The Evil Dead
directed by Sam Raimi
(New Line, 1981)

The Evil Dead is one of the true Hall of Fame cult classics in the field of horror, a movie more than justified in billing itself as "the ultimate in grueling horror." Its pervasive influence is felt strongly even today, and the movie stands as a primer on how to do terror most effectively.

There are very few movies that I consider truly scary, but this low-budget Sam Raimi masterpiece of gory terror managed to delightfully tweak my hard-to-find fright nerves on several occasions. I was scrabbling to return light to my darkened room as soon as the end credits appeared. High school buddies Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, with the help of Robert Tapert, took their work very seriously, studying the reaction of drive-in horror movie audiences to see what works and what does not work in this type of film. This research made them wise beyond their early 20-something years as they committed themselves to a creed of "the gore the merrier," never letting up for a second once the real horror began.

Raimi, Campbell and Tapert parlayed a $1,600, 30-minute film called Within the Woods into a $350,000 investment venture to make this film, originally called Book of the Dead. They led a small group of visionaries, including the unforgettable ladies of Evil Dead, into the cold Tennessee wilderness and proceeded to make, sometimes almost on the fly, one of the most effective, unrelenting scary movies of all time. As the story goes, five young people -- two men and three women -- travel deep into the countryside to a run-down cabin for reasons never explained, discovering far more than a mysterious tape recording and obviously infernal book bound in human skin in the cellar. The tape reveals the voice of a supposed scientist who had come to this desolate spot along with his wife to study the ancient Sumerian Book of the Dead, which he had discovered. Foolishly, he records himself reading the ancient tongue of the book's demonic conjurations, and even more foolishly Ashley "Ash" Williams (Campbell) and Scotty (Hal Delrich) play these words, unknowingly calling forth from the earth an evil more ancient and terrifying than anything they could ever have imagined. Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), having earlier witnessed undeniable manifestations of something not good underneath the cellar door, foolishly goes out into the night in search of whomever she knows is out there, finding only a forest of trees seemingly alive and determined to rape her. After finding her way back to the cabin, she is the first person to be possessed by the appropriately named Evil Dead, and she delivers what is to me the most satisfying attack in a movie bursting at the seams with one attack after another. One by one, as the terrifying night unfolds, the quintet of friends are possessed and changed into disgustingly foul demons, until only one gore-encrusted survivor is left to battle his former friends for a life that can no longer even seem worth living.

I went into this film somewhat questioning the power of its legendary heritage, but once the first zombification scene rolled around, I knew that Evil Dead was going to fully live up to its dark promise. These poor ladies -- Sandweiss, Betsy Baker and Theresa Tilly -- let the makeup artists do anything to them, and they willingly and enthusiastically turned themselves into the sickest of creatures. I can hardly imagine how much Karo syrup was procured for this production, as the blood and gore just kept coming nonstop. The fight for survival led to the brutal use of axes, fingers to the eyes, shotguns, planks, everything within reach of the victims in that truly creepy little cabin in the dark woods.

Campbell took some time to grow into his role, but once his wimpy character saw what he had to do if he were to have any chance of surviving, he turned in a magnificent performance, exhibiting fear and loathing as well as any horror movie actor I have ever had the demented joy of watching.

The Evil Dead is a landmark horror film that all fans of the genre should be required to see, preferably in the darkest, more fear-inducing environment possible. Having it available on DVD in widescreen format is wonderful in and of itself, but this DVD comes with extras to further delight the gore-lovers out there. You get the theatrical trailer, four TV spots, a poster and still gallery, impressively lengthy cast and crew biographies, a Ladies of The Evil Dead booklet containing modern interviews with the movie's intrepid female stars, outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage, and not one but two audio commentaries for the film, one with writer/director Raimi and producer Tapert and one with legendary star Campbell. The Evil Dead is a horror fan's most demented dream come true.

- Rambles
written by Daniel Jolley
published 19 June 2004

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