The plot in itself in no way promises anything exceptional; after all, the basic setup of a group of young adults in an isolated wreck of a cabin dying one by one was already so old by 1981 that it was almost a joke to use it. But perhaps that is why Rami decided to do so: the film, as gory and ennerving as it is, is also very much a satire, and as such the antiquated generic plot is entirely appropriate. That aside, Rami does a damned good job at proving that even the deadest of plotlines can be given new, exciting life in the hands of the right person. Indeed, he ended up making such an effective horror movie that the satire is easily overlooked — something he corrected in his later overtly comic remake of his own film, The Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987 / trailer), and its follow-up, The Army of Darkness (1992 / trailer).
Rami really doesn't waste much time in getting the viewer's blood pumping: the crosscutting between the iconic 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 on the road and the p.o.v. traveling shot along the forest floor leading up to the near accident, set to Joseph LoDuca simple but nerve-wracking music, might not end in much of a money shot but it is still one of many small but effective tension-building situations that make the viewer nervous long before the demons start possessing people. That the college students keep going even when confronted by the rotted-out bridge reveals the five to be less than bright — see: Hell No: The Sensible Horror Film trailer — but it is the fact that they don't simply turn around when they finally reach the desolate house that reveals one basic truth to the viewer: they gonna die!
That the movie is and looks lower than low budget cannot be argued — love the mashed corn and potatoes used in the final demon-melt scene — but it no way hurts the movie's effectiveness. Indeed, the ragged edges give the movie a rawness that the later remake, for example, totally lacks. OK, the acting is truly a bit questionable at times, but the speed at which the shit hits the fan again and again and again gives you no chance to get critical about such flaws. The infamous tree rape scene is as disconcerting as everyone remembers it to be, and truly moves the film from the realm of horror into the transgressive. One might argue that it is ill-advised or unnecessary, that it is misogynistic, but on the other hand it is also one of the most effectively disturbing and truly horrific scenes ever filmed and, unlike all the contemporary "tentacle horror" coming from Asia, doesn't seem 100% fetishistic. Dumb that it happened to Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss of Satan's Playground [2006 / trailer]), but had Ash (the legendary Bruce Campbell, young and rather good-looking) or Scott (Richard DeManincor, of the forever unjustly under-appreciated Crimewave [1985 / trailer]) been idiotic enough to wander out into the forest — "Hello? Is someone there?" — there is no doubt that someone's ass would've suffered, and not just from hemorrhoids. Indeed, who knows what Scotty later experienced out in the forest prior to returning to the house to die and convert.
The Evil Dead is well-nigh perfectly constructed, even if an occasional scene or motivation leaves you scratching your head. (Why, for example, doesn't Cheryl get more upset about her possessed hand? And why does she even go outside and wander into the forest? And if the evil dead are released by the tape being played, who or what almost causes the car to crash, makes the swing slam against the house, or possesses Cheryl's hand? Why does the force take so long to finally break into the house and posses Shelley [Theresa Tilly of Stomping Ground [2014 / trailer]?) Nevertheless, attention to detail is revealed in how some of the scenes early in the movie are often echoed or referred to again later: the first scene of Scott walking through the house, for example, introduces many of the props important to the narrative (mirror, wall clock, shed), while the extremely wooden romantic scene between Ash and Linda (Betsy Baker of Witches' Night [2007 / trailer] and 2084 [2009 / trailer]) is echoed later when he's burying her corpse.
Much is often made of Rami's moving camera and tracking shots, which often come across a bit like a Baroque Murnau having orgasmic spasms of "unchained camera technique"; indeed, many of the visuals and camera movements, were they in B&W, would fit perfectly in an Expressionistic silent — including the intercut canned scenes of stock lightning. One aspect of the movie that is continually under-appreciated, however, is the nerve-wracking use of sound and Joseph LoDuca cheap-sounding but extremely efficient music: seldom has an 80s synth soundtrack ever been as effective as LoDuca's tonalities and Gothic flourishes, many of which sound like Dr. Phibes on acid. Cheesy, but perfect.
We've mentioned before, in other reviews, that there are horror movies out there that all true fans of horror must watch at least once in their lifetime. Our personal list would include movies such as Murnau's Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922 / trailer / full film) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925 / trailer / full film), though both are too old now to be very scary, plus James Whale's mid-century masterpieces Frankenstein (1931 / trailer) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935 / trailer) and Tod Browning's uniquely shocking Freaks (1932 / trailer). After Psycho (1960 / trailer), interestingly enough, many of our "must sees" are also low-budget directorial debuts: George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968 / trailer / full film), Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974 / trailer), Wes Craven's flawed Last House on the Left (1972 / trailer), Peter Jackson's hilarious Bad Taste (1987 / trailer), and this movie here, Sam Rami's first feature-length movie, The Evil Dead.
Of the last five films mentioned, Craven's is undoubtedly the weakest and Jackson's the funniest (and, oddly enough, the only one yet to be remade), but the most consummate are Night of the Living Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and this baby here. We have no doubt that one day The Evil Dead will also be deemed "culturally significant" by the Library of Congress and will join Night of the Living Dead, Psycho, The Bride of Frankenstein, Freaks, Frankenstein, and Phantom of the Opera and be selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.
Till then, we can only say that if you haven't seen The Evil Dead yet, you should: it really is so much better than its 2013 remake (trailer) directed by Fede Alvarez (the director of our Short Film of the Month of December 2009, Ataque de pánico!). Fede Alvarez's updated version is in itself a perfectly acceptable and effective movie — but it's just not as rocking. (In that sense, Alvarez's Evil Dead is very much the first cousin of Tom Savini's version of Night of the Living Dead [1990 / trailer], which never achieves the power and presence of the original, but functions well enough as a competently made update.)
Posters and lobby cards all found on The Wrong Side of Art.