Despite having consistently cited Drew Goddard’s Cabin In The Woods as one of my favourite films released this year, I had yet to take the time out to watch Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (arguably one of the quintessential cabin-set horror films) until just earlier this week. That’s not to say I wasn’t made very much aware of its existence — far from it. I am all-too-familiar with the legend that is Ash Williams, the series protagonist played by Bruce Campbell, and perhaps the most badass horror hero this side of Dewey. Through pop culture osmosis I would casually hear terms such as “boomstick”, “chainsaw arm” and “tree rape” being thrown around liberally enough that I knew I had to get round to finding out what all the fuss was about sooner or later. Plus, I’m totally sick of the festive television schedule; at this point, the living dead would be a welcome respite from Macaulay Culkin’s daft face gracing my living room on a near-nightly basis.
Filmed on a shoestring budget of $90,000 back in 1981, The Evil Dead wastes little time getting to the point: there’s a bunch of loved-up 20-somethings, a creepy cabin and The Book of the Dead. Within the creepy cabin they find a creepy tape, which happens to recite creepy incantations from said book, and from there everything goes south as one by one the group of friends become possessed, filled with the insatiable urge to murder the living. Whether by virtue of the script’s design or as a by-product from their limited budget, there’s a level of respect I have for Raimi in abandoning any pretence of character development, establishment of setting or exposition of any kind really — this is a splatter film distilled down to its most pure.
‘Splatter’ is an apt description. You don’t necessarily need to spend too much time with The Evil Dead to realise exactly where the money went, namely to the alarmingly large supply of fake blood, prosthetics and milk (the stuff they spew has to be milk, right?) that combine to compose the gruesome production. It may be severely lacking in competent acting or characterisation, but you’re unlikely to dwell on the stiffness of the performances for long as galleons of blood and puss start to spurt, spray, ooze and explode from every potential orifice in the frame — human, monster, or otherwise. It makes for an incredibly entertaining watch; the over-exaggeration of gore becomes almost charming, providing a wholly-intentional black comedy spin to what could have otherwise been The Hills Have Eyes 2: Electric Boogaloo. The unbelievable resilience of some of the undead becomes equal parts hilarious and exhausting, leading to my shouting at the television on more than one occasion for Ash to murder the hell out of Cheryl and her stupid indestructible face.
However, I would be doing the film a complete disservice if I dismissed it as a black comedy. In this over-saturated, post-satirical, deconstructive, meta-obsessed era of modern entertainment, it’s easy to scoff at older films and popular genres for their perceived derivative nature, and I’ll admit I was pretty much half-prepared to do so going by the opening sequence. What I did not expect, however, was to be caught off-guard and genuinely perturbed by some of the scenes. For as much as the 16mm film stock used throughout is so washed out and grainy in nature that it can be difficult to fully immerse, the audio design of the film is consistently superb. For instance, during the third act Ash has to re-enter the basement alone (of course he does) for shotgun shells to fend off his reanimated companions. As he creeps through, the traditional Hollywood horror strings are set aside in favour of some amplified ambience — heartbeats and clocks pound away, punctuated effectively by creaking and silence. There’s just enough static in the scenes to allow tension to build and it works well as an unsettling, distinctive and welcome counterpoint to the relentless slapstick gore.
Let me confront the ‘Tree Rape’-shaped elephant in the room for a second. This protracted scene understandably received a fair bit of criticism at the time, securing The Evil Dead cultural ‘video nasty’ status and forcing distributors to edit the footage for home release. Through the lens of a modern viewer, the effect is weaned somewhat by the naff execution — ghostly twigs and branches are held up awkwardly in POV shots, entangle the vulnerable, screaming Cheryl before violating her alone in the forest far away from the cabin. Poor special effects should not be an excuse for acceptance, though, and the obvious ‘shock’ motivation behind the sequence ultimately feels thematically at odds with what is a genuinely well-crafted film that balances humour and horror well. Thankfully, this awkward segment is over with pretty early on and is long-forgotten by the time credits roll, but I definitely walked away feeling that the sequence should be condemned rather than commended.
In spite of this, I still wholeheartedly recommend that fans of horror be sure to check out The Evil Dead. There’s plenty of fun to be had watching Ash reluctantly struggle with the concept of having to hack his friends, family and lovers to bits in a sea of bodily fluids. At a brisk 80 minutes, the film will fly by thanks to its fast pace and wall-to-wall set pieces that will keep you chuckling, wincing and jumping ’til the bitter end. My only slight disappointment is that Ash felt far more like a generic reluctant hero in this first outing, failing to escalate to the legendary status which he reportedly achieves over the course of the sequels — The Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness. On the upside, I seem to have found myself another couple of films to use to stave off Chris Columbus a little longer this Christmas.