The Evil Dead (1981) – A Sam Raimi Masterpiece

The Evil Dead (1981) - Movie Poster

Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

The Art of the Low-Budget Horror Movie

Some of the best surprises in the horror genre come from unassuming low-budget horror movies that find a way to excite and entertain us far beyond reasonable expectations. I firmly believe that brilliant directors with limited budgets find greatness through necessity. Once unlocked, that greatness shines brighter than any big budget picture could ever achieve. The Evil Dead (1981), directed by Sam Raimi, masters the art of the low-budget horror masterpiece.

Dark Comedy, the Best Comedy

Mixing comedy and horror makes for a difficult recipe. So many horror films do this wrong. The best horror comedy flows with scares, spontaneous and unforced. Most films miss this point entirely. Even Sam Raimi misses the mark in the subsequent Evil Dead installments.

The Evil Dead - Linda with a case of the giggles
Linda with a case of the giggles

Sam Raimi somehow manages to pull the dark comedy and horror together by simultaneously taking itself seriously and not taking itself seriously at the same time. We get glimpses of an awkward Ash Williams without seeing him go full moron. Demon by Demon, bits of the dark comedy effortlessly exude from the horrific events. This comedy is part and parcel of the terror, not a contrived side-show. The Evil Dead succeeds greatly in getting the dark comedy recipe correct.

As an example, the creepy scene where Linda incessantly giggles in the doorway both makes the skin crawl while also getting a chuckle. Later she continues to giggle while Ash bashes her in the skull with a very large timber. The scene is both horrifying and comical. Cheryl’s taunts from the cellar, “I don’t want to die, you aren’t going to leave me are you. Are you Ash?” and “Kill her if you can, Loverboy!” are comical while terrifying.

The Evil Dead (1981) - It's your sister Cheryl!!!
It’s your sister Cheryl!!!

And Then There Was Ash

The horror movie genre spits out villains like they are going out of style. Every franchise builds around a bad guy. The Evil Dead franchise popularized one of the first good guys in horror. Enter Ashley ‘Ash’ Williams, everyman. Played by Bruce Campbell, Ash drives a 1973 Delta 88, paint slightly faded. He dates the hottest girl, from small-town Michigan. Ash is just a guy, any guy, trapped in the woods with Kandarian demons.

In this film, Ash leaves the intentional humor at the door. The doesn’t mean he isn’t funny, it just means that his serving of dark comedy derives from his situation. The house is Macaulay Culkin and Ash as one-half of the Wet Bandits. The Kandarian demons are Moe, and Ash Williams is Shemp. Fittingly, the demons pummel and abuse Ash for the duration of the film.

I prefer this version of Ash. The character is believable and likeable. Some quote Campbell’s performances in Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn and Army of Darkness as their favorites. In fact, it wasn’t until Ash vs. The Evil Dead ditched the slapstick in favor of writing a very clever script that I was able to accept funny Ash.

Making The Evil Dead – Special Effects

Despite being a low-budget horror movie, Sam Raimi and the special effects crew make The Evil Dead shine.  Markedly, the crew leveraged several varieties of special effects. Notably, the finale showcases a rather impressive claymation sequence. Mostly, the demonic makeup is masterful. However, sometimes the makeup looks sloppy and fake. Strangely, these failures prove forgivable given the overall quality of the film.

The Evil Dead (1981) - Bruce Campbell as Ash, aftger an over the head roll shot by Philo
Bruce Campbell as Ash, after an over the head roll shot by Tim Philo

The Evil Dead Cinematography

Apart from practical effects, the cinematography, performed by Tim Philo, accomplishes much than one would expect for a film of its budget. Most impressive, Philo employs very long forward progression shots that chase Ash through the house and through the woods. Most impressive is that there is no dolly and no steadicam. All of this  contributes to the disorienting feel of the film.

Philo uses dutch angles and full frame shots to great effect. For example, there is great shot where Scott catches a demon face rake. Philo does a great job using a single frame to capture demonic Cheryl frozen in time, dropping the fireplace poker as the Necronomicon burns.

To make this point again, necessity is the mother of all greatness in low-budget films. Given a talented young director and a motivated bunch of young people, magic can happen. The Evil Dead is one of a few perfect storms that found greatness in poverty.

The Infamous Tree Rape Scene

Well, maybe its not so infamous considering it has subsequently been rebooted in 2013’s remake. The scene I am referring to is the rape of Cheryl by the forest. This serves as a vehicle to “impregnate” her with a demonic presence. I do not like the scene, and find it in bad taste. But I can appreciate it for what it is. Given the limited resources of the crew, this scene is very well executed. In many instances Sam Raimi rolls the film in reverse in order to create the illusion that the vines are wrapping her up when in reality they are being pulled off.

I know there are a lot of fans that point to this as one of the great scenes in the film. I respectfully disagree.

The Evil Dead (1981) - Frozen as the Necronomicon burns
Cheryl – Frozen as the Necronomicon burns

The Evil Dead – Final Word

My review should make it clear that I am an Evil Dead fanboy. Likewise, I find this film to be one of the great examples of high-art coming from minimal means. This low-budget horror film excels at simply being a highly entertaining. By delicately interweaving elements of dark comedy through the horrific narrative, Sam Raimi creates a multi-dimensional horror film. Evil Dead serves as a case-study how to make a low-budget horror film with passion. The brilliance of this film comes not from a blockbuster idea, but rather a bunch of young talented people willing a mediocre idea into excellence.

As far as underground indie horror goes, The Evil Dead is an verifiable classic. Accordingly, it should be showcased in film schools as a shining example of how to make a great horror film.

 

Check out this review at thatwasabitmental.com

 

The Evil Dead (1981) - A Sam Raimi Masterpiece - Malevolent Dark
evil dead 1981 poster e1624551738187

Director: Sam Raimi

Date Created: 1981-01-01 00:00

Editor's Rating:
5

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