I became a horror fan in my early teens when I finally made it through The Exorcist without turning it off. After that, I watched as much horror as I could manage, but I don’t remember the first time I saw The Evil Dead. I think it may have been at a friend’s house when I was around 16, about 15 years after it made its debut – and it was still relevant. It is STILL relevant today over 40 years after it opened. What makes The Evil Dead so iconic? Why is a low-budget horror movie filled with dark humor and practical effects that in no way look real still a must-see for horror fans? Why is it still spawning sequels in 2023? Why does the 20-year-old musical still play locally every Halloween? What is it that makes The Evil Dead so special?
In writer and director Sam Raimi’s feature film debut, a group of five teenagers (two couples and a third wheel) go on vacation to a secluded cabin in the woods – in 1981 this was a novel idea, and not a stereotypical horror setting. When the basement door flies open, the group goes down to investigate and finds a strange book (the Necronomicon or Book of the Dead) and a recording of the incantations contained within. Of course they mess with it; they are intoxicated teenagers after all, and they summon the Kandarian demons asleep in the woods – as is to be expected when reading aloud from books bound in human flesh, written in blood and found in abandoned cabin basements. One by one, the evil demons possess the teenagers, leaving Ash (Bruce Campbell in his feature film debut) as the last man standing.
Cheryl, Ash’s sister, first notices something wrong when her hand becomes possessed while drawing, but she doesn’t mention it to the others. After they find the book, Cheryl hears voices in the woods and goes to investigate – which is when she has the infamous run-in with foliage. When she returns to the cabin, the others don’t believe her story – and they are unable to escape the woods because the bridge has collapsed. Back at the cabin, Cheryl becomes possessed and stabs Linda (Ash’s girlfriend) in the ankle with a pencil, so they lock her in the cellar. Shelly is possessed next and attacks her boyfriend (and Ash’s best friend) Scotty. They dismember Shelly and bury her in the woods. Scotty is attacked by trees while trying to find an alternate way out of the woods, meanwhile Linda also gets possessed. Eventually they all are possessed except Ash, who finally escapes the demons by throwing the book into the fire. As dawn breaks, an entity speeds through the woods descending on Ash as he screams and the end credits roll.
The Evil Dead is a treatise on making something with nothing
Shot over twelve weeks in 1979 on a budget of $375,000 on location at a remote cabin in the Tennessee woods that the thirteen member cast and crew actually slept in (with no running water), The Evil Dead became a career launching cult classic that inspired directors like Peter Jackson and the Coen brothers. One of the most violent and gory movies of its time, The Evil Dead is unrated and banned in many countries. Raimi tried to procure an R rating by using blood in colors of white, green, and black instead of red, but was clearly unsuccessful.
With a small crew and even smaller budget, the effects all had to be practical and innovative using gallons of make-up, puppets, wires, and real ammunition and chainsaws. The actors’ reactions are so convincing because there were so many accidental injuries during filming – they were actually getting hurt. The camerawork is a case of brains-over-budget where friends Raimi, Campbell, and Tom Sullivan created unconventional makeshift camera riggings to create specific effects like the POV of the demons running through the woods. Possibly the most infamous scene of Cheryl’s unfortunate interaction with local fauna was filmed in reverse, and the effects in climactic scene where the book is set on fire are achieved by stop-motion filming.
The Evil Dead is quite possibly the most popular cult film of all time. Writer/director Sam Raimi describes the experience as a right of passage in his life, and it is also a right of passage for any young horror fan to bridge the gap between the mainstream and maniacal. The Evil Dead launched many an iconic career – Bruce Campbell reached cult status from his brilliant ass-kicking, wise-cracking performances over the trilogy, Sam Raimi went on to direct the original Spider Man trilogy and more recently Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, and Joel Cohen (co-editor) later along with his brother created such classics as The Big Lebowski and Fargo. The movie itself has grown into a multi-media franchise spawning a TV show, remake, video games, and even a stage musical – another sequel, Evil Dead Rise, is set for a 2023 release.
I cannot find The Evil Dead currently streaming, perhaps because of its NC-17 rating, but Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness are currently available to rent on Amazon Prime Video.
Do you think The Evil Dead is deserving of its iconic cult status? Let me know in the comments!