Celebrating the Evil Dead

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With season two of Ash vs Evil Dead coming this Fall, I wanted to take a look at the original three films which started the franchise. Season 1 of Ash vs Evil Dead was everything I could have hoped for and more, proving that Ash is not an asshole, he is THE asshole. The special effects, the action filled plot and the acting (including the wonderful Lucy Lawless) were perfection. The show moved from gore through psychedelic magical visions to low brow comedy without missing a beat. Anyone who enjoyed the original films with love this Starz series and I cannot wait for the second season.

But for now, let’s look at the films.

The Evil Dead trilogy (1981-1992), directed by Sam Raimi and starring Bruce Campbell, is not a series as such, but rather a group of films connected by characters and plot. The trilogy works best I feel, if you view the original film as a classic piece of horror cinema where suspense, gore and humour are in perfect balance, and consider Evil Dead 2 (1987) and Army of Darkness (1992) as slapstick parodies of the original with more comedy, less suspense and plenty of gore.

Evil Dead was released in 1981 at a time when “video nasties” were coming into prominence in the UK. “Video Nasty” was a colloquial term, coined in 1982, describing low-budget, ultra-violent, horror imports from Italy and the US that led to tighter censorship and the banning of many films in 1984 (including The Evil Dead which was eventually released officially in 1990 with two minutes cut from  the original version). Other films caught in the “video nasty” furore included The Last House on the Left (1972), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), I Spit on Your Grave (1978), The Driller Killer (1979), Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and Tenebrae (1982).

In The Evil Dead, Raimi gives a nod to the 1977 Wes Craven classic The Hills Have Eyes by using a fragment of the film’s release poster in the cabin’s cellar, just above where Ash finds the Necronomicon for the first time. Apparently, there was a continuing in-joke between Craven and Raimi, where they would reference each other’s work throughout their early films.

Gore galore! Image Credit: Renaissance Pictures

Gore galore! – Bruce Campbell as Ash
Image Credit: Renaissance Pictures

Evil Dead was a perfect horror film. The often hectic cinematography confuses the senses, drawing the viewer deeper into its horror and suspense. Five friends visit a secluded cabin. Their complete isolation from the world is beautifully shown by a twisted bridge above the deep chasm of a gorge.

Waking demons by playing a tape recording, the friends find themselves attacked by and converted into demonic spirits one by one, starting with the infamous tree-rape scene. Evil Dead is as much a comedy as it is a horror. Fight scenes between Ash and the demons are slapstick in nature. Even so the suspense remains very real and powerful. Silence, strange noises and shadows are used to optimum effect. Made in the days before sophisticated CGI, the low-budget Claymation special effects may look cheap and corny to modern viewers, but they work exceptionally well in the context of the film. The budget for Evil Dead was said to be a mere $350,000.

Evil Dead 2 simply does not make sense if viewed as a sequel to The Evil Dead. Ash returns to the same cabin with a different looking Linda who wears the pendant he gave to his girlfriend in the first film. They play the tape again with the same results. The film brings in aspects of the history of the taped translation of the Book of the Dead. The daughter of the professor who made the tape returns to the cabin after Ash kills the possessed Linda.

Evil Dead 2 exchanges suspense for comedy, and yet it remains full of many classic moments, including the possession of Ash’s hand. The gore level increases in the second film and the special effects appear a little more sophisticated.

Army of Darkness takes Ash to Medieval Europe. The Necronomicon predicts a hero in the shape of Ash who will save them from a plague of demons. Arriving along with a 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 (which incidentally was the Raimi’s family car, purchased by Sam’s father when he was 14), Ash is sent on a quest to recover the book, but in his hapless and arrogant way manages to forget his instructions and instead raises the dead. An incident with a mirror causes Ash to be split in two “Good Ash” and “Bad Ash.”

Theatrical poster Image Credit: Renaissance Pictures

Theatrical poster
Image Credit: Renaissance Pictures

Sam Raimi created a masterpiece with The Evil Dead. I am interested to see the remake, but I doubt it can eclipse Raimi’s achievement from thirty odd years ago. I dare to suggest, with the upmost respect, that the second and third films are affectionate jokes that reference the success of the first film with no expectation of reaching the same dizzying heights. They appear to be comedic attempts at setting a new world record of how much fake blood can be consumed in a low budget movie. Watching Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness feels like being a guest at a cool party, jointly hosted by director and star.

The Evil Dead trilogy is a journey of friendship; the ultimate series of buddy movies, except the buddies are director and star. It warms my heart to watch Raimi and Campbell work together. They seem perfectly synchronised. These films are their films, testaments to their respect for each other as artists and their synergy. Raimi and Campbell not only built the Evil Dead Empire together; they also shared a home and other projects, including Spiderman and Xena Warrior Princess.

It illustrates how any one of us can pursue our dreams, however wild. Sam Raimi said, “It was great making movies in college because if you made the right movie you’d get this cigar box full of $5 and $1 bills, you’d have like 500 bucks after a weekend. And it was like oh my god, we’re rich! We’ve got to make another picture. But if the movie bombed, you spent a lot of money on the movie, on the ads at the State news, renting the theatre, lugging these heavy speakers, the projector bulbs, [and] it was a washout, you realize this movie is not making money. I’m broke. I’ve got to make the movie that they want to see. So it was a great learning experience.”

With only the highest respect for Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, I conclude that Evil Dead is a film to watch and love while the sequels are great background fodder for the end of an alcohol-fueled film night at a friend’s house.