It seems strange that Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead was rated X when it came out in 1981 (it’s now NC-17 in accordance with the MPAA’s current, very scientific ratings system). It’s certainly loaded with some truly vile and vicious gore, gnarly effects and yes, sexual assault by trees, but on the other hand, every last film fan of a certain age and anarchic disposition has seen it. How did it freak out the moral guardians so hard?
As the movie turns 40 and the people who made it are more well-known and well-regarded than ever, it’s worth it to ask why a self-aware little B-movie on a shoestring budget became a late night dorm room phenomenon.
Five college kids in a 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 rent a cabin in the woods in Tennessee. The bridge leading up to the cabin is rickety, the woods foreboding and dark, and the cabin itself creaky and abandoned. All seems set for some slasher boogeyman to come stomping out of the dark and start killing promiscuous youngsters. Instead, it’s a combination of the woods themselves and body-possessing demons that start turning the college kids, one by one, into distorted ghouls.
Pretty soon, Bruce Campbell’s Ash is the last man standing: Wrestling, screaming and punching his way through his dead friends and getting bucketfuls of gore all over himself in the process. It’s the simplest of setups, the sort of horror movie that, if written today, would be filled with scenes where the desperate characters try to puzzle out just what the hell is happening to them and why. Fortunately, Raimi isn’t interested in that at all.
A lot of The Evil Dead plays out in creepy atmospheric shots, or camera technique that clearly took a lot of work: A car’s tire bashing through a bridge, shots where it glides through woods or over water. The creatures themselves are fashioned out of elaborate makeup and stop motion animation, with some reverse motion effects thrown in. There’s never really a moment when you don’t know exactly how an effect in The Evil Dead was achieved, but it doesn’t spoil the experience at all: You’re there to watch crazy, transgressive gore and violence and the movie is there to give it to you, and isn’t shy about it in the least.
Raimi and Campbell grew up together, and by 1979 had made a few Super 8 films together with other fellow creatives, including Evil Dead II writer Scott Spiegel. Raimi and his group made comedies, and basically every one of his movies, from horror to superhero fare, has had the rhythms and grammar of comedy. That’s the thing about The Evil Dead: Usually when a movie is winking at the audience, it’s through the script, or the acting. The Evil Dead is messing with you through things like its blocking, or its choice of perspective. It’s a slapstick sensibility ingrained into the movie.
That becomes much less subtle and much more explicit by the end of the movie, when Campbell is essentially stumbling around the house getting his block knocked off by his demon zombie friends and the increasingly animate house, all of which start puking blood all over him. For the people who come to The Evil Dead because they’ve already seen or want to get the full context before watching its way hammier sequels, it may not seem like the same series at first, but the seeds for those movies are way more evident by the end.
The Evil Dead’s severe MPAA rating had to be one reason so many people ended up seeking it out, but it undoubtedly benefited from being released just as VHS rentals became a thing. It wasn’t until 1987 that Raimi and Campbell returned to the cabin in the woods for the far more ambitious Evil Dead II, which didn’t have the benefit of having the rights to any of the footage from the original movie and so plays like something of a reboot/remake with significantly more intricate special effects. That in turn spawned 1991’s Army of Darkness, a movie that fully commits to action B-movie excess and Campbell’s so-lame-they’re-awesome one-liners. (The videogame hero Duke Nukem lifted them verbatim, the better for you to know not to take him too seriously.)
The series has spawned everything from a well-received television show to video games, comics and a tabletop roleplaying game, but ultimately the series’ legacy is that it gave Hollywood Campbell, Generation X’s most prolific B-movie actor bar none, and Raimi, who’s gone on to direct some unforgettable movies.
What still shines through upon watching The Evil Dead 40 years later, laying aside all the things that have come after it that you love to quote and riff on, is the sense that it’s a labor of love and ingenuity created by a small, tight-knit team of creators who stretched themselves nearly to the breaking point just to get the thing made. You can see everybody’s fingerprints on the movie in every scene, in every effect, in every over-the-top line reading by Campbell, who was a cab driver freshly dropped out of college at the time. By any way you could judge such a feat, they made one of the most successful and influential independent movies ever.
Kenneth Lowe is will swallow your soul!! You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.