The Evil Dead (1981) poster

The Evil Dead (1981)


USA. 1981.


Director/Screenplay – Sam Raimi, Producer – Robert G. Tapert, Photography – Tim Philo, Music – Joe Lo Duca, Makeup Effects – Bart Pierce & Tom Sullivan. Production Company – Renaissance Pictures.


Bruce Campbell (Ash), Hal Delrich (Scott), Betsy Baker (Linda), Sarah York (Shelley), Ellen Sandweiss (Cheryl)


Five friends go up to a mountain cabin for the weekend. In the cellar they find a book bound in human skin and a tape-recording left by a professor who once lived there, intoning rites to raise the dead. Soon after the tape is played, the trees in the forest rape one of the girls and she returns possessed by demonic forces. She attacks the others with insane ferocity and strength before she is subdued and locked in the cellar. However, her bite infects others and they become possessed. The remaining friends are forced to fight off the possessed who will not die even when hacked up and dismembered.

Every few years there comes along a film made on a non-existent budget that has either a ferocious determination to out and out scare an audience or goes so over the top it becomes a comic book of the absurd, and above all succeeds in maintaining itself with a level of energy and inventivity that mainstream efforts lack – George Romero did it with Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978), Wes Craven managed it with The Last House on the Left (1972), Tobe Hooper with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), John Carpenter with Halloween (1978), Stuart Gordon with Re-Animator (1985), Peter Jackson with Bad Taste (1988) and Braindead/Deadalive (1992). And here, in his directorial debut, Sam Raimi did too.

The Evil Dead emerged out of nowhere in 1982. It was made on a budget of only $50,000, shot by a group of friends over several years. Thanks in no small part to a judicious Stephen King quote in the promotion, the film was propelled to considerable success. Sam Raimi happily distils Night of the Living Dead, The Exorcist (1973) and a good deal of H.P. Lovecraft – indeed, The Evil Dead bears many resemblances to a small Lovecraft influenced B-budget film Equinox (1970) – and fires it up with an extraordinary energy of his own. The Evil Dead hits in with enormous vigour and an immense degree of directorial assurance upon Raimi’s part. The dead spurt, splatter, snarl, bite their own hands off and proceed to use them as weapons, get hacked up by axes with an enthusiastic deadpan beyond the call of duty as much upon the part of the butcherer as the victim, get shot in the face, are staked, have their eyeballs gouged out and finally spend several minutes deliquescing into psychedelic popcorn. One set-piece follows another in quick unrelenting succession and there is never a dull moment. The Evil Dead is an entirely kinetic film.

It seems a remarkable achievement to be able to pack a film as wall to wall as this, using only a cast of five and without concern for any of the usual romantic subplots and the like. In fact, the scenes of dialogue that intersperse the carnage only detract and brings hoots of laughter with the flat acting of the decidedly non-professional cast.

Bruce Campbell takes on the evil dead with chainsaw in The Evil Dead (1981)
Bruce Campbell wades in to take on the evil dead with trusty chainsaw at the ready

What you cannot deny is the enormous confidence that Sam Raimi brings as a director. Even though he was only shooting in 16 mm, Raimi and his crew built homemade dollies and cranes and his camera moves from the point of view of the demonic forces as they prowl through the forest, circle the house and creep up on cast members, have an assurance that many better-budgeted films lack.

If Herschell Gordon Lewis with his various grotty splatter films – see Blood Feast (1963) – and George Romero with his splatter epic Dawn of the Dead – had put the old horror chestnut about the scariest things being those that remain unseen into its coffin, then The Evil Dead surely nailed the lid on for once and for all. Where Romero in Dawn of the Dead created an extraordinary epic fascinated with the ways that zombies could be dismembered and splattered, The Evil Dead could be the same sort of film directed by a hyper-caffeinated speed freak. Between them, The Evil Dead and Re-Animator a few years later created the late 80s/early 90s popcorn splatter film, which was centred around wildly over the top popcorn splatter effects and frequently gratuitous T&A. The commercial end of these films were the A Nightmare on Elm Street sequels, the undisputed genius in the field was Peter Jackson.

It is hard to believe that The Evil Dead, ludicrously unserious as it is, caused a storm of controversy in some places. In Germany, the film was banned; in Britain, the tree rape sequence was cut and later the film was labelled a Video Nasty. Of course, by the time of the sequels, Sam Raimi had tamed the ferocity down somewhat – each of the sequels becomes progressively lighter and more slapstick in tone until by the time of Army of Darkness it was a stretch to even call it horror at all.

The Evil Dead (1981)
The Evil Dead

Sam Raimi made two Evil Dead sequels, the hilarious The Evil Dead II (1987) and the weaker Army of Darkness (1992), followed by the tv series Ash vs Evil Dead (2015-8) and a further film Evil Dead Rise (2023). For the greater part of the 2000s, Raimi touted the idea of a remake before this eventually emerged with Evil Dead (2013). There have also been two different Evil Dead stage musicals, both originating in Canada, the first in 2004 and the second in 2009. Also of interest is My Name is Bruce (2007) in which Bruce Campbell plays himself who is mistaken for Ash and required to fight a monster.

Sam Raimi’s other films include the bizarre cartoonish crime drama Crimewave (1985) and the dark superhero film Darkman (1990). After Army of Darkness, Raimi seemed to abandon genre filmmaking and gave all appearance of making a bid for mainstream respectability with the likes of the Western The Quick and the Dead (1995), the thriller A Simple Plan (1998), which is his single best film, the banal Kevin Costner baseball drama For the Love of the Game (1999) and the psychic thriller The Gift (2000), a film so respectably dull it virtually cried out for an injection of Evil Dead-styled schlock horror. Raimi returned to his genre roots with the high profile Spider-Man (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004), Spider-Man 3 (2007), followed by the horror film Drag Me to Hell (2009), Oz: The Great and Powerful (2013) and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022). Raimi also co-wrote the Coen Brothers fantasy film The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) and produces the zombie film The Dead Next Door (1989) under the pseudonym The Master Cylinder.

Sam Raimi has also had some success with his Renaissance Pictures production company, who have been particularly enterprising in the field of television fantasy. Theatrically, Renaissance have produced the bizarre Lunatics: A Love Story (1991), John Woo’s American debut Hard Target (1993) and the Van Damme time-travelling action film Timecop (1993). On television, Renaissance have produced such genre works as the superhero series M.A.N.T.I.S. (1994-6), the smalltown Deviltry show American Gothic (1995) and then had enormous hits with the dual successes of the tongue-in-cheek revisitings of Greek myth and sword and sorcery with Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1994-9) and Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001). These were followed by similar tongue-in-cheek series as Young Hercules (1998-2000), the futuristic Cleopatra 2525 (2000-2), the historical romp Jack of All Trades (2000-1) and the Evil Dead tv spinoff Ash vs Evil Dead (2015-8) and film reboot Evil Dead Rise (2023). Raimi has also formed the Ghost House Pictures production company and co-produced the likes of the American remake of The Grudge (2004), Boogeyman (2005), The Messengers (2007), Rise (2007), 30 Days of Night (2007), The Possession (2012), Evil Dead (2013), Poltergeist (2015), Don’t Breathe (2016), The Unholy (2021) and the tv series Legend of the Seeker (2008-10) and 13: Fear is Real (2009), as well as Raimi Pictures that produced Crawl (2019), Umma (2022) and 65 (2023).

The only member of the cast to even go onto do another film was Bruce Campbell. Bruce Campbell, a childhood friend of Sam Raimi, parlayed the success of the Evil Dead films into a career as a deadpan comic hero. He appeared in numerous B-budget films such as Maniac Cop (1988), Moontrap (1989), Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat (1989), Lunatics: A Love Story (1991), and polished his act in tv’s hilarious much lamented gonzo Western spoof The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. (1993) and parts in almost all Renaissance tv series, particularly the lead in their camp Napoleonic adventure Jack of All Trades (2000-1). Campbell even wrote his own autobiography If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor (2001) and made his directorial debut with Man with the Screaming Brain (2005), which was followed by My Name is Bruce (2007). Some people who come to The Evil Dead after seeing Bruce Campbell’s other work or even the other Evil Dead films are a little disappointed as Ash the comic hero is not a character that was refined until the first sequel and is played relatively more straight-faced here.

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