By Matt Fleming. This is RETROGRADING, where we know better than to spend a weekend in a creepy, demon-filled cabin.
THE FILM: The Evil Dead
THE TIME: 1981, right around the peak of horror’s renaissance in American cinemas. This year saw the first sequels to Halloween and Friday The 13th, as well as An American Werewolf In London and a slew of other B-grade schlock.
RECOLLECTIONS: With Sam Raimi’s debut, The Evil Dead, the filmmaker inadvertently inspired decades of film-school horror-geeks to grab a camera (and some friends) and make their own low-budget masterpiece. Alas, it’s safe to say that none of those aspiring Spielbergs ever made anything close to the impact Raimi did with this classic exercise in low-budget terror.
The movie’s legacy is unquestionable, and unlike other horror properties that diluted its own importance with really bad sequels and remakes, it remains relatively unscathed. (I’m looking at you, literally every other horror classic.) The 2012 horror hit Cabin In The Woods owes its entire existence to tropes created by The Evil Dead, and to an extent, the arresting visuals of The Blair Witch Project.
While Evil Dead 2 is a slicker, more refined remake, this bare-bones production was the proving ground for its crew, a team forced to innovate dynamic camera tricks with two-by-fours and a running start. Horror stories abound of the torture cast and crew endured, suffering illnesses and injuries while their young director poked them with sticks. Some of the imagery is outdated and cringe-worthy (that tree-assault makes my stomach churn), but on a whole it is as terrifying now as it was then.
Over forty years later the film endures with horror fans. Starz and Raimi revived the franchise with the series, Ash vs. Evil Dead, proving that audiences still can’t get enough of Bruce Campbell fighting demons.
THE DIRECTOR: Before he created the template for modern comic book movies, Sam Raimi was a kid from Michigan who loved The Three Stooges. His early short films inspired a DIY spirit in the filmmaker that fueled The Evil Dead; what began with cheap techniques that saved the production money evolved into Raimi’s signature visual style. Raimi hired editor Edna Paul, whose assistant was a young Joel Coen. The Coen Brothers appreciated Raimi’s independent spirit, encouraging them to secure funding for their first film, Blood Simple. Just think, if not for Raimi, we might live in a world without Fargo.
Realistically, Raimi’s successes have had a profound effect on modern Hollywood. The director has seen highs and lows through his career: For every The Gift, there is a For Love Of The Game. Of course, Raimi’s ingenuity eventually landed him the dream gig that redefined his legacy as a filmmaker, but no number of Spider-Mans will ever rewrite the career of the guy who took ultimate pleasure in showering his buddy Bruce in blood. Anyone who has ever created a “steady cam” using two guys and a stick can thank Sam for thinking outside the cabin.
THE CAST: Given that most of the cast of this film were recruited from an ad in The Detroit News and subsequently fell off the cinematic radar for good, we’re left with the one cast member whose legacy matches or exceeds that of the film. The Evil Dead was the launch pad for one of the most iconic heroes in horror history, and in the process Bruce Campbell’s decades-long career in film and TV. The sequel is what really solidified his status, but his charisma in The Evil Dead is essential in looking past the film’s more outlandish elements. Nobody plays befuddled by evil the way young Bruce Campbell does.
Eventually, Campbell became an icon across many mediums, with unforgettable roles in forgettable television shows (though Brisco County Jr. remains a personal favorite) and sporadic cameos in a bunch of low budget affairs. Without the genesis of innocent Ash Williams in this splatter-fest, we might have never known the joys of his charming chin. He takes the character to further degrees of extremes with every opportunity, and he continues to maintain his status as He Who Rules B-movie Horror. Hail to the king, indeed.
NOSTALGIA-FEST OR REPRESSED NIGHTMARE? Whether it’s nostalgia or a true case of cinematic longevity, The Evil Dead has withstood the test of time. Between Sam Raimi’s exciting, innovative camera work, Bruce Campbell’s undeniable charm, and an overabundance of screams and fake blood, The Evil Dead is a blueprint for effective and terrifying horror from an era where schlock ruled the screens. This (and every) Halloween season, The Evil Dead is a must-watch for any fan of creepy books and isolated demonic possession.
RETROGRADE: 8.5 out of 10