The Evil Dead (1981)
Directed by: Sam Raimi
Starring: Bruce Campbell and 4 other people
Release date: October 15, 1981
Running time: 85 minutes
I wanted to change it up and do some horror. I had a lot of series I could do: the obvious big slasher ones like Halloween, Friday, and Nightmare. As I was going down my DVD shelf I spotted the Evil Dead series and realized I had never seen a single one of them. I own 5 Wrong Turns and the fucking direct to DVD third installment of the “I Know What You Did Last Summer” franchise but I’d never seen a single Evil Dead movie start to finish. This makes me an asshole.
This particular review is going to have a lot more “behind the scenes” stuff usual. I’m not trying to turn this into an IMDb trivia page, but anyone whose seen this movie knows how god damn ridiculous making it was, and for people like me who have never gotten around to watching it, it’s interesting to know how these 5 nobodies and a 20 year old with no money made a cheap movie in the middle of nowhere that went on to become one of the most influential horror movies ever.
This review is spoiler filled so if you haven’t seen it yet…
Watch this movie if: You don't want to be like me and be called a stupid piece of shit for not seeing it yet.
The movie begins with a POV shot of an unforeseen spirit flying through the woods while laughter echoes in the background. The spirit comes across a car driving down the road. Inside the car are five generic college students on their way to an isolated cabin in Tennessee for spring break. If you put this movie on for someone without telling them what it was and they saw grainy footage of teens heading to a cabin, they would know immediately they're getting raped, skinned, murdered, or all of the above. In the car are Ashley (Bruce Campbell), his sister Cheryl, and his girlfriend Linda as well as their friend Scott and his girlfriend Shelly. The steering wheel seems to move on its own and puts them into oncoming traffic as a truck barrels towards them. They swerve at the last second and avoid a collision. The tone is immediately set by the opening shot, and you can tell before they even reach the cabin that something is wrong, and something is waiting for them.
They come across a rickety-ass bridge and it begins to collapse as they cross it. They barely make it across and follow a trail in the woods and finally come across the cabin. And it's a real piece of shit. The second you see a place like this it doesn't matter if you're in a car, on a bike, or on foot. You instantly turn around and head the opposite direction, because you have a better shot of winning the lottery than you do of not being made into a skin coat in there.
|Spring Break Foreva|
The patio swing is ominously and rhythmically banging against the door as Scott approaches. Not loudly, but constantly, as if rocked by a foreboding wind. As soon as Scott grabs the keys, it stops. That’s the first sign that you should drop the keys and moonwalk the fuck back to the car and head back home. Spend spring break at your parents’ house playing Scattegories instead.
|That's as far as I'd walk into that cabin|
Scott explores the cabin while the others unpack the car. The shed is full of animal skulls, saws, and miscellaneous chains and has all the warm comforts of being ripped apart after solving the Hellraiser puzzle box. Every inch of where they're staying looks like it's going to be used to give them an experience beyond limits, pain and pleasure indivisible. Hey gang, it’s MTV Spring Break ‘99, let's go into the rural south and stay in an isolated, dilapidated cabin. I sure hope we don't get fucked apart by spooks and specters.
Night falls and Cheryl is alone in her room sketching a grandfather clock from across the room, because that's what you do on vacation. The clock freezes and begins to chime loudly. A voice from outside the window beckons "Join us." She frantically begins to draw what we later find out is the Book of the Dead, but actually kind of looks like Spongebob.
|ART THOU FEELING IT NOW MISTER ASH|
Then the cellar door begins banging open and shut. That's about the time I scream and tell everyone in that house what just happened. But she doesn't. The five of them gather round the table and eat a hearty country supper like nothing's wrong. As Ash is making a toast, the cellar door swings open. Fuck all of you people; I'm not even packing, I'm grabbing whatever is still in my bag and I'm leaving. I might love watching horror movies, but I am a humongous chickenshit, and the second a door on the floor leading to an unlit cellar swings open, I'm fuckin gonzo. I am audi 5000. There's nothing you could do to ever convince me to go down there.
So Scott goes down there with nothing but a flashlight. Ash calls down to Scotty to see if he's found anything but doesn't get an answer. Ash follows him into the big spooky cellar, and of course Scotty jumps out of a dark corner and scares him. Once he's done literally laughing in his face, he takes Ash over to a conveniently well-lit table. There's a shotgun and some shells, a humongous tape recorder, a ceremonial dagger with a skull on the handle, and an ancient Sumerian text bound in human flesh and inked in human blood that will bring unspeakable evil to anyone who reads aloud from it. Well they've hit every other point on the "get facefucked by a demon into a new Hell-dimension" checklist, might as well keep going.
I feel like Sam Raimi knew the story was cliche, that the plot itself wasn't going to break any new ground and is really as bare bones and generic as you can get. He uses the most basic archetypes possible for the characters to get the movie going, for better or worse. Instead of spending 30 minutes building characters and learning about each one's relationship to the others, he says fuck it. He's dating her, he's dating her, and she's his sister. Whatever. We're 15 minutes in and the Book is being opened.
They gather round in a circle and play the tape. The recording is of a man who discovered this book in the Ca’n Darian ruins. It’s called “Naturan Demanto” or “Book of the Dead,” a book of ancient funeral practices and incantations. The book warns of demons that lie dormant but are not truly dead, and reading the spells inside cause them return by possessing the living. The girls are clearly scared shitless by this and shut the recording off, but Scott insists on playing the rest. I insist Scott goes the fuck home because I don't even like that dude, he's being such an asshole. This is the part of the party where I have a panic attack until we turn the tape off and go play Crash Team Racing with the lights on, but I was also too scared to do Bloody Mary in the bathroom. If Scott doesn't stop, I'm at least sleeping at the foot of someone's bed like a dog.
Scott starts the tape again and the narrator is reading passages aloud from the book. Something starts to move outside. Cheryl screams for them to shut it off as a tree crashes through the window. Cheryl screams in terror as a tree branch thrusts violently into a place it doesn't belong, but this will not be the last time. Cheryl has had enough for one night and goes to her room.
Obviously from here on out things possessions are gonna start happening, but this is my biggest problem with the movie: nobody actually reads from the book. Usually in a possession story the people have done something to "deserve" the possession, something to summon the demon. Be it accidentally communicating with spirits, or reading something cursed. They just hit play on a tape. They didn't do the translating, some guy we never see is reading into a microphone alone in a cabin and now they're all fucked. And the very first shot of the movie was the demon flying through the forest and possessing their car. Nobody had played the tape then, but it was already out there. I will say though, as much as I hate that they don't read it, thank God one of them hadn't luckily just finished a semester at college taking a class on ancient Sumerian civilizations and is able to translate it.
Alone in her room,
Carol Cheryl is examining her sketch she drew earlier as something from outside her window whispers “Join us.” So she goes outside. As you do.
She wanders aimlessly through the woods as the demons take control of the trees around her. Remember how I said earlier how the story itself is very bare bones and generic? How there’s no need to tell this same story again unless there’s something memorable to pull you in? Turns out by something memorable, I meant getting fucked by a tree. I’d always heard this scene referenced but I wasn’t expecting it to be as graphic as it was.
The branches start attacking her and cutting her up and you’re thinking holy shit this is cool, even the forest is trying to kill her. It rips her shirt and you’re like well yeah it’s a horror movie of course her boobs are gonna come out. And then the branches pin her down and you’re like wait a second, it seems like this is about to take a turn. But there’s no way that the forest is going to…
The weirdest part (despite literally every aspect of the scene itself) is that Raimi regrets doing this, and has said if he could go back he wouldn't film it. This is THE scene you think about when you think of this movie. The franchise as a whole draws plenty of images to mind, but when you think of this original movie the first thing you think of is an Ent giving her the business.
Cheryl runs back to the cabin while the demon force chases her. She makes it in before the demons reach her and she tries to explain to everyone the woods themselves attacked her, the trees were alive with the sound of music. She wants the fuck out of Dodge so Ash volunteers to take her into town to find a place to stay. A little detail I love here is when they go to leave the car won’t start. The engine won't turn
over and Cheryl says she knows it's not going to start and “they" won't let them leave. Then the car immediately starts and Ash looks at her like she's crazy. It's like the demons are just fucking with her now because they can.
Ashley stops the car in the fog and wanders off. She eventually gets out and follows him - and a tree branch drops right in front of her face. I love these demons. The bridge has been destroyed, but not as if it crumbled like the rickety piece of shit it is.
The only bridge connecting their little cabin in the woods to the rest of civilization has been destroyed. She starts crying and screaming that "they" aren't gonna let them go. Bismillah no, they will not let them go. Ash takes her back to the cabin and listens to more of the tape. The narrator says his wife has become possessed, and he fears the only way to stop someone who has been possessed by the demons he unleashed is through dismembering her. This seems like quite a conclusion to jump to, but after his sister took a big dose of Redwood (get it?) Ash is up for anything. The narrator finishes by saying he would just leave, but he's seen the shadows in the woods and believes whatever he's summoned is out there waiting for him.
Linda and Shelly are playing a card game where one person holds up a card and the other guesses the number and suit. It's like the beginning of Ghostbusters, except Bill Murray didn’t ram jam a #2 pencil inside Harold Ramis. Linda, Ash's girlfriend (just a friendly reminder because I forgot and I took notes over this), is wrong but Shelly keeps telling her she’s right. Cheryl is staring out the window and begins calling out the correct cards. She says them faster and faster, louder and louder, until she turns around and oh fuck she's a demon. She levitates and lets them all know that they will die like all the others before them, then drops to the ground.
This is my second biggest issue with the movie: the generic evil demon voice. It's a matter of personal taste but I personally can't stand the overly-affected and modulated voice that's supposed to sound evil and scary. It took forever for me to get over it in The Exorcist, and that's a way better movie.
Anyways, Linda walks over to investigate for some reason and Demon Cheryl picks up a Ticonderoga and shoves it in her leg. And she really grinds it in there. Scott knocks her trifling ass into the cellar and chains the door shut. Cheryl is able to raise the door high enough for her head to be visible, and spends the remainder of the movie taunting them from there. Linda will walk over to a demon and investigate but they won't investigate the fucking cabin before they pack up and head out there. Look at the paneling. It's a piece of SHIT.
Linda is taken to a bedroom to recover while Shelly freaks out. We see a shot of another demon flying through the woods, then Shelly being told everything's going to be alright, then Shelly is taken to a room and left by herself, then Shelly walks towards a window. I bet you can guess where this is going.
The demon comes crashing through the window and she screams. Scott goes in to investigate because Ash is a huge pussy. After 2 minutes of slowly turning corners and pulling back various curtains and finding nothing there, Demon Shelly attacks. The fight spills into the living room and Cheryl cheers her on from the cellar. Shelly grabs the ceremonial dagger off the floor and tries to kill Scotty with it, but Scott saws away at her hand with his hunting knife. While Ash just stands there.
She responds by biting her own hand completely off. While Ash just stands there. Scott grabs the dagger off the floor - her severed hand still grasping it - and stabs her in the back. While Ash just stands there. Blood drips out of the mouth of the skull on the dagger's handle as she falls to her knees in pain. While Ash just stands there. She starts spitting out what looks like milk, because apparently Sam Raimi just watched Alien, and collapses. Once again, someone approaches the possessed demon lying on the floor and gets attacked. While Ash just stands there. Scott has had enough and grabs the ax out of Ash's hands and dismembers her. I don't think Ash ever told him the tape said that was the only way to do it. But don't tell Scotty, Scotty doesn't know. Call it intuition, but he takes it upon himself to cut her into pieces. While Ash just fuckin stands there.
|Way to spring into action, Girl's Name|
Ash goes to check on Linda, who's getting some rest after having wood forcibly jammed in her. He looks at her ankle and sees the infection from her wound rapidly spread all over her body and she jolts awake, possessed and cackling. Ash steps outside to get away from her just as Scott comes back badly wounded. Scotty tells him Cheryl was right - “they” are not going to let them leave and they're going to die there. Before he passes out he tells Ash there's another way out: the trail. No shit. But the trees aren't going to let them through. The entire time he's writhing in pain while Cheryl and Linda cackle and mock him. It's pretty great.
The thing with Linda is she now speaks in a very high pitched voice and the makeup is supposed to make her resemble a doll...
But honestly to me she just looks like they ran out of money and threw whatever they had left on her face. This is when the movie takes a turn for me. When Ash gets sick of Demon Linda mocking him, he comically slaps the shit out of her over and over again while yelling SHUT UP. It's over the top silly. If this is supposed to be scary, then they failed, because it's slapstick. Anyone who knows Raimi knows he grew up a huge 3 Stooges Fan, and honestly I’m waiting for Ash to hold his hand straight up in front of his face to block her from poking him in the eyes.
Scotty is coming in and out of consciousness telling Ash to kill her and Cheryl is mocking him and daring him to kill her. He puts a shotgun to her head as she continues to laugh. Before he pulls the trigger, Linda looks up at him with her normal voice and face and begs him not to let them take her away again. Then Cheryl does the same thing. You know where this is going. Ash walks over to the cellar, takes out the key, and Cheryl fucking attacks him. He was literally seconds away from letting you out. Way to fucking go Cheryl, this type of shit is how you got tree raped in the first place. Sorry to victim blame, trigger warning.
Then Linda starts singing "We're gonna get you, We're gonna get you, Not another peep, Time to go to sleep" in a high pitched children's sing songy voice. Ash has had enough demonic shenanigans and grabs her by the feet and drags her ass outside like yesterday's garbage. He gets her outside and...he leaves her there and walks off. Fuckin genius plan Ashley, you should've gone back to your original plan of cowering in the corner. He locks her out and tends to Scott some more but Linda can be heard cackling in the background. He checks outside but she’s not there because he literally dropped her in the middle of the grass and walked off. He turns back and oh geez she’s standing right there and attacks him with the ceremonial dagger. During this scene the white contacts she was wearing basically blinded her, so Bruce Campbell was fighting against a blind woman swinging a knife around.
He overpowers her and bends her arm behind her back, and as he pushes her backwards she trips over Scott and lands on the blade. She spews bloodmilk like Shelly did and he literally drags her out back to the woodshed. He ties her down and grabs a chainsaw. You ever see Texas Chainsaw Massacre? So did Sam Raimi. Ash hovers the saw over her chest but can't bring himself to do it. He decides to bury her instead. He gives her a proper burial in the middle of the woods in Bumfuck, Tennessee but surprise, surprise she’s still alive and she Carrie’s him and rises from the grave. She claws the shit out of his leg with her nails and he falls to the ground. She lunges at him and he knocks her fuckin head off with a shovel in mid air.
Ash finds himself in a position so many of us have found ourselves in before, returning to a run down cabin covered in his girlfriend’s blood. Inside he finds cellar door wide open. He grabs the shotgun and searches the house, hearing strange noises in the background. Cheryl attacks him through the window. He shoots her but she gets back up, albeit slower. He bolts the front and back doors and heads down to the cellar for more shotgun shells. Shit gets bonkers down there. Blood starts leaking from the pipes and the cracks in the walls. A lightbulb fills with blood and explodes as a record player begins to play jazz. A film reel starts playing as the bulb fills with blood. It's down to just Ash and it's a wacky descent into sillytown, which really sews the seeds for the next two movies.
Linda's voice is coming from seemingly nowhere, taunting him again with the song "We're gonna get you." He hears Scott's voice too, he hears himself, he hears the tape. He's screaming at nothing as he loads the shotgun with shells. As he loads the gun and prepares to head back upstairs, the music stops, the film stops, and the pipes stop leaking. He heads upstairs and is not quite the stoic, chiseled hero from two movies from now. He has a constant expression like he's trying to sneak in the house at 3 am without waking dad, and every creak or gust of wind causes him to jump. So, he's me.
Cheryl breaks through the door like the Shockmaster and it's go time. He shoots her in the face and as he goes to board up the door (again) Zombie Scott bolts awake. Ash gouges Scott's eyes out before Cheryl gets through the barricade and the two easily overpower him.
He notices the two of them are beginning to smoke, and looks over to see the Book has caught on fire during the struggle. He throws the book into the fire and the demons fall apart and die. This doesn't make any fuckin sense. Why does burning the book matter? They didn't even read from it.
They die in some pretty gruesome stop motion that looks like play-doh, but the added detail of the book dying is pretty horrendous. Not horrendous in a cool and gory way, horrendous in a should have never been included in the movie way. They melt, giant hands come out of them, pieces of them fall off and explode in a bloody mess all over Ash. The chanting of "Join us" fades out.
|Because fuck it, why not|
Morning has finally come - Ash has survived the night. Birds are chirping and the sun is shining. He's going to have to explain why he's covered in blood and his sister, girlfriend, friend, and friend's girlfriend all went into a cabin in the middle of nowhere with him and mysteriously disappeared, but he survived. He steps into the morning light. Cheerful, uplifting, triumphant music plays. Then the camera cuts to a different perspective. First it's staring at the ground, then it rises and begins flying through the forest. An otherworldly growling can be heard as it flying through the cabin and Ash turns to face it, screaming, as it cuts to black.
|WE'VE GOT MOVIE SIGN|
At the end of the day, I'm surprise this movie even got made. It was originally supposed to be a 6 week shoot. It kept dragging on and on and eventually everyone said fuck it and left. By the end of filming, there were five people left, and only one of them was an actor - Bruce Campbell. 3 weeks of filming were done with Bruce as the only actor there and a bunch of random people covered in demon make up as stand-ins.
|Literally all these people were stand ins|
The recorded budget is all over the place. The highest I’ve ever heard it said is 500,000 and I think that includes all the loans they took out when they ran out of money and they took out high bank loans and cold called random local businesses. They ran out of money before they filmed a single shot in the basement. Even the act of filming this was a total shitshow. There's 30 years of interviews by actors who have no bridges to burn so if you want more it's easy to find, but just to put a couple things into perspective: The makeup was so shitty that one of the actresses had her eye lashes ripped off when they removed her facial mold. Facial mold made out of paint that says literally right on the bottle that it shouldn't be applied to skin. Bruce Campbell would have to go back home in the bed of a truck because he was covered in fake blood and gore from head to toe. At one point, Bruce's shirt was so covered in fake blood that after he dried it by a fire, the shirt solidified when he tried to put it on.
What sticks out to me most, besides the tree rape, is the character of Ash. Bruce Campbell isn’t Ash, the chainsaw-for-a-hand, shotgun wielding badass spouting catchphrases and one liners. He’s Ashley, the guy in the background too scared to do anything until he's the only one left. If you watch this movie with zero outside context, you’re absolutely certain he’s the first one to die. But he’s not the hero or the jock or even the fool. He's The Last Girl. Ash in the final scene are what I think of when I think of (the little I know about) the Evil Dead franchise as a whole. It's Bruce Campbell in a dimly lit cabin covered in fake blood, syrup, milk, and any other goopy substance they could afford surrounded by prosthetics and destroyed shelving.
|It's time for Aaaaaaaask Ashley (Thaaaaat's me)|
My ultimate final impression is that as innovative as it is and impressive it is for such a young director, it's just not very scary. It's impressive what a bunch of kids did with zero money to film such a visceral movie. I live in an era where I could shoot an entire movie on my phone but I would never be creative enough to use vaseline and a 2x4 in place of a dolley, but the scares don't hold up. There's countless interviews with horror directors who watched this movie as children and it was the scariest thing they'd ever seen and shaped their entire lives. But for me, it's just another one of those pieces of "homework" I can cross off the list.
It's where I rank a movie like Star Wars: for 99% of people, the older you are when you first watch it, the less impressive it is. Not a lot of people watch Star Wars in their mid 20's and are completely blown away and engrossed in the universe like they would when they were children. I've heard about this movie all my life. Shit, I've seen Cabin in the Woods numerous times, which completely parodies and tears apart this entire subgenre. I have a lot of respect for this movie, and you can see the potential and the creativity from the first shot of the movie, but it's just not great. It's a good start for someone who gets better.