The Evil Dead Re-Watch

Shortly after my graduation from the UP Fine Arts program, I started losing my taste for “art films.” While I wouldn’t trade my time in Diliman for anything, I realized after that I’m just not as deep as my classmates were. I don’t have the patience to sit through most independent films without reaching for the control and fast forwarding it to the “good” parts (i.e. the scenes with nudity).

If I’m going to spend my time watching anything, it’s going to be something that entertains me; which is why most of my DVD library includes genre pictures: Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror movies.

Which brings me to The Evil Dead.

Poster for a special screening of The Evil Dead the Alamo Drafthouse by artist Olly Moss.
The Evil Dead (and the other movies in the franchise it begot) is what you might call a “B Movie”. The term once referred to the second picture in the old double features; usually the less marketable of the two films. It was later adopted to describe any low-budget movie made to cater to themes a certain brand of cinephile loved: sex and violence.

During the early days, B movies began as spaghetti westerns. Then they moved on to silly science fiction that featured rubber-suited men stomping around elaborate miniature sets. During the 70’s, the movies that filled grind houses were the “exploitation” flicks that were all filled with large portions of female nudity and masochist themes. These eventually evolved to what became the American horror classics that were released late in the decade.

The first of the Evil Dead films is the story of Ashley (Ash) Williams, his girlfriend Linda, and three college friends, out for a weekend in a cabin in the woods. They find an ancient book called The Book of the Dead and a recording of a dead professor reciting from one of its pages. The professor’s words awaken demons can’t be killed and who begin to possess Ash’s friends one by one. It was made on a shoestring budget of $350,000.00 and actually shared a lot with the independent art house scene: low rent effects, amateur actors, and locations that had minimal dressing. In terms of storytelling and continuity, the film was shit. Nothing made much sense, there was little in the way of exposition, and the characters were basically cardboard cutouts.

However, the film also had a generous helping of some things that made horror geeks overlook those flaws: fake gore, puppets, stop motion animation, female nudity, silly humor, monsters, a smidgen of tentacle porn (or close enough as makes no never mind) and a large amount of genuine enthusiasm from filmmakers Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert, and Bruce Campbell.

That enthusiasm is really what elevates this movie from film school project to something worthy of your DVD collection. You can imagine these three caballeros laughing maniacally as they mix up yet another batch of Karo corn syrup and food coloring in a bucket getting prepared for the next scene or giggling uncontrollably as they make one of their props twitch grotesquely for the camera. It honestly makes me wish I had watched more of these kinds of films when I was back in college. I would have loved to make a monster movie.

Poster design for The Evil Dead II by artist Todd Slater.

The Evil Dead II is ostensibly meant as a sequel to The Evil Dead, but by most indications, it’s a remake. Bruce Campbell reprises his role as Ash Williams and kicks off a movie with his girlfriend Linda (a different Linda). He’s taking her out for a weekend away at a remote cabin in the woods. Ash finds an odd looking book and a tape recorder and hits play. You know what happens next.

The progression of the movie is a little different this time and the execution slightly slicker (some extra characters are added halfway through the film as fodder for the demons), but the general feel of the film is the same. Again the emphasis isn’t on a coherent story, but on fun effects and makeup; there is an obscene amount of corn syrup used in this movie. One of the interesting aspects of The Evil Dead II is how you can see Raimi’s style evolve in the decade or so since the first movie. It’s very much the style you see in comic books, with odd, tilted angles and dynamic motion throughout the frame. It’s no wonder it worked so well with the Spider-Man trilogy.

This installment is the best for me in terms of horror. The focus on Bruce Campbell's gift for physical comedy really sells the film. The scene with Ash's possessed hand is true cinema gold and one of the most memorable moments in any movie.

Theatrical poster for Army of Darkness

Another five years or so and Raimi, Tapert, and Campbell came back with another Evil Dead project, Army of Darkness. The movie has Ash thrown back in time (yeah, it doesn’t make much sense, but nothing in this franchise does really, so don’t sweat it) and facing off against an army of the evil dead. This was a project that was on a whole different level compared to the first two films which featured maybe 5 or 6 actors in a single location with fairly simple clothes. Army of Darkness several dozen actors running around in elaborate costumes all fighting with medieval weapons.

This is my favorite of the Evil Dead movies simply because it’s the most fun. Campbell really seems to have a huge amount of fun playing the douchebag with a heart of gold, and Raimi really comes into his own directing armies of muppets and rubber-suits and knights doing various silly things. The whole film is just a fantastic roller coaster ride of absurdity.

The enthusiasm that the trio had with the first movie is still there, but they had bigger toys to play with and a couple of decades of experience behind them when they made the last entry in the franchise. As a result, the end product is much more coherent and far easier to follow, which makes it more enjoyable.

Special edition of Evil Dead II, shaped like the Necronomicon from the film.

So, The Evil Dead series isn’t something that would have won any Oscars, but it is a fine way to spend a night. It’s a horror film that is filled with a clear love of the scare, and a lust for the gore. Unlike consequent films that were inspired by it (such as the films by Tobe Hooper’s Hostel and Tom Six’ Human Centipede) which exhibit a disturbing level of masochism or sadism to the point that the industry coined the term “torture porn” to describe them, The Evil Dead is less about the blood and guts than it is cheap fun.

There are talks of remaking the first movie again, but I don’t see how they could do it justice. No matter what they field at the box office, and who they chose to helm the project, the result won’t have that same love of the genre that Raimi, Tapert, and Campbell imbued their movies. I’d rather they trio concentrate on doing more great horror comedies like 2009’s Drag Me to Hell.

Or hell, let’s see Ash take on the evil dead of the future as the original ending of Army of Darkness promised!

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