31 Screams in October, #19: The Evil Dead (1981)

Posted: October 20, 2014 in Movie Review
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The Evil Dead (1981)

Director: Sam Raimi

Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Hal Derich, Betsy Baker, Sarah York

In 1979, high school/college buddies Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell had just $350,000 and several willing friends to work with, but I’ve a hard time imagining any of them having the slightest inclination that this cheap little BYOP (Bring Your Own Props) horror movie would take off the way it did. “The Evil Dead” was not an easy film to piece together, and there were problems along the way. Because nearly the entire movie is set at night, the actors often found themselves freezing during scenes shot outside. Bruce Campbell got hit in the face with a camera at one point, resulting in a few broken teeth, and also injured his leg from a fall while running downhill. The film took a year and a half to complete. But it was all worth it in the end. “The Evil Dead” is now a cult-classic, with more than 30 years worth of fans, and Campbell and Rami are both household names. It all began with a trek to the woods of Morristown, Tennessee (just one hour’s drive from Knoxville, where I live).

Five friends are vacationing in Tennessee. I’m presuming that they are supposed to be from Michigan, since one of them wears a Michigan State sweatshirt (and since Raimi and Campbell themselves hail from Royal Oak, Michigan). Their destination is a cabin which they haven’t yet scoped out, but was cheap enough that they rented it without questioning the reason behind the bargain price. It’s a creepy-looking cabin, although the cellar seems to have several interesting items hidden away. Among them are a tape recorder and a strange-looking, probably very old book. The two are connected, and the tape reveals passages within the book which are said to have the power to give the dead free reign to possess the living. It would seem that our protagonists never heard the story of the curious cat, because they play the rest of the tape. Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), sister of Ash (Bruce Campbell), is affected first and locked in the cellar. Shelly (Theresa Tilly) is possessed next and is killed by her boyfriend, Scott (Hal Derich). Ash himself is forced to kill his own possessed girlfriend, Linda (Betsy Baker). For the last 20-25 minutes of the movie, only Ash remains to try and survive until morning.

At the time (and, really, still to this day), “The Evil Dead” was one of bloodiest… if not THE bloodiest… movies of all-time. It was so bloody that Sam Raimi made the decision to have the demons spit up 2% milk rather than fake blood in some scenes, just to avoid a harsher rating. It wound up being released unrated anyway. Although there are those who would look at this film and regard it as a horror-comedy, this is simply not the case. It is designed as straight horror. Both the story and the frantic camerawork support this. The movie’s most outright horrific moment comes when the forest springs to life and then attacks and rapes Cheryl.

There are several versions of the movie on home video. Depending on what country you live in, that may include a few edits here and there to downplay the violence and gore. In the United States, it is advisable to ignore any version of the film presented in widescreen. That may sound contrary to the usual advice you hear from aficionados, but it’s true. Any “widescreen” version of “The Evil Dead” is merely covering the top and bottom of the picture with black bars, to give the appearance of a theatrical presentation. This is especially problematic whenever there are close-up shots of the actors’ faces (of which there are many). “The Evil Dead” was filmed in 16mm, and thus should always be seen in fullscreen. On Blu-Ray, this isn’t a problem, but on DVD you really had to go hunting to find the right one (the Elite Entertainment release).

Beginning their careers with this horror classic didn’t make Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi stars overnight, but I applaud the effort it took to make this movie happen. Among the cost-cutting props were Raimi’s 1972 Oldsmobile, the tape recorder which belonged to Campbell’s father, and of course the cabin itself which has since burned to the ground, leaving behind only the chimney. Campbell is something of an icon these days, thanks largely to this movie and its sequels. Raimi is a well-respected director, whose most lucrative works are the “Spider-Man” trilogy, the third of which had a budget of $350 million, 1,000 times larger than that of “The Evil Dead.” What can be taken from a movie like “The Evil Dead” is that it just goes to show how much one can accomplish with a small amount of cash, a lot of ingenuity, and a little help from your friends.

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