“There’s bodies in the cellar”
It appears my friends misinformed me many years ago when my decision to watch The Evil Dead came up. I was told to skip the first because Evil Dead II was “pretty much” a remake of it anyway. Whereas the original was a straight horror, the “sequel” skewed comedic and therefore proved truer to the direction the franchise ultimately headed with the Bruce Campbell-led Army of Darkness. I took their advice and watched the second and third installment, writing off the low budget “nasty” Stephen King called the “most ferociously original film of the year” at Cannes sight unseen. Well, it appears Evil Dead II only begins with a quasi-remake that refreshes its predecessor’s key points. A wholly different film, The Evil Dead ends up crucial to the series and a classic of the genre.
Writer/director Sam Raimi and best friend/star Campbell scrapped together the cash to produce the project by begging acquaintances and using the short Within the Woods as a prototype at a tenth the budget. Stories from the set about cast and crew crammed together in the Morristown, Tennessee cabin at the center of the film escalating into argument seems a foregone conclusion while injuries, hours of footage courtesy of inexperience, and dangerous make-up effects were products of ambition and ingenuity. I cannot imagine seeing this uniquely gruesome vision in 1981 when Raimi toured it across the country or in 1983 when distribution secured over two million dollars worldwide in box office earnings. Rated NC-17 for good reason, its gore and fearlessness have hardly been tamed by time. It’s both an assured debut and an aesthetically singular work of art.
The visuals are striking from the get-go too and this is important considering the acting leaves something to be desired—yes, even the green Campbell. It’s “shaky cam” cinematography running through the misty woods as though the camera shows the viewpoint of a soaring demonic entity in search of prey captivates while putting us right into the action. Raimi and director of photography Tim Philo add even more intrigue with their low angles increasing the already voyeuristic style tenfold. This is especially creepy when placed underneath a chained cellar door with the possessed body of Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) peering out. We become transported into her, able to just see what the opening allows while her arms and hands move into and out of frame. Everything’s meticulously staged for claustrophobia via space and/or light.
As for the plot, The Evil Dead is basically like any other horror of its era with college-aged kids going into a remote area for an escape from life and the prospect of sex. We have Ash (Campbell) and his girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker); his sister Cheryl; and their friends Scott (Richard DeManincor) and Shelly (Theresa Tilly)—a good-humored bunch cautious about their soon-to-be isolated digs from the start. It doesn’t take long for things to get weird as the cellar door flings open by itself, a tape recorder holding orated incantations from a book bound in flesh is played, and voices begin to carry on the wind saying, “Join us.” One by one the malicious entity released by the Necronomicon (inspired by H.P. Lovecraft and known as the Naturon Demonto here) takes hold of them.
What follows are some memorable set-pieces of terror beginning with the horrific rape of Sandweiss by evil trees coiling their branches around her and ending in the stop-motion animated melting of skin off bone with blood-soaked fire. Coupled with some stellar make-up keeping the loquacious Cheryl looking like a decomposing witch in the crack of the cellar door and effects allowing for others to still be twitching after dismemberment and The Evil Dead proves its worthiness in the annals of horror. There was no thought about what censors would accept and what they wouldn’t as Raimi and company went full-bore into providing the most blood and oatmealy guts they could. The stuff literally seeps out of electrical sockets and streams out of the plumbing onto unsuspecting characters until you begin feeling sticky on your couch at home.
There’s some humor involved—especially with Campbell and DeManincor pranking each other and generally taking nothing seriously until watching a friend stab another with a pencil—but far from the extent used in subsequent entries. No, this one’s cult status is firmly built upon a horror foundation with screams galore and body parts strewn about in every direction. Sandweiss could very easily turn your dreams into nightmares with her ghostly visage trapped underneath the cabin floor and Campbell’s psychological break from being the one who causes those he cares about to be separated into pieces is a very visceral experience thanks to his expressive brow of shock. The best part, though, is how we’re constantly made to feel like we’re the evil lurking and wreaking havoc, traveling from one body to the next until there’s nothing left.