Catching Up With: The Evil Dead – 1981

Modern horror movies have been plagued by gimmicks. Torture-porn, found footage, Oogieloves (not a horror movie? Go watch that trailer and tell me it isn’t terrifying), all high-concept filters that sometimes mask a lack of creativity. The best movies  the genre has to offer are the most primal, devoid of pretensions and only interested in destroying an audience’s sensibilities.

A classic example is 1981’s “The Evil Dead,” the debut film from writer/director Sam Raimi. Shot in a run-down shack with amateur actors on a shoestring budget with a premise; five kids stranded in a cabin surrounded by undead demons, that’s so old it’s covered in cobwebs, “The Evil Dead” is still a wild, gory marvel of DIY ingenuity.

The five candidates for slaughter are Ash (Bruce Campbell), Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), Scott (Richard DeMannicor), Ash’s girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker), and Shelly (Theresa Tilly). Except for Ash, none of these characters are fleshed out too much, which is a shame, but does not cripple the movie. Anyway, these five arrive at a  deserted cabin in the Tennessee wilderness, ready for a weekend of drunken debauchery. Of course the only escape from this wooden enclave, a rickety bridge, collapses under the weight of their car, which is never a good sign. An even worse sign of doom is the skin-bound Book of the Dead that the group finds in the basement, along with a tape recording of satanic chants. As we learned in “Cabin in the Woods,” common sense does not compute in horror movies, so they play the tapes and wind up summoning ancient demons that turn people into rotting monsters. Luckily they have a shotgun on hand to dispose of them right? Unfortunately, the only way to kill whoever is possessed by these demons is by full-body dismemberment, so things are going to get real bloody real fast.

What “The Evil Dead” lacks in strong characterization and nuanced performances it makes up for in Raimi’s wild, merciless filmmaking sensibility. After Cheryl gets raped by a tree and becomes possessed by the demons (you read that correctly, we’re definitely in the wild blue yonder on this one), this film throws subtlety into the foggy wind and becomes a Looney Tunes cartoon from Hell. The idea that these demons can only be stopped by removing all of their limbs is an inspired one, because it takes grueling effort to take any of them down. As Ash and co. use everything in their disposal; chainsaws, knives, etc., to tear off the undead limbs, the blood-soaked mayhem that comes as a result makes the film painfully visceral. Raimi’s camera is out of control; literally bouncing off the walls, tracking shots that come in so fast you wouldn’t be surprised if the camera knocks over whoever is on-screen, contorting into impossible angles to wring every ounce terror and malice that $90,000 can offer. It doesn’t matter that the makeup is only a couple steps up from a high school play, Raimi’s conviction overcomes those limitations.

Oh, and then there’s the blood. And pus, and all sorts of thick, viscous liquids that coat the walls of the cabin and Ash, when he is the last one left to do battle with what used to be his friends. Bruce Campbell had not quite developed the acting chops that would make him a cult icon in the series’ later entries, but he definitely has a funny screen presence. He is put through the ringer against these undead mutants, armed only with a chainsaw, which still doesn’t keep him from being engulfed by geysers of blood and God knows what that yellow stuff is supposed to be. “The Evil Dead” is a movie that sees people projectile vomiting after viewing it as a victory, a testament to its crude, stomach-churning power. If you’re tired of jump scares and torture porn with pretensions of making a statement about society, give this sick twist of a movie a spin. “The Evil Dead” makes the genre intense and  fun again by serving it up raw, and extra, extra bloody.

Grade: A-

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