Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema, and the filmmaker’s own biography. October sees not only the onset of Halloween but the birthday of cult horror maestro-turned-mainstream filmmaker Sam Raimi; all month, we’re web-slinging through his vibrant, diverse filmography. Read the rest of our coverage here.
The most striking thing about The Evil Dead is that, after all this time, it’s still scary as hell. Maybe that should be no great achievement: Horror movies ought to, in theory at least, still manage a few scares even on repeat viewings. But the amount of fright-inducing spectacle that writer-director Sam Raimi and company pack into eighty-five blood-soaked minutes is still remarkable for so many reasons.
Not the least of which is the fact that The Evil Dead was an independent, hard-scrabble production without the funds or the know-how of big studio features. That DIY spirit suffuses the film as much as the horror does, making each spill and chill that much more impressive. Even without the behind-the-scenes stories of Raimi and producer/star Bruce Campbell begging and borrowing their way into the financing necessary to make this film, there’s a rough-around-the-edges feel to The Evil Dead that gives it a certain realness despite its over-the-top trappings.
The setup sees five college students vacationing in a remote cabin in the woods. Things start to go awry when one of them discovers a “book of the dead” in the cabin’s cellar, and along with other haunting paraphernalia, the ability to wake ancient demons laying dormant in this secluded grove. What follows is an outsized horrorshow of possession, dismemberment, and every bodily fluid imaginable.
That liquid assault may be the lasting legacy of Raimi’s horror debut. The fiends and victims of The Evil Dead don’t just bleed; they spurt and leak and gush at every turn. Beyond the usual array of corn syrup and food coloring, Raimi’s monsters explode with bursts of mysterious white liquid and creamed corn. They disintegrate and crumble into a disturbing, multicolored slush of supernatural viscera. The possessed bite and lick and claw at everything in their path until everyone and everything is drenched in gore. If you want blood and guts done up to eleven, this movie has you covered.
Despite that crimson tidal wave, there’s a noteworthy, albeit low-key strain of sentiment that runs throughout. Make no mistake—The Evil Dead is not a terribly deep or intricate movie in terms of its story or characters. The major players are largely flat archetypes, thrust into a terrifying but uncomplicated situation, as they’re tortured and killed off one-by-one. But Raimi and his team do just enough to underscore the connection between Ash (Campbell) and Linda (Betsy Baker) for the viewer to feel for each of them as their chance for romantic seclusion turns deadly.
Ash can’t bring himself to fully quell the woman he cares for, even after the demons have taken hold of her. The cruel phantoms toy with him by returning her to the surface for a fleeting instant, in one of the film’s most harrowing moments. What’s more, The Evil Dead’s recurring symbol is the necklace Ash gave to Linda in a quiet moment, one that he holds onto as a reminder throughout the grisly proceedings. Theirs isn’t the world’s grandest love story, but these moments provide just enough dimension to Ash to make us sympathize with him as the beleaguered prey of these evil spirits and to feel his sense of loss amid the gloriously bloody display.
It remains stunning, almost forty years later, how much of that sort of spectacle Raimi and company managed to achieve amid such a fledgling production. Much of that owes to Raimi’s direction and the work of cinematographer Tim Philo. Despite the entire film taking place in one cabin and the small wooded area surrounding it, there’s a tremendous sense of place to The Evil Dead.
What emerges from the brilliant shots that hold the film together. There are plenty of Raimi’s famed dutch angles and the sort of long adventurous takes which add a sense of fluidity and scale to these scenes. But Raimi also knows when to close in on his actors’ eyes to convey the abject fear of a given moment, when to focus on the grasping of a tool or a hunk of flesh to force the audience to confront some piece of the horror in miniature, and when to go behind the eyes of a demonic spirit to lend otherwise calm sequences a demonic air. He and Philo were forced to improvise any number of rigs and off-the-cuff techniques to make a small movie seem big, and they succeeded with gory gusto.
[Raimi] and Philo were forced to improvise any number of rigs and off-the-cuff techniques to make a small movie seem big, and they succeeded with gory gusto.
The Evil Dead succeeds just as much due to the superb production design and make-up work at play. Raimi’s ghouls and assorted fake shemps terrify with sunken eyes, twitching heads, and bloody maws. The cabin itself feels believably dilapidated and haunted by a dark past. And the woods come alive with frightening vigor and ill-intent. Again, for a movie made for comparative peanuts relative to big-budget horror, the sheer look, and feel of the thing is profoundly unnerving in the best way.
The aspect of The Evil Dead most evident in Raimi’s later work is the rhythm and tension he and his team imbue into each sequence. A film with as many ghastly assaults and big set pieces as this one could easily become exhausting or static. Instead, Raimi plays the audience like a fiddle: he knows when to slow down, when to exasperate the viewer with an onslaught of frights, and when to lure in the audience with an apparent moment of calm or temporary safety before punctuating it with another burst of sheer terror. There’s a steady pace to the movie’s scares and surprises, which preserves the suspense and amplifies the shock and catharsis of its ultimate horrors.
That is both the joy and the grand achievement of The Evil Dead. Raimi would soon surpass himself in craft and scale (and certainly funding), but he never made a more stomach-churning fright-fest than this first great leap into the world of horror. The sequels, while full of the same over-the-top sequences and vaguely Looney Tunes logic, have a lighter, more tongue-in-cheek feel to them. The shift is to their benefit, as Raimi’s later movies revel in the off-beat sense of gallows humor that became one of his trademarks.
But there’s something to be said for the raw fright the budding director leaned into here. More so than in any of his other films, you are Ash in this one, desperately trying to survive while an unholy curse slowly overtakes all you know and throws horror after horror at you. The budgets grew bigger. The scope grew wider. But the scares were never so terrifying, or so pure, as in Raimi’s first trip out to the woods.