“The Ultimate Experience in Grueling Horror” is the subtitle given to The Evil Dead in its end credits. Often misquoted with “Terror” in the place of “Horror,” this line was likely thrown in there by writer/director Sam Raimi with tongue in cheek, but it very aptly describes my first time watching the film.
The Evil Dead is the only horror movie that has truly scared me since I became a fan of the genre. Sure, I had freaked out over glimpses of horror movies before I became a fan. I screamed and cried over the opening sequence of Jason Lives when I was three years old, but after I gave Jason Lives a second try and then fell head over heels for horror, nothing really bothered me from then on. Until I saw The Evil Dead when I was nine headed toward ten.
Yes, nine is still quite a young age, a lot of kids haven’t even started watching horror yet at nine, many aren’t allowed to. But I was a six year veteran by that point, familiar with and fascinated by all sorts of monsters and slashers. The modern icons of Freddy, Jason, Leatherface, and Michael were established favorites and I watched their exploits regularly. I wasn’t scared by movies, it was just entertainment.
But none of the Evil Dead movies had ever gotten play in my home. I had read references to the well regarded films in the pages of Fangoria, I had seen them on the shelves of video stores and was intrigued by them, particularly by the cover of part 2 and the skull with still intact brown eyes staring out at me, I just hadn’t rented them. I was aware of trilogy capper Army of Darkness when it was coming out in February of 1993, it was advertised in comic books and magazines I read, I even read the Mad magazine parody of it. I wanted to see it. So maybe it was the fact that Army of Darkness was coming to VHS (in August ’93 if the internets aren’t lying), perhaps coupled with the knowledge that the strange book briefly featured in Jason Goes to Hell (which hit theatres on August 13, 1993 and which I saw on opening day) was connected to the Evil Dead series, that finally spurred me on to rent the first one.
Raimi and his cohorts watched and studied many of the popular horror films of the time before setting out to start filming The Evil Dead at the end of 1979, and the influence of movies like Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Halloween can be seen and felt in the finished product. There’s even a direct reference to The Hills Have Eyes in the form of a torn poster. Raimi mixed together elements that worked in other films to assemble his own story which then goes off in its own direction, and he pulled it off quite effectively.
Though the set-up is standard stuff, following five young college students from Michigan who have rented a cabin in Tennessee sight unseen for a relaxing getaway, something about the look and feel of the movie, its tone, the sound design, the music by Joe LoDuca, the camera angles and cutting, had me on edge from the beginning. The cabin is very isolated, requiring a drive across a crumbling wooden bridge and down an overgrown path to its location in a clearing within a woods, and there’s something off about the place as soon as they arrive, something creepy. Whether they want to admit it or not, the characters are unnerved, and so was I, as Raimi even managed to make a swing that suddenly stops banging against the side of the cabin on its own disturbing.
The group of vacationers consists of the loudmouth Scotty, his cynical girlfriend Shelly, the nice guy Ash and his sweet, optimistic girlfriend Linda, and Ash’s sister Cheryl, and as night falls it’s the quiet and artistic Cheryl who proves to be the most sensitive to the supernatural forces lurking around the cabin; the deep, unearthly voice growling “Join us”, the evil entity moving through the woods. She knows it’s a bad idea for the others to explore the cabin’s cellar when the door in the floor flies open on its own.
Scotty and Ash find a shotgun, a reel-to-reel tape recorder, a weird dagger, and a very strange old book in the cellar, and decide to take these things back upstairs to mess around with. The book is the Naturon Demonto (a.k.a. the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, a.k.a. the Book of the Dead), bound in human flesh and inked in human blood, and it “deals with demons and demon resurrection and those forces which roam the forest and dark bowers of man’s domain”. These things were left behind by a professor who was staying in the cabin while working on translating the book, and the guys make the unwise decision to play the audio recording of his translations. As the professor’s voice recites an incantation, Cheryl grows increasingly agitated, repeatedly asking that they stop playing the tape until soon she’s standing up and screaming, “Shut it off!”
It’s too late. The professor’s recital of the passage from the book has unleashed demonic forces upon the cabin and things go to hell from there, the young people’s vacation becoming a living nightmare of possession and dismemberment.
Most people who watch the movie now will know who gets out of this situation before they even push Play; I certainly knew of one survivor during my first viewing, but the film actually does a good job of making it unclear who’s destined to make it to the end. At first, it appears that Cheryl could be our Final Girl heroine. When she’s forced out of the lead, it’s Scotty who proves to be most effective in handling the demonic threat and chopping up what used to be his friends. But Scotty’s too much of a jerk to carry on the heroic duties, placing the second half of the film on the shoulders of Bruce Campbell as Ash.
The man who goes on to be an egomaniacal, demon-killing badass with a chainsaw prosthetic in the sequels has very humble beginnings in this first film. Ash is pretty much totally incompetent for most of it, getting tossed around and pinned under busted furniture during the action in two different sequences, and it isn’t until Scotty abandons him that he finally steps up and takes care of business while being relentlessly tormented, losing his mind in the process.
It was the demonic forces and the way they were presented in the movie, the invisible evil presence in the woods and the way the possessed people became hideous, taunting, babbling, homicidal maniacs who could only be stopped by hacking them into pieces that frightened me to my core. I was used to slashers showing up and knocking off young people one-by-one, I was familiar with simple flesh-eating ghouls, but this was something much different than I had seen before. I had probably even seen The Exorcist already, but that movie hadn’t gotten to me because its demon was in the safety of a slow-paced, Oscar nominated film. These demons were vicious and insane and the filmmaking amplified the intensity. I was a fourth grader attending a Christian school, I was studying lessons every day from a book that told me demons were real, at some point I would even have a teacher who would tell the class that watching horror movies made the viewer more susceptible to demonic possession. While I would dismiss that claim, I did basically believe in some of what this movie was showing me, and I had a feeling that just by watching it I had set something evil loose in my own house. Like playing the audio of the professor’s incantation had unleashed the evil on the cabin, I feared that piece of audio coming from my TV could have the same effect. It was late at night and I was sitting in a dark living room watching this movie by myself, afraid that the demonic force from The Evil Dead was in the shadows of my home. It was the scariest movie watching experience of my life.
Because it had scared me so, the film earned a deep respect from me. But it took me a while to work up the guts to watch it again. One viewing was all I gave it during that initial rental. As a kid, I would use sleepovers at my house to introduce my friends, whose parents forbade them from watching horror movies, to what I considered to be the essentials of the genre. Some weeks after my first viewing of The Evil Dead, I had one such sleepover and showed two of my friends a movie from each of the big franchises. The schedule I had worked out was all set to build up to The Evil Dead, the movie that even scared me. But when I presented it that way to my friends, who were a bit shell-shocked from what they had already witnessed on the television screen that night, they declined to watch the movie and we called it a night instead. And I’m not sure I was even brave enough to watch it again during that rental period…
Of course, a second viewing did happen eventually, many more have followed, and the fear gradually wore off. I watched the sequels as well, and at first I was disappointed by them, by the fact that something that had been so frightening to me got so comedic and silly so quickly, but I soon came around to accepting them for what they were and greatly enjoying them as well.
While I like the sequels, the first movie remains my favorite of the bunch, and it’s the one I revisit the most. Years after the film had earned my respect and fandom, I learned the story behind it and that made me appreciate it even more. Up there with the behind-the-scenes of Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), the making of The Evil Dead is one of my favorite filmmaking stories. A bunch of young kids from Michigan scrape together a low budget for a feature through cold calls and based on the merits of their 8mm short films, then go down to Tennessee to make their movie in a ramshackle cabin that they have to completely renovate before they can film in it. They film in this cabin with no modern conveniences during a cold winter, their six week shooting schedule doubles and they lose most of the cast and crew at the midway point, leaving just five people – Raimi, Campbell, producer Rob Tapert, transportation captain Dave Goodman, and sound/lighting man Josh Becker – to finish the movie. The Evil Dead was Raimi, Campbell, and Tapert’s entire world for quite a while, and the post-production process stretched on for years, during which time editor Edna Ruth Paul got some assistance from a young man named Joel Coen, who would go on to be a very popular filmmaker himself, alongside his brother Ethan. The commentaries by Raimi, Tapert, and Campbell on The Evil Dead DVD/Blu are some of my favorites to listen to, and The Evil Dead Companion by Bill Warren, Josh Becker’s Evil Dead Journal (which was reprinted in his book Rushes), and Bruce Campbell’s If Chins Could Kill are all very interesting reads that cover the struggles these independent filmmakers went through while crafting what was to become a cult classic.
The Evil Dead is one of my favorites, one of my viewing essentials, and I find the story of its production inspiring. It will always be a special movie to me, and it’s all because of that one dark night twenty years ago when it scared the hell out of me.