When I first watched The Evil Dead critically, it had a pretty daunting reputation to live up to. While it may have been nostalgia goggles talking, everybody I had ever heard talk about the movie referred to as a a 10/10 movie. This was the horror/comedy equivalent of something like Alien, The Thing or A Nightmare on Elm Street, if hearsay was to be believed. Having recently seen Army of Darkness, I was skeptical. I didn’t find the latter movie all that funny, or all that scary. Of course, the first film is generally known to be the least funny and the scariest of the trilogy, so I had that much in the way of hopes.
Still, although some people later recanted, it’s almost never a pleasant experience to go into a movie that everyone you’ve ever seen has described as, if not flawless, then among company that’s pretty damned close. I love Alien, but having gone through years of hearing nothing but praise for this movie since I last watched it, I’m sure next time I pop in the DVD from Netflix, I will discover that twenty minutes near the center will fail to meet my expectations and appear to be incredibly boring.
Luckily, having watched The Evil Dead over three years ago, I knew not to expect the film to live up to the hype. I knew I enjoyed the film, but that I did not love it. What I did not remember was why.
In truth, I don’t think I ever really understood why before I finished watching the film again. It took me over three years to understand what it is that people see in The Evil Dead that I never would. If you look at the Netflix entry for this movie, you see the following tags: Horror, Cult Horror, Zombies, Dark Humor & Black Comedies, Supernatural Horror, Violent, Campy, Scary. One of these things is not like the others. Do you know which it is?
There are no Zombies in The Evil Dead! Those are Deadites!
The Evil Dead opens as a car drives through the woods to a cabin. The atmosphere here is classic horror- and by classic, I mean the type of atmosphere you get right before a jump scare in most horror flicks. We’re not disappointed here, although we do get a hint that something’s unusual in the woods- the recently repaired car has a steering wheel that seems to go out of its way to play chicken with much larger vehicles.
Our first few scares are like this, with a creepy atmosphere, followed by a jump scare, then the characters being loud and obnoxious and trying to deal with it in their own ways. Still, you can never quite ditch that sense of dread- that sense that something is in the woods, in the cabin, watching them.
When they discover the Necronomicon ex Mortis, aka the Book of the Dead, and an audio documentary by the last person to find it, things start to change. The man who recorded the audio doc had the poor judgment to recite on tape the incantations inscribed on one of the book’s pages. Of course, the characters, who pretty much lack any character independent of the others unless they happen to be played by Bruce Campbell, play the tape for laughs until one of the girls starts screaming to turn it off.
Shit hits the fan immediately. Before we even know what’s going on…well, there’s a reason this scene is placed before we know what’s going on. If it made a bit more sense, it would have been something they could build up to. Instead, they have to put the most intense, terrible scene before the Deadites even show up.
Yes, I’m talking about the tree rape.
And let’s get this out of the way. You’re watching an exploitation movie. You expect terrible bullshit to happen. As long as you’re not cheering on the tree, you’re not a bad person for intently watching the tree rape scene. That’s why scenes like this exist in movies. I bring this up because I’m conflicted myself sometimes watching it. Good. That means the film-maker did their job at portraying a terrible situation properly. Kudos. So don’t hate that it’s in the film, or that people like that fact.
What can you hate about it? It’s the most intense, evil thing the Deadites do – they seem to completely erase the possesseds’ identities, so there doesn’t seem to be anything worse done to the victims. Yet it’s the first attack…because it doesn’t really make sense with the Deadites in general. It’s before any of the violence toward the men in the movie- by the way, notice that the women are also the only ones that get completely possessed in this movie? Between this fact, the last few seconds of the tree rape where she appears to have a small orgasm, and the behavior of the women, this is a serious case of Man on Board in the writing department. Is it a huge thing? No. Is it very distracting? No, though it might be on a repeat viewing. But it is there, and it needs to be addressed.
So Bruce Campbell’s girlfriend gets raped, and it really is well done, despite the subject matter. She looks and acts like a believable rape victim. Really the only downside here is that, well…
Every time somebody calls Bruce Campbell “Ashley”, my ability to take the movie seriously diminishes. Which may be the point, but it’s not a positive for me.
After a failed attempt to escape- add Haunted House to the list of genres this film covers, especially at the end when Ash faces is the last unpossessed human in the cabin – we meet the Deadites. They work by possessing the women in the cabin before taunting and mocking the men and then making with the violence – repeat.
I’m not going to go into any more detail with the plot – what I haven’t spoiled already is just more of the same – but I’m going to do something I haven’t done in a while and bring up gore and makeup effects. If the budget of the film wasn’t obvious from the cinematography, here is where it really is. The blood is over the top, and sort of made up for by the fact that Deadites do not bleed like regular people – they gush a number of fluids for a number of reasons, some of which resemble real or fake blood and may or may not be either. If you’ve ever liked the gore and makeup on a low budget exploitation film, this is right in your alley.
Why do I think this film is over rated? Well, there’s two things. One of them is the movie, and one of them is me. Whereas Phantasm bored me at times because it had a hard to keep track of plot and gave us all of its tricks in the beginning, The Evil Dead bored me at times because it gives us all of the plot in the beginning, and all of its new tricks are within the first half. The second half of the movie is essentially variations on the same theme as Ash and the Deadites struggle. It’s not pulled off poorly for what it is, but when you run out of plot points at the halfway mark of the movie, your audience is not usually going to be pleased.
Anything else, guys?
Oh, right. You want to know what I thought of the comedic aspects of this film.
Well. Isn’t that it in a nutshell? I didn’t. And that, my friends, is why Sam Raimi films and I do not really get along. There are very few comedies out there that I truly enjoy for that reason – Some action comedies that are probably better classes as “guilty pleasures” than anything else. Action and comedy, to me, are things that lend to one another – quips in the middle of an explosion launching your car in the air make sense to me. Comedy in the middle of an attack by zombie-esque demons? No, not so much.
That is where me and The Evil Dead must part ways, and why my opinion of it differs so drastically from anybody who prefers Return of the Living Dead as the sequel to Night, and feels an interest in watching Shaun of the Dead. Horror and comedy, to me, do not mix. Yes. Camp? Yes. The difference is that these things are usually neither intentional, nor required to enjoy the film. You can watch a campy horror film and just treat the camp as inabilities based on budget or other failures on the part of making the film, and four out of five times you’ll be correct. If you can suspend your disbelief and enjoy it, all the better. If not, you still have a story behind it. A comedy, on the other hand? Scenes where Deadites just taunt Ash for five minutes straight? If you don’t find the comedy style amusing- and I don’t- then it falls completely flat. If you don’t share Sam Raimi’s style of humor, the best parts of the film end shortly after the Deadites arrive.
If you enjoy intentional comedy in horror movies – if you thought Part 2 was the best Texas Chainsaw Massacre film or enjoy Army of Darkness – this might well be one of the best cult films of all time. If, on the other hand, you prefer completely unintentional camp like I do, then you’ll probably find this film may be worth a watch, but after that, let it be buried alive. Better yet, give me a film that opens like this one and closes like the remake, and you’ll finally have an Evil Dead movie that lives up to the name.