The Evil Dead (1981) Review
Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy are some of the most successful cult films of the 80’s, and launched the cinematic careers of both Raimi and lead actor Bruce Campbell. When most discuss the series, they will often talk about the manic style, or the downright silly tone of as a catchphrase spewing Campbell eviscerates demons with his chainsaw arm and sawed-off shotgun. Though that is what the series is known for, those were all aspects of the sequel, Evil Dead II, a horror comedy that begins with a redacted remake of the original film. Because of this, many people either ignore or forget the first film, despite its unique execution and dramatically different tone.
The plot of Evil Dead is familiar, a group of college students, including one Ashley (Ash) Williams, take a trip to a remote cabin in the middle of the woods. There they find a book bound in human flesh and a tape left by the cabin’s previous occupant. They play it, which then summons an entity that kills and possesses them one by one. The tone is mostly serious, with the victims becoming pus ridden creatures whose affliction is spread through the gruesome acts of violence they are compelled to do and an unseen entity that flies around the cabin. Even Ash’s has his perception of reality are shattered as the entity begins to control his mind, like the surreal sequence in the basement where a light bulb fills with blood and explodes, among other things.
Raimi and his crew used, and in some cases pioneered, a lot of techniques that were unusual for the time. The most famous example of this is the ”flying camera” effect that is used to show the perspective of are demonic entity as it flies around the cabin. Because they could not afford dollies, mounted rigs, or steadicam mounts, they had to build everything themselves. Another notable technique, what the crew dubbed the “shaky cam,” was achieved with a simple wood mount that emulated the effects of the steadicam.
Despite the great camera work and atmosphere, ultimately the film is unable to completely shake the trappings of an ’80s b-roll horror movie. It was the debut film for every actor featured, and it shows. Any moment they try to show an emotion besides pain or terror come off as laughable, and the opening car scene is just hard to sit through. The performances as the possessed are better, but the costumes and makeup for them looked cheap in 1981, and are just funny now. The gore looks even worse, with obvious puppets and shoddy looking makeup. Like the best b-movies, Evil Dead seems to genuinely try and be a serious horror film, but the cheap production ultimately kill the tone they were going for.
This is not to say that it is a bad film, far from it, but this is a plausible reason as to why the rest of the series is distinctly comedic. This is no doubt the shining star of the low budget horror genre, and is still worth watching despite how overshadowed it is by it’s sequels.