Is THE EVIL DEAD the greatest horror film ever made? Yes, is the short answer! (FEATURE)
Ok, so now I have your attention! In a world of John Carpenter, James Whale, Dario Argento and Ari Aster, is an old, and questionably better remade, classic from someone better known for Marvel fanfare actually the greatest horror film ever made. Let me fight it's corner.
So, in 1981 an exaggerated student film using low budget close ups and a bunch of unknown actors really did make a lasting impact. Sam Raimi along with Robert Tapert, Bruce "The Chin" Campbell and their friends produced the short film WITHIN THE WOODS (funded by a small $1,600) as a tease to what THE EVIL DEAD would become and managed to garner interest from investors, which secured a now measly $90k. The output of which became a genuine sight of terror that would terrify audiences to get the film banned but also ensure that the legacy of a film made in 1981, still stands as THE GREATEST HORROR FILM of all time, some 40 years later.
The best thing about THE EVIL DEAD is that despite some dated effects, the practicality of it all, like many other stop motion classics as JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS and SINBAD, is simply that everything about the world is real. Raimi managed to create something to invest in and even though just six years semi-remade the classic into a comedy-horror, the original is genuinely a terrifyingly gripping survival of the fittest against a mostly unseen evil and when it is on screen, the turn it takes on the possessed makes you really feel for those that have turned to fully grasp the reality of what is unfolding.
While Bruce Campbell is famed for the role of Ash, here he is a mere novice, someone who doesn't play to the tongue-in-cheek anti-hero the franchise has, successfully, made of him. Does he garner the name in lights he now sells movies with against the names of Ellen Sandweiss (the only other original actor from the short), Richard DeManincor, Betsy Baker and Theresa Tilly (as Sarah York)? The short answer is no. This is not a solo outing or one that takes it's name as a lead, here the five inhabitants of a cabin in the woods are all equal and anything could happen to any of them.
The moment we get an image of Linda in full possession is more horrific than Regan and more longlasting than the end shot of FRIDAY THE 13TH. The creepy voice, perfectly layered with masterful effect from the sound design which was mostly re-recorded (watch BERBARIOAN SOUND STUDIO to see how these things work).
The make-up is just nasty, the peeling synthetics falling away from skin is not only a low budget fayre that would have Spielberg crying behind a camera but actually adds to the grotesque nature of the vessels now occupied not of the souls they once had but of the evil deadites summoned by a dusty recording.
Campbell confirmed in his autobiography (If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor) that Raimi was unusually using Dutch techniques for camera angles while building up suspense. This along with the amateur nature of THE EVIL DEAD gives the film a sense of unknown significance. The naivety of a film maker making a classic which is so often how it's done. Jordan Peele, Eduardo Sanchez, John Carpenter and Jennifer Kent can all atest that the first is always the most longlasting and while Raimi has produced some genre greats (DRAG ME TO HELL, DARKMAN, any of the EVIL DEAD sequels) but never met the masterful opening that had no "must be better than" benchmark.
These are the days where film makers could literally find a cabin in the woods and work from that. Here, along with a supportive small crew and a few favourable fans (Stephen King being one), the film was able to garner greater distribution but rather than subtly settle into the machine, faced a full barrage of public outrage on release as censorship was not in Raimi's vision.
From pens stabbed into apples to trees raping women, nothing about THE EVIL DEAD is subtle, and more importantly, there's very little reputational care for what should follow. THE EVIL DEAD was made in the moment and as such it stands as an honest, unflinching horror movie that had it all to lose.
In 1980 the biggest horror movie was Stanley Kubrick's THE SHINING, an undeniable feat in film making and cinematic beauty but not a very scary horror film and an adaptation it's writer despised. Kubrick's film was on an estimated $19m budget making back at least double that back to Warner Brothers. Alongside that was another Warner funded horror film, FRIDAY THE 13TH which had a mere 25% of that budget and yet made back 8x that. Between the two, despite one being a visually brilliant portrait of a director balancing genres, it was the grass roots slasher that made more money, leading to studios finding a possible outlet for revenue in modestly low budget horror. THE EVIL DEAD boasted a total budget of around $300k and yet made back over 8x it's investment to be a real winner for studios which explains the $3.2m investment for it's bigger and cleaner remake/sequel. At the time the horror's biggest pole bearers were the likes of THE EXORCIST, ROSEMARY'S BABAY and THE OMEN, grand epics that had large budgets and known stars. Here was a no named, low budget shocker that was very nearly banned without a few seconds of gore taken out of the final cut.
Taking that into account, and reflecting back on the commercial success of EVIL DEAD II, it's easy to see how and rightly so, that the sequel is often deemed as the definitive classic but there's one thing to remember for fans of the classic original, the sequel had very strong foundations to base itself on and subsequently had lesser invention.
For a film that only lasts 85 minutes there are so many iconic scenes that a echoed through cinema today. Deadites locked under the stairs, Linda's monologue to Ash, the tree, those sweeping ground shots, this is the pinnacle of film making and specially donated to the horror genre as a banner for how it's not all about breasts and blood for which the mass hysteria of cinema goers though of the genre at the time. A masterstroke again to the films editing team which included none other than Joel Coen of the Coen Brothers, in the same studio used by Brian De Palma, as they sifted through mountains of footage to get the final cut and only made a sheer 49 second cut for the film to receive an X rating (only in 2000 were they added in to make an 18 UK rated cut). Furthermore, the film was so low calibre it had to be enlarged for cinema screens, testament to how different this was to films produced in screens around the same time.
The creative executions of the deadites and their demise is nothing short of magnificent and timeless. There's something still skin crawling about watching the melting of flesh to the bone that makes this more than just Aardman animation on acid. This is pure horror and the student level performances keep it all grounded. While the camera flashes between the make-up heavy starlets, and the stop motion techniques are flawless from a film maker in his early years.
To put things in perspective this guy has redefined superhero movies, taken on the largest film another 22 years later and always come back to produce the franchise he started with. The quality of ASH V THE EVIL DEAD is testament to this as a follow on from the earlier entries and one that plays on fan service to the point that it retcons the bridge between the 1981 and 1987 released films.
THE EVIL DEAD is the pinnacle of film making at it's best. Original, innovative, fresh, raw, nasty and yet heart wrenchingly emotional as it's cast all fight against something never anticipated. While haunted house films had been done before, and zombie outbreaks were the mainstream, there's something about 4 people in the backwoods slowly getting possessed to the point they are not just alien, but fighting against the death for sheer survival against those once loved.
With the likes of HALLOWEEN, THE THING, DAWN OF THE DEAD, NOSFERATU, FRANKENSTEIN, UNDER THE SKIN, JAWS, THE WITCH, POSSESSION, ROSEMARY'S BABY, THE WICKER MAN, HIGH TENSION, SCREAM, MARTYRS... the list goes on, there is and never will be anything quite like the masterful genius and naivety of THE EVIL DEAD that makes it an intimidating foresight of how not giving a fuck, actually makes people, well, give a fuck.
Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell maybe household names now, but in 1981 their journey was just beginning and as such, let's remember THE EVIL DEAD as not only the greatest cabin in the woods film ever made, but the damn best horror movie ever made too! It may be low budget, but it stands tall as the greatest in the EVIL DEAD saga and that is a high bar to excel.