Title: The Evil Dead
Year of Release: 1981
Director: Sam Raimi
Length: 85 mins
Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker, Hal Delrich
I remember the first time I saw The Evil Dead. I was in my early teens, and my folks had one on holiday leaving me home alone. I scared myself so much that I stayed awake the entire night with every light in the house switched on. Apart from an early encounter with An American Werewolf in London, that was my first experience of being absolutely shit scared by a film. During subsequent viewings, I learned to appreciate the crude humour as well as other aspects like the kick-ass script and innovative cinematography. But that first time, it was all about pure, unadulterated fear. I was absolutely terrified, and traumatised for weeks afterwards. It was brilliant. If I had to pin down the single most frightening aspect of the whole movie, it would be the trapdoor leading to the cellar. It still gives me chills thinking about it now. I’d love to live off the grid in a secluded log cabin in the woods. But if it has a trap door leading to the cellar, you can fucking keep it.
Wait a minute, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s rewind a little. If you haven’t seen Evil Dead (why?), it goes something like this…
Five college students go on vacation to a secluded log cabin in the woods which, as I mentioned, has a trapdoor leading to the cellar. You could probably attach any kind of metaphor to this. It could represent hell (the underworld), our subconscious mind, or any number of other things. But for the sake of argument, let’s just call it what it is. Obviously, the college students go exploring, and find some audio tapes made by a researcher who talks about something called the Book of the Dead, a book of spells and incantations bound in human flesh and written in human blood. The tapes summon demonic entities which, one by one, possess the students. The next thing you know, people are speaking in tongues and getting raped by trees left right and centre. The scene where Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) initially falls under the influence, levitates, and stabs her friend through the ankle with a pencil before being locked in the cellar is utterly horrifying. She keeps pushing her hands through the gap in the trapdoor and making gurgling noises. Ew. As you can probably imagine, things deteriorate drastically from that point on and pretty soon Ash (Bruce Campbell) is locked in a nightmarish battle for survival. Things don’t improve much when he realises the only defence against his possessed ex-friends is dismemberment with a chainsaw. Needless to say, it gets messy. Real messy.
The only thing letting the side down is the quality of the special effects, which though innovative for the time, sometimes come across as cheap and tacky. But you have to remember The Evil Dead was made almost forty years ago and cost around $350,000. Finances were such an issue that the crew consisted almost entirely of Raimi and Campbell’s family and friends. Largely as a result of an appearance at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival (where it was seen, and later emphatically endorsed by one Stephen King) the movie did manage to generate around $2.6 m, small potatoes in comparison with the $212 m raked in by that year’s biggest hit Raiders of the Lost Ark. In Germany, it was released in theatres and on video at the same time, and dominated the charts only to be banned shortly after. A heavily-censored version was released in the nineties but the ban on the original wasn’t lifted until 2016. This version is still preferable to the 2013 big-budget re-boot, largely because of the unpolished, rough and ready approach. It’s no surprise, either, that none of the original cast with the exception of Campbell went on to have much of an impact on Hollywood.
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At the end of filming, the crew put together a time capsule and left it inside the cabin’s fireplace. The cabin was later destroyed (Sam Raimi has claimed to have set it on fire himself, but he might have been joking) but the time capsule was discovered by a couple of Evil Dead fans. Hooray!
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