Continuing with our 2nd Annual Halloween Movie Marathon, “The Unenthusiastic Critic”—my wise-assed, horror-hating girlfriend "N."—joins me for a viewing of Sam Raimi's 1981 cult classic. As always, spoilers abound, so proceed with caution if you're spoiler-phobic—or, for that matter, if you have a weak stomach.
The Evil Dead (1981), written and directed by Sam Raimi, starring Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Richard DeManincor, Betsy Baker, and Theresa Tilly.
Why I Chose It
The Evil Dead (often referred to simply as Evil Dead) is perhaps the quintessential cult movie. Shot on a shoestring budget by a couple of unknown filmmakers (20-year-old college dropout Raimi and his producing partner Robert Tapert), with an inexperienced (and largely untalented) cast of actors, The Evil Dead is the kind of makeshift horror movie that film students produce by the hundreds every year: badly written, amateurishly acted, and rife with continuity errors and crappy special effects.
And yet, all of these factors are somehow to the film's advantage: nothing about it should work, and yet everything about it does. Raimi proved he was not your average fledgling filmmaker, and elevated The Evil Dead to landmark status through inventive camera work, a refreshingly tongue-in-cheek sensibility, and sheer balls-to-the-walls chutzpah. The result is a gratuitous, gory, gloriously gonzo masterpiece that is almost impossible not to enjoy. (The film boasts a 100% "fresh" rating on www.rottentomatoes.com, where it is currently the 31st best reviewed film of all time.) The Evil Dead became a successful trilogy (with a big-budget remake due in 2013), made Raimi an A-list director (later to film the Spider-Man trilogy), and turned star Bruce Campbell into a cult movie icon.
What My Girlfriend Knew About It Going In
As always, before we begin, I quiz N. on what she might have picked up about The Evil Dead through simple cultural osmosis.
She: Of all the movies you've made me watch, this is probably the one I know the least about. I don't think I'd even heard of anything called Evil Dead until I saw High Fidelity, where John Cusack and Jack Black are discussing something called Evil Dead 2.
Me: Then, let me just say that you should prepare yourself for a subtle, sophisticated suspense masterpiece.
She: I know that's a lie. Nothing called Evil Dead could be subtle, sophisticated suspense.
Me: OK. Then what I will tell you upfront, since you'll figure it out quickly, is that this is one of the movies that The Cabin in the Woods is directly referencing.
She: In the sense that it's about murdering redneck torture zombies?
Me: No, in the sense that it's about five friends who go to a cabin in the woods.
She: Ah, okay: that directly. And see? This is why I don't go to cabins in the woods. If anyone ever says, "Hey, wanna go to a cabin in the woods?" I'm saying, Hell no.
Me: I was thinking maybe this year for our anniversary. See, my cousin has this isolated cabin in the middle of nowhere…
She: You will be by yourself. You know what I find romantic? Cell-phone reception. You know what's super hot? Neighbors. Road access. Police and fire departments. Room service. Lots of people to hear me in case I scream. This is what I look for in an intimate weekend away.
Me: You just don't know how to have a good time.
How It Went
She thought it was a subtle, sophisticated suspense masterpiece. Obviously.
The Evil Dead opens with the first use of what will become Raimi's signature technique: a sweeping, tilting, low-angle tracking shot, in which we seem to be in the POV of something moving, quickly and erratically, near the ground. (In this case, it's over the surface of an excessively steaming swamp in the backwoods of Tennessee.)
She: Good Travelocity tip? Don't vacation anywhere where the water smokes ominously.
Driving through this scenic landscape are five college friends: Ash (Campbell), his girlfriend Linda (Baker), his sister Cheryl (Sandweiss), his friend Scotty (DeManincor), and Scotty's girlfriend Shelly (Tilly). They're on their way to spend the weekend at a cabin that they've rented, sight-unseen, for "real cheap."
She: Travelocity Tip #2: Don't stay anywhere you've rented "real cheap."
The teens are met with the usual harbingers of doom: they are nearly run off the road by a logging truck, and then barely get across a rotting bridge, before they make their way down a winding grass road to the cabin, which turns out to be everything they had been promised.
She: Yeah, I'm not staying there.
Me: What do you mean? It's quaint. It's just rustic.
She: It's evil.
As they approach, the porch swing is swaying back and forth, banging into the side of the cabin; it stops suddenly as Scotty reaches the door.
She: OK, you see shit like that, you get the fuck back in the car.
Me: One moving porch swing? That's all it takes for you?
She: You have to pay attention! You have to keep an eye out. And when you see shit like that, you pack up your shit and you get back in the car.
Me: This is why you're not the star of any horror movies.
She: I'm okay with that! At least I'll be alive!
(I always consider it a good sign when my girlfriend begins to yell at the characters in the movie: it shows she's made the necessary, immersive step of identifying with them, which is absolutely essential for truly enjoying a horror movie. About five times over the next ten minutes—before anything really creepy happens—she yells, "Pack your shit!")
That night, Cheryl—the fifth-wheel among the couples—is doing some sketching to pass the time, when her hand suddenly has a mind of its own and does a rough, rudimentary sketch of something that appears to be—FORESHADOWING—a book with a face on it.
She: When you play Pictionary with the devil, you lose.
Cheryl—to my girlfriend's dismay—doesn't think this demonic bout of automatic writing is worth mentioning to anyone else. Over dinner that night, however, more weird things start to happen, including the sudden opening of the trap door to the cellar. The assembled morons stand around debating the possible causes, in a what we may as well cite as an excellent example of the Noel Cowardesque dialogue in The Evil Dead:
Ash: What is this?
Linda: Well, whatever it is, it's still down there.
Cheryl: I don't like cellars. Let's just close it up. It's probably just some animal.
Scotty: An animal? An animal? Ha ha ha! That is the stupidest thing I ever heard of. Jesus Christ.
Shelly: Well, there's something down there.
Linda: Maybe it is just some animal.
Scotty: Yeah, you're probably right. Probably just some animal.
She: I'm definitely picking up on the subtle sophistication. This is Oscar worthy.
But here's the thing: while I think it's probably giving Raimi too much credit to say that he deliberately cast bad actors and wrote clunky dialogue, it's hard to deny that these qualities are part of what make The Evil Dead work. Whether it was the result of inexperience or whether it was Raimi's intent to mock the lameness of most horror films—and personally I think it's a little of both—the fact of the matter is that the campy, clunky tone is necessary for the over-the-top shenanigans that follow. If the movie took itself more seriously—if we were forced to take it, and its characters, more seriously—none of the rest of the film would work at all.
Scotty and Ash venture into the cellar, where—instead of an animal—they discover some interesting artifacts: a tape recorder, a demonic-looking dagger, and a book with a face, the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, which is bound in human skin and inked in human blood.
She: See, again, these are all things that would be leading me back to the car. It's all evil. It's all badness.
They play the tape recording, on which some professorial type—the former occupant of the cabin—explains that the book—which he found the book while excavating some Khandarian ruins—contains rituals for summoning ancient Sumerian demons.
Me: It's always the fuckin' Sumerians.
She: OK, so now you have something on tape, telling you that shit is bad. And yet no one is making a move?
Naturally, they play the rest of the tape, on which the professor recites the Latin incantations.
Me: You know what's almost never a good idea?
She: Latin incantations?
Later that evening, the two couples have paired off in their rooms, where Ash gives Linda a present, a silver necklace shaped like a magnifying glass.The camera moves outside the cabin, and we join the point-of-view of some demonic force that is stalking the kids through the windows, finally settling on poor, fifth-wheel Cheryl who is getting ready for bed. (Trying to figure out time is a wasted effort in The Evil Dead: everyone here seems to be getting ready for bed, but in later scenes everyone is still up and fully dressed.) "Join us," a demonic voice says to Cheryl—who, naturally, decides to wander alone into the unnaturally misty woods to investigate.
This is, of course, the kind of decision people make in horror movies that leave my girlfriend apoplectic.
She: WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT? Why would you go walking outside? Into the mist? Into the woods? Totally unarmed?
Me: Ummm…because it's the kind of environment that makes you feel safe?
She: Yeah, that's why she's clutching that ugly bathrobe so tightly. She needs to realize that it is not a fucking Cloak of Invisibility. They can see you, and they will kill you. And you're going to die with those slippers on, which is unfortunate.
As it turns out, however, the evil forces in the woods have other plans for Cheryl. The trees themselves come alive, with vines and branches reaching out to grab at Cheryl and tear off her clothing.
She: Nice! Pervy vines! What's the old adage? "Leaves of three, get felt up by a tree?"
The vines encircle her limbs, pulling her down to the ground and pulling her legs apart. And then, just when you think this has gone about as far as it can possibly go, it goes that extra step too far:
She: Ohhhh….That's gonna cause a U.T.I.
(Though there is plenty of gore still to come, this justifiably infamous "tree rape" sequence is often cited as the main reason The Evil Dead was released unrated in the states, found itself banned in several countries, and ended up on the U.K.'s "video nasty" list. And—though not really that graphic—it is a particularly gruesome scene. But it's also the first moment in the picture when audiences must have sat up and realized that something different was being offered here. If this scene came only half an hour into the film, where the hell could it go from there?)
My girlfriend is neither offended nor horrified, however: she's just amused.
She: I think they should show this movie on Arbor Day. It should be an Arbor Day tradition. It's a nice way to talk about tree-preservation and sexual assault at the same time. It's a twofer.
Cheryl escapes the foliage (once it's had its woody way with her), and runs screaming back to the cabin as the unseen evil force—which now seems to be the forest itself—chases behind her; she pounds on the door of the cabin for several tense moments before Ash finally lets her in. (Again—except for the few extra scares it offers—there's no logical explanation for why it takes so long for anyone to open the door: when they do, they're all awake and fully dressed.)
Cheryl is understandably hysterical, but her friends seem disturbingly nonplussed at her appearance and story. She begs to be driven back into town, but no one wants to deal with her. "I'm sure as hell not leavin' anyplace tonight," Scotty says, annoyed.
She: "Oh, Cheryl."
Me: "Cheryl, you're overreacting."
She: "It's just a little arboreal rape. You needed to get laid anyway."
Me: "That ditzy Cheryl. She's so flighty."
She: You know, a good rule is: always listen to crazy. Pay attention when people start freaking out.
Ash finally agrees to drive his traumatized sister back into town.
She: Car probably won't start.
Me: You're so jaded.
And of course, the car won't start. "They're not going to let us go," Cheryl says, echoing my girlfriend's predictions.
She: Travelocity Tip #3: Bring an extra car battery. Or some bikes. Or a Segway. Something.
But then—in a moment of sly humor—the car does start. They drive through the woods, until Ash stops the car to investigate something he sees ahead.
She: So much for Unibrow. Keep driving, Cheryl. DRIVE, Cheryl!
But Cheryl gets out of the car to follow her brother.
She: That's your second dumb-bitch move!
Me: You would have just locked the doors, wouldn't you?
She: I would have kept going! Bye, bitch! I'm out of here! You don't investigate evil shit in the fog! Can't nobody see shit, what the fuck are you looking for? Let's go.
As it turns out, what Ash was investigating was the bridge, which has completely collapsed. As Cheryl (and N.) rightly assumed, they're not going to let anyone leave.
Me: That's because, back in the control center, Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins just blew the motherfucking bridge up.
So it's back to the cabin, where everyone is remarkably calm until Cheryl—flighty, overly-dramatic Cheryl—turns into a levitating Sumerian demon. "YOU WILL DIE!" she screams, in a creepy demon voice. "ONE BY ONE WE WILL TAKE YOU!"
Cheryl stabs Linda in the ankle with a pencil.
She: That's the fakest ankle-stabbing I've seen in my entire life.
Me: Just how many ankle-stabbings have you seen, exactly?
She then throws Ash into some bookshelves—from which he can't seem to extricate himself for several minutes—and swats Scotty across the room. Finally, Scotty hits her in the face with the handle of an axe, and manages to chain her up in the basement.
She: So…that happened.
Me: Yeah, but there's always drama when you go on a trip with a group of friends.
She: Yeah, there's always one bitch who ruins it for everyone, and you're like, "Oh my god, why do we even bring her? She always turns into a demon."
The friends finally agree that maybe they should think about leaving. ("No shit!" my girlfriend says.) But they decide it would be best to wait until morning, so they leave Cheryl locked up in the basement while they all start to go to bed.
But then it's Shelly's turn: she's pulled out her bedroom window by the unseen force, and when she returns she has joined Team Sumeria. She knocks Ash into some more bookshelves, which are clearly his Kryptonite.
Scotty and Shelly fight, until Scotty cuts Shelly's hand half off: Shelly—who apparently hates to leave any amputation incomplete, even her own—finishes the job with her own teeth.
She: I'm sorry, is she eating her own hand?
Me: You know how when you have a hangnail, and you just can't leave it alone? It's kind of like that.
The fight rages on, until Scotty manages to wrestle the evil dagger away from her and stab her with it.
She: Probably should have kept that hand to fight with.
Shelly falls to the floor, spitting up milky bloody goo, apparently dead. But the special genius of The Evil Dead is that, just when you think a scene has gone on for as long as it can possibly go on, it will go on longer. Shelly wakes up again, and comes after Scotty and Ash. "Hit her!" Scotty screams to Ash, who is standing there with the axe, unable to move.
She: He's saving the axe, in case he gets attacked by more bookshelves.
Finally, Scotty grabs the axe and chops up his girlfriend himself, in an incredibly graphic, gory, wonderfully gross scene: when he's done, the dismembered pieces lie twitching individually on the floor.
Ash and Scotty take a bag-full of Shelly out back to bury, and then Scotty decides he's going to hike into the woods to look for a way out, leaving Ash alone. (Linda is asleep in the next room, having—apparently—slept through the entire, cabin-destroying fight with Shelly.) Cheryl is mocking him from the trap door. "SOON, ALL OF THEM WILL BE LIKE ME," she promises. "AND THEN WHO WILL LOCK YOU UP IN THE CELLAR?"
Scotty comes back, looking like he's been chewed up, spat out, and tree raped by the evil force in the woods. "Ash, it's not gonna let us leave…We're all gonna die here!" Demon Cheryl makes fun of him, too, repeating what he says in a high-pitched voice and cackling. "Oh, Ash, I don't want to die…"
She: The demons are sort of dicks.
And then suddenly there are two high-pitched voices cackling.
She: Are you fucking kidding me? Does it only contaminate the women?
And yes, it's true, now Linda is possessed. She sits in the doorway like a child, chanting in a sing-song voice: "We're gonna get you/We're gonna get you/Not another peep/Time to go to sleep…"
It's at this point that The Evil Dead becomes what it was always meant to be: Bruce Campbell's movie. No one, I think, would make claims that Campbell is a great actor here, but there is a reason he's become a cult icon: he has a certain expressive quality in his face, like a cartoonish parody of the marquee action hero: with his jutting chin, shifting eyes, and arching eyebrows, he's like the comedic love child of John Belushi and Dudley Do-Right.
Ash tries to bring himself to shoot Linda in the head. ("Kill her, loverboy, if you can," Cheryl mocks him.)
Me: Would you do it?
She: Hell yes! And take my necklace back, too!
But Linda turns back human for a moment, and Ash loses his nerve.
She: You're an idiot. This is why you deserve to die.
Naturally, Linda attacks him again, and they fight until she, too, is impaled on the evil dagger and spits up milk and blood.
Me: Umm…because it's gross?
Ash—who has apparently learned his lesson—takes the seemingly dead Linda out to the workshed, chains her to a table, and—in an iconic moment for the Evil Dead series as a whole—picks up a chainsaw. But he still can't bring himself to dismember his girlfriend.
She: Do it! See, this is why you deserve to die.
Me: But he loves her.
She: It's not her.
Me: Maybe there's a cure.
She: There's no cure. She's nothing but milk and evil.
Instead, Ash decides to take her out back and bury her, but naturally she wakes up, and he is forced to decapitate her with a shovel. My girlfriend, however, takes issue with the verisimilitude of the head that comes rolling towards the screen.
She: That is an entirely different head.
She's quite right, of course: originally scheduled for six weeks, principal photography on The Evil Dead ran way behind schedule, with the result that most of the cast moved on to other things while Raimi, Campbell, and a few crew members camped out in the cabin. To shoot around the missing actors—a process that apparently continued well into post-production—Raimi used "Fake Shemps," or stand-ins. (The term comes from how The Three Stooges completed four of their movies after the sudden death of Shemp Howard.) While the heavy make-up effects let them get away with a lot, it must be said that the substitutions are not always seamless.
But it's that can-do, makeshift attitude that largely gives The Evil Dead its peculiar charm. Raimi's inventiveness—and his over-the-top, throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-splatters attitude—are on display nowhere quite so impressively as in the last ten minutes of the film.
Ash returns to the cabin to discover that Cheryl has broken out of the cellar. He takes a hallucinatory journey down to the cellar to get more shotgun shells—where he is met with broken pipes, light bulbs, and electrical outlets that all gush blood—while a phonograph starts playing creepy music and a bleeding film projector clicks on by itself.
She: These are some theatrical demons.
This sequence is a showcase both for Bruce Campbell and for Sam Raimi, demonstrating the former's gift for physical comedy, shameless mugging, and swallowing gallons of fake blood, and the latter's creative camera work and penchant for comically disturbing imagery. (A few years later, with Evil Dead 2, Raimi would take full advantage of Campbell's ability to hold the screen by himself, staging elaborate set pieces like Ash's battle with his own possessed hand.)
The final scenes of The Evil Dead, however, are where Raimi really proved himself as a bold, batshit new voice in horror. Fighting with Cheryl and the now also-possessed Scotty, Ash finally thinks to connect the Necronomicon—remember that?—to what's been going on around him. As Scotty chews on his foot, and Cheryl whacks him with a fire poker, Ash manages to throw the evil book onto the fire.
It is difficult to explain the effect this has on the demons, who begin to decay, disintegrate, rot, ooze, and bubble pus: it is like watching time-lapse photography of meat rotting, only way more disgusting.
She: [Laughing] This is horrible. I don't even know how to describe what I'm seeing right now. It's like moldy play-do. It's like that Peter Gabriel video?
It is, indeed—like Sledgehammer—a stop-motion monstrosity. It is also a masterpiece from Raimi and special-effects wizard Tom Sullivan. It just keeps going, a mixture of claymation, ooze, goo, foodstuffs, cockroaches, and whatever else they had lying around.
She: It's like someone said, "Get everything that we got, we're putting it all in. I got some couscous, let's use the couscous!"
The best part is, it goes on for three full minutes, with nothing but various disgusting scenes of decaying flesh, intercut with revolted reaction shots from Campbell. And just when you think it's over, and the bodies lay still, there's an explosion of meat as demonic hands burst forth from the dead demons.
(According to The Book of the Dead website, which is a treasure trove of information about the trilogy, these "meltdown" sequences took three months to film—or one month per minute. It was well worth it.)
Finally, the demons are reduced to puddles of melted crayons on the floorboards, and Ash has survived his ordeal. He staggers—traumatized but triumphant—outside to meet the rising sun.
In one final virtuoso shot, however, we rush from the point of view of the evil force through the woods, through the house, bursting through the front door and right up into Ash's screaming face, as the screen fades to black.
I've spent a lot of time thinking about why The Evil Dead is so much fun. Even as we recognize the many glaring continuity errors, clumsy edits, and truly appalling acting, there is an energy and indirect humor that makes the film sing. Obviously, it would be a mistake to overlook Campbell's peculiar charms: you can see him figuring out how to act as he goes along, and though he will never win an Oscar he learns to use his strengths here. By the final reel, he owns this movie.
And you can also see Raimi finding his voice here, with the glorious ingenuity and lack of restraint that only a first-time director could muster. The obvious gore and absurdity are fun—like a 12-year-old boy has been let loose on a film studio—but there is also real craft and originality in the way he uses a camera. There is barely a single shot in The Evil Dead that isn't interesting, inventive, and dynamic. In addition to the highly successful Spider-Man trilogy, Raimi went on to make some good movies (A Simple Plan), some fun guilty pleasures (The Quick and the Dead), and some dogs (For the Love of the Game), but it's hard to imagine anything he does ever finding—or deserving—the cult adoration of The Evil Dead and its sequels.
But what did my girlfriend think?
She: There are no words. That is quite possibly the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen. Totally entertaining and hilarious, but completely ridiculous.
Me: Whatever do you mean?
She: They doubled-down on everything. And then they doubled-down some more.
Me: Just when you thought they couldn't go any further…
She: "No, no, we can go further!"
Me: I think part of the special charm of The Evil Dead is that that's the point. There's no point to the movie, except to make it, and to go as far as they could possibly go. It's just for the sheer joy of making a horror movie. It's like a movie made by the kids in Super 8, slightly older.
She: Right. There's no point except, "We've got all this shit, and we're gonna use all of it."
Me: Favorite part?
She: That final sequence—the deterioration of the bodies—that was quite impressive and unexpected. And I liked that the demons were dicks. I liked them mocking the idiots in the cabin. They were funny. They were halfway people you'd want to hang out with—you know, if they weren't trying to kill you.
Me: See, that explains a lot about why you're with me.
She: Yeah, I want someone who's kind of a zombie dick. That's my Match.com profile.
Me: So…Is this the best movie we've watched so far?
She: Of the Halloween movies? Probably. Honestly, that's probably the most purely enjoyable, from this year and last. I'm actually okay with having seen The Evil Dead. I can appreciate it for the piece of pure art that it is.
Me: So you're on record. You loved Evil Dead. You're grateful I made you watch it.
She: I don't think I said loved. And I know I didn't say grateful.
Me: So we can look forward to watching Evil Dead 2? We'll save that for next year's marathon.
She: Again, I don't remember agreeing to do this every year.
Next for The Unenthusiastic Critic:
A film that actually is sophisticated and subtle,
Robert Wise's 1963 haunted house classic, The Haunting.
(If nobody tells N. that Robert Wise also directed The Sound of Music, I think we can get away with it.)