'The Evil Dead' (1981): Indie Horror’s Rite of Passage

Updated on April 10, 2019
Sam Shepards profile image

Hi, I'm Sam, I love movies. My main interest is science fiction and zombie survival movies, but I love classics and various cult pieces too.

Talking about The Evil Dead is irremediably addressing its privileged place in the history of the horror genre.

Many films have come and gone since its premiere, but Sam Raimi’s debut feature is by far the quintessential “cabin in the woods” movie of all time.

The Evil Dead is not just one of the best horror films of all time. The history of the whole process to make this film a reality is an amazing love letter to that glorious communal process that is making movies.

Like all good stories, it all started with a friendship. Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell grew up together, creating several Super 8mm short films of different genres.

Motivated by one of their experiments, Raimi decided that his first feature film would be a horror movie. For this, he directed a short film called Within the Woods, to attract future investors and thus achieve the goal of the required $100,000.

One of the people that got to receive the pitch was friendly lawyer Phill Gillis. Gillis hated the short film, but was widely impressed with the push and heart that Raimi had. He decided to advise him in the whole financing stage. Campbell and Raimi recruited as many friends and family members as possible to raise the money.

Incredibly, they managed to raise a decent amount of money. At least to start the shooting.

The shooting was a “rite of passage” for everybody involved, especially Campbell and Raimi. The inexperience of the reduced crew, the low budget and the harsh conditions of the remote location made those 12 hellish weeks a painful master class in cinema.

The material captured by the cameras had enormous potential. Because Sam Raimi, besides having the heart and the push, also had talent.

The Evil Dead tells the story of five college students who decide to spend their vacations in a remote cabin in a Tennessee forest. An evil and diabolical entity which has no further explanation will make their existence miserable.

In the cabin, the students discover an abandoned cellar full of strange objects, including a Sumerian version of the Egyptian Book of the Dead and a tape recorder with an oral documentation of the archaeologist who got the book. In the recording, the archaeologist recites what appears to be a series of passages and enchantments, thus unleashing the demonic presence in the cabin and the woods.

One by one, the students succumb to the attacks of the evil entity. Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) is handcuffed and raped by a possessed tree (that’s right). Although she manages to escape, the entity is already within her, making her the first “deadite” of the saga. A violent and mocking zombie-demon, the deadites only seek to torment and kill other humans.

At the end of all the carnage, which grow spectacularly as the minutes goes by, Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) is the last man standing, establishing one of the most emblematic characters in contemporary cinema.

Raimi and his small crew did wonders (and also many mistakes) in order to capture the ambitious story. They create small improvised rigs to making fluid camera movements (including that final shot made with the camera mounted on a bicycle that runs through half the forest and the cabin before “running over” Ash).

They resorted to “fake Shemps” to optimize time. They even manufacture a huge amount of fake blood and a complicated stop-motion sequence to emulate a corpse that rots fast. Considering the hostile environment, what they did was simply remarkable.

All the effort and the literal blood spilled in the tortuous shooting would continue to achieve and align incredible collaborations. In the editing process (carried out by Edna Ruth Paul), Raimi met one of the Coen brothers, Joel, who in addition to editing one of the most emblematic sequences of the film, ended up becoming one of his best friends. Motivated by The Evil Dead, Joel and his brother decided to direct their first film. Go figure.

The Evil Dead achieved, thanks again to a series of contacts infected by the indomitable and hardworking spirit of Raimi and Campbell, to premiere in Cannes, out of the competition. A wonderful review by Stephen King opened the doors to national and international distribution. The Evil Dead ended up being a commercial hit.

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The story behind the camera of The Evil Dead works as a spiritual nemesis to the script of the film. Bad luck and demons ended up exorcised and generating not only a wonderful cult around the saga but an unquantifiable motivational legacy in the following generations of independent creators.

The best part of all? The saga was just beginning. I only rank it second place in my evil dead movies list, so the best was yet to come.

In the last 10 minutes of The Evil Dead, Raimi presses the accelerator in an already frenetic film. The violent zoom-ins, the Dutch angles, the dramatic close-ups and the crazy amount of blood and viscera shown on the screen not only meant the perfect climax of this movie but the blueprint for the sequel, whose legacy and popularity would reach even further boundaries.

Movie Details

Title: The Evil Dead

Release Year: 1981

Director(s): Sam Raimi

Actors: Bruce Campbell, Betsy Baker, Ellen Sandweiss, Richard DeManincor, a.o.

5 stars for The Evil Dead (1981)

© 2019 Sam Shepards

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