demon coursing through a vein. Ash eventually becomes a badass demon slayer after losing his hand and replacing it with a chainsaw, though in the third film, Army of Darkness (1992), he’s still pretty pompous and goofy.
Anyway, after I fell madly in love with Raimi’s sensibilities and Campbell’s Bruce-ness, and having conquered my fear of both the subject matter and the level of gore, I dove into the first Evil Dead, expecting the same level of insanity and humor. Instead, I was horrified — in a good way.
Because the character of Ash evolved into a quip machine of a (frequently reluctant) hero, it’s easy to forget that he was simply a scared college student in the original film. Yes, The Evil Dead has some comic relief, but the rest of the film is pure, unadulterated terror. Raimi leaned into the humor in ED II, given Campbell’s excellent comic sensibilities, but Original Ash is just a guy in over his head as forces he doesn’t understand turn a camping trip to the woods with friends into a night of bloody monstrosities.
Five friends — Scott, his girlfriend Shelly, their friend Ash, his girlfriend Linda, and hissister Cheryl — go to a cabin in the woods of Tennessee for some relaxation and fun. Almost immediately, things go awry, as the quintet soon discover the Book of the Dead, play a tape of an archaeologist reading from said book, and get possessed one by one. There is a very disturbing scene of Cheryl being raped by trees early on, and she is the first one to lose her soul to the demons. Ash and Scott learn that in order to defeat the evil spirits, they have to dismember the bodies of the possessed. No Father Damien is coming with the power of Christ to compel the demons out — just the power of an axe and a chainsaw. Needless to say, things get very bloody as the cackling evil dead attack the living with pencils, fingernails, and whatever else they can.
The film had a budget of $375,000, so Raimi had to innovate to get the shots he wanted. My favorite behind-the-scenes tidbit has always been the crew mounting a camera on a board, with two operators holding the ends and running through the scenes to show the demon’s point of view as it approaches its victim. It’s a shot that is repeated throughout the series (but we don’t see whose point of view it is until the TV series, Ash vs. Evil Dead).
Most of all, every time I go back to The Evil Dead, I still…get that sense of terror, yes, but also the thrill of seeing a new set of talents finding their footing: Raimi developing the directorial style that he would eventually get to use in big-budget superhero blockbusters, and Campbell showing flashes of his famous wit but also a vulnerability and seriousness he would display in future roles (even Brisco County, Jr. had his touching moments). ED II might be my favorite of the franchise because I saw it first, but The Evil Dead will always be one of the scariest damn movies I’ve ever seen — and will see again and again, scared every time and loving every minute of it.
The Evil Dead is streaming on AMC+