Published on March 29th, 2013 | by Clint Davis

The Evil Dead [1981]

The Evil Dead [1981] Clint Davis

Summary: It may not be Shakespeare, but what Sam Raimi was able to make with a small budget and some fearless actors defines what cult cinema is all about.


Damn Fine

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NR  |  85 min.

Director: Sam Raimi  |  Screenplay: Sam Raimi

Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Hal Delrich

Studio: New Line Cinema

Armed with a small budget earned from local investors, a loyal 13-person crew, a five-piece cast of unknowns, and barely enough script for an hour of material–Sam Raimi created a movie that still defines cult cinema over thirty years later.

You’ve probably heard the horror stories, but much of the credit for The Evil Dead‘s success should be given to those dedicated souls who followed Raimi into the Tennessee woods and subjected themselves to sub-human work conditions on faith alone.  The budding director had no feature-length credits to his name, and had raked together $375,000 to create a horror film.  Let’s cut the bullshit though, this film’s success is largely thanks to three people: Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker, and Sarah York.

The film’s three female cast members put total trust into the young director–and are lucky they came out of it with their eyesight intact.  This movie uses a ton of over-the-top special effects to scare the audience and these ladies effectively acted as Raimi’s guinea pigs.  When asked about the notorious white contact lenses they donned once possessed, York described them as wearing “a Tupperware lid in your eye”.  Sandweiss, who had the majority of screen time in makeup, was asked if the contacts were painful to wear–to which she replied, “Does a bear shit in the woods?”.

Our heroes (l-r): Ash, Linda, Cheryl, Scotty, and Shelly.

The Evil Dead follows five college buddies (2 male, 3 female) on a short vacation from their native Michigan to the secluded woods of Tennessee.  When exploring the dilapidated cabin they’re staying in, Ash (Bruce Campbell) and Scotty (Hal Delrich) come upon some audio tapes and a book that appears to be made of human skin.  Upon playing the tape, they realize their mystery book is the Sumerian Book of the Dead, or “Naturon Demonto”, describing ancient burial rituals and methods to raise the dead.  Toward the end of the tape, its narrator begins speaking an unknown tongue–setting off the rest of the film’s action.  “One by one” (as the film’s most-frightening line says) the friends begin to turn possessed by demons, eventually leaving only Ash to fend for himself.

Looking back at The Evil Dead, it appears to carry every horror cliche in the book.  Five young friends on a trip?  Check.  The worst, most secluded vacation spot imaginable?  Check.  A car that won’t start when it needs to?  Check.  A rickety old bridge leading to their deathtrap cabin?  Check.  Even the film’s cast of characters follows every archetype present in a boilerplate horror movie: Scotty – alpha male, Ash – likeable hero, Linda – sweet love interest, Shelly – the easy one (I infer this because we see her getting naked with Scotty, through a window), Cheryl – the misunderstood loner.

However, audiences today need to remember that this movie was produced in early 1980, only two years following John Carpenter’s introduction of the slasher genre with Halloween–so these elements were not as stock as they were by the decade’s close.  It’s clear from the film’s first ten minutes that Sam Raimi has a gift for creating an unsettling mood with only camera angles and sounds.  As the friends drive through the Tennessee backwoods, you first see a pair of faceless locals waving as the car passes–what’s not clear is if they’re waving “Hello” or “Goodbye”.  From that moment, you know it’s all downhill for our heroes.

When asked if the infamous white contacts were painful to wear, Ellen Sandweiss replied, “Does a bear shit in the woods?”.

The Evil Dead is anything but subtle, Raimi wants you to know anything can happen, and that it likely will.  Through the film’s 85 minutes: bodies are hacked into pieces, a pencil becomes an ankle’s worst enemy, and a girl is sexually assaulted by some flora.  The movie is paced really well for the first hour, but the last act drags awfully as the film’s images become more abstract.  Also, be warned that the sound effects and garbled voices produced by the demons are downright annoying if you have the volume cranked up–but this does make the silent moments a bit more tense.

In more recent years, this movie has developed a devoted cult following largely because of the over-the-top gore, campy performances, and Bruce Campbell becoming an underground hero.  I feel that when Raimi made this movie, he set out to make a serious, scary horror picture–it wasn’t until its sequels (1986’s The Evil Dead II and 1992’s Army of Darkness) that the series took on a more intentionally-comedic tone.

The Evil Dead lives on over thirty years later because it was obviously a work of love and dedication.  Too often with movies, especially big-budget horror projects, it feels like the actors and director were going through the motions just to get a paycheck–with this movie, it’s obvious Raimi and his performers were going for broke.  This movie also feels like a jam session among unpolished jazz musicians, as it feels like they were making things up as they went along.  It’s this experimentation that often makes directorial debuts and more-largely, independent cinema so exciting to watch.

Buy The Evil Dead on Amazon.

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About the Author

Clint Davis is a Cincinnati, Ohio-based journalist who dropped out of film school to write news! Email him at TheClintDavis@gmail.com.

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