A few thoughts: The Evil Dead trilogy (1981-1992)

Special effects maestro Tom Savini recalls coming out of a movie theatre in the early 1980s and being approached by two young men in suits. The asked Savini to come see a rough edit of a horror film they were making. Savini was blown away as he watched a cadaver implode in a horrific pile of blood and claymation hideousness. He asked the young men what they called it. “The Evil Dead” came the reply from Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert. The rest isn’t so much history as infamy.

When talking about the Evil Dead trilogy, it is difficult to get beyond the controversy that follows it like a demon raised by the Necronomicon. The ridiculous levels of gore and blood that feature in the first film have earned the entire series a notoriety of which most marketing bods can only dream. The original cut of the film was banned in several countries, most notably in Britain as a result of the Video Recordings Act (1984), whereafter it became known as one of the ‘video nasties’. Raimi and his UK distributors, Palace Pictures, had to defend Evil Dead in front of a court in Leeds, and got the ban lifted, although the film was only passed with an ‘X’ rating after about a minute worth of cuts in 1982 . However, the passage of time has allowed The Evil Dead and its sequels to be rereleased (It was finally released uncut in the UK in 2001) and reassessed, and behind the furore lies a trio of well-natured, confident and competent films that make virtues of any perceived flaws and readily play with the rules.

The Evil Dead (1981)

The Evil Dead seems to have been not just a labour of love, but also one borne out of desperation. Producer Robert Tapert and director Sam Raimi were studying at Michigan State University in 1979 (Respectively, they studied economics and literature). Their friend Bruce Campbell, meanwhile, was a dropout making ends meet driving a taxi. According to Campbell, Tapert and Raimi dreaded being stuck in humdrum lines of work and saw filmmaking as their way out. Their short, Within The Woods, was made in spring 1979 for about $1,600. Raimi’s script, about four friends who unwittingly unleash a band of demons, was influenced in no small part by the Necronomicon stories of H.P. Lovecraft. Using Within The Woods as a calling card, Raimi and Tapert used it to pitch their idea of a full-length version of the short to potential investors.

Eventually securing a budget of $375,000, Raimi and his crew shot the now-titled The Evil Dead in and around a log cabin in Morristown, Tennessee. The cast consisted mostly of friends of the filmmakers, and the lead was played by Campbell, a friend of Raimi’s since childhood. What Raimi and co. set out to do was to make something to appeal to the drive-in crowd, whose primary interest was X-rated horror. Raimi’s first two shorts, It’s Murder (1977) and Clockwork (1978) convinced him that he could make a horror; his first inclination was comedy, but that clearly wasn’t abandoned entirely.

When watching The Evil Dead, there is never a moment when it feels either amateurish in its filmmaking or limited in its ambition. It is one of the most confident feature debuts ever made. Neither the (relatively) slim budget not time constraints stopped Raimi from committing his vision of giddy gore to celluloid. Shooting on 16mm, there’s a grit and earthiness in The Evil Dead’s look that makes you feel on edge right from the off. Campbell’s Ash drives his Oldsmobile (Sam Raimi’s own car) to the cabin with his sister Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker), college roommate Scotty (Richard DeManicor) and his girlfriend Shelly (Theresa Tilly). A fun weekend is planned, but the discovery of the Necronomicon and the resulting rousing of demonic spirits from the surrounding woods puts paid to those plans. This classic ‘teenagers in the woods’ setup is taken to its most extreme limits. Raimi puts onscreen images that you’d never seen before, and haven’t seen since. A prime example would be the scene in which Cheryl is pinned down and raped by a possessed tree. Even reading that sentence elicits pause for thought/shudders. Once she escapes, we get a POV of an unseen force chasing her down. The camerawork is angry and energetic, and the viewer is never given a chance to relax. It’s not long before the demons have possesses Cheryl, and she begins taunting her companions, throwing them about the room and stabbing them with pencils in the Achilles tendon.

Ash (Bruce Campbell)

One by one, the others become possessed by the demons. Eyes are gouged, boyfriends dismember girlfriends and general bloody mayhem ensues until Ash is the last one left. He has little with which to defeat them beyond a few bullets, his resourcefulness and an apparently high pain threshold. The Evil Dead could have been an exercise for Raimi to see how much he could make Campbell suffer. If he’s not been thrown, beaten or terrorized, he’s being drenched in blood. All the actors suffered for their art (Glass contact lenses worn by the possessed were akin to shoving Tupperware in your eye, says Campbell), but Campbell undoubtedly came out with the most scars. Most days would see him return home from set in the back of a pick-up truck covered in fake blood. Meanwhile, stop-motion animation combined with buckets of gunge and gore for a final bloody blow-out of a finale as the demons are defeated and their bodies collapse.

When censors finally deigned to allow audiences to see The Evil Dead, they were destined and doomed to remember it. Critics were mixed in their reviews. Leonard Maltin thought it was one of the most disgusting films he’d ever seen, whilst Stephen King praised it for its ferocious originality. The film premiered in October 1981, but did not manage to secure distribution and release until April 1983. Theatrically, it did well on limited release in the US, but it wasn’t until it was released on VHS that its popularity soared. The irony is that all the bans and controversy made it all the more popular. The Evil Dead was the best-selling video in Britain in 1983, and survived cuts, bans and the passage of time to be readily available on shiny BluRay today. That blood now runs in ruby red rivers.

The possessed Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss)

After the tough shoot, the distribution, the bans and the cult classic status, what is it that makes The Evil Dead endure over three decades later? To refer back to Stephen King, it is the ferocity and originality of it. The blood seems to flow by the gallon. The POV shots of the demons move at horrific speed. Despite some glimmers of humour, there is practically no respite from the tension, and the ending is open to interpretation. Does Ash survive? Well, we did get Evil Dead II, but the ending still comes at you (and Ash) with a bang! The rough-and-ready nature of the shoot lends a grim atmosphere to the film. With its themes of demonic possession, it plays like a primal and more badly-behaved version of The Exorcist. It is simply a wild and bloody ride that has an impressive ability to shock viewers to this day. Next to the stately stillness of something like The Shining, The Evil Dead is angry, unrelenting and unforgiving.

The Film Cynic’s rating: *****

 

Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn (1987)

Given the controversy that surrounded The Evil Dead on release, the idea of a sequel must have sounded an unlikely prospect, but Raimi had the basic kernels of a script in his head before The Evil Dead even began shooting. Raimi’s idead would eventually become Army of Darkness, but Raimi and Tapert were more concerned with their next film, the crime drama Crimewave, which Raimi co-wrote with Joel and Ethan Coen. Publicist Irvin Shapiro was the initial driving force behind another Evil Dead film, but it wasn’t until Crimewave went unnoticed at the box office that Raimi, Tapert and Bruce Campbell decided to head back into the woods.

Funding came from Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis, but only after Stephen King backed Raimi and Tapert (De Laurentiis was producing a series of King adaptations at the time, the first being Maximum Overdrive, directed by King himself). With $3.6 million instead of the desired $4 million, Raimi scrapped his original idea of sending Ash back in time, and bashed out the idea for a sequel that stayed in the cabin from the original. Raimi and childhood friend Scott Spiegel wrote the script during and after production on Crimewave. The film was shot in mid-1986 near De Laurentiis’ offices in Wadesboro, North Carolina. The shoot was noticeably less chaotic than that of the first film. By now, Raimi and his crew had plenty of film experience behind them, as well as a confidence in their product buoyed by its relative success in the face of controversy.

Someone give that man a hand.

The initial setup is nearly identical to the first film. Ash (Campbell) and his girlfriend Linda (Denise Bixler) arrive at a cabin in the woods for a romantic evening. Stumbling on a recording of a demonic text, Ash unwittingly unleashes demonic forces from the woods, which possess Linda, whom Ash is forced to kill, before the spirits attack him and make him suffer. All this occurs in the first eight minutes of the film. From this point Ash, with no means of escape, must battle the demons coming from outside, the demonic old lady in the basement and his own hand, which becomes possessed and which Ash must sever with his trusty chainsaw. Meanwhile, others are on the way to the cabin. Annie (Sarah Berry) is on her way to the cabin to meet her archaeologist father (the voice on the tape Ash played to unleash the demons) and her mother (the possessed woman in the basement). Along with Annie are her boyfriend Ed (Richard Domeier) and two local pieces of white trash, Jake (Danny Hicks) and Bobby Jo (Kassie Wesley). Though arguably just fodder for the demons, they do allow Ash a little respite from being bashed over the head and being flipped right over by his rebellious limb.

In terms of gore and viscera, though still bloody, Evil Dead II is not as intense as its predecessor. There is a major shift away from straight horror, fuelled by Raimi’s love of slapstick comedy and by a desire not to court controversy. Evil Dead II is intended as black comedy, informed by (to differing extents) hamburger commercials, Popeye and the films of the Three Stooges. For example, in one scene the basement demon is trying to attack the group in the cabin, but Ash closes the basement trapdoor on its head, causing its eye to pop out and fly into Bobby Jo’s mouth. The scene is lifted straight from a Three Stooges routine. The giddiness extends to all aspects of the production; witness the scene in which table lamps, a bookcase and the mounted head of a stag all laugh at Ash. All Ash can do is laugh along maniacally. Evil Dead II just gets so utterly loopy that the audience can do little but join in with the guffaws.

Despite the heightened production values, there’s still a low-rent sensibility to Evil Dead II, like these guys are still working on a shoestring. The raw energy that defined The Evil Dead is still present in the rapid camerawork and copious bloodshed (The stuff gushes like fountains). This is also something of a friendly, almost family affair (Raimi’s brother Ted and a horrific rubber suit and make-up are Henrietta, the basement demon). Raimi and Tapert usher their baby with a capable-yet-light-hearted hand. Campbell, meanwhile, became a cult hero almost overnight, with his acres of chin and insistence on doing his own stunts. If The Evil Dead set Ash up as the final word in final survivors, Evil Dead II turned him into the ultimate badass. Only Campbell could have declared “Who’s laughing now?!” with such relish before sawing off his own hand in a gush of grue.

Ash and Annie (Sarah Barry)

The cleaner look and tongue-in-cheek tone arguably dull Dead By Dawn’s impact compared to the original, but then so few films match the original’s intensity that it’s hardly a fault. Even if the supporting characters aren’t quite as memorable as the ones from the original either, it hardly matters when all manner of horrible latex demons, ghostly faces and airborne eyeballs are flying at our none-more-likeable hero Ash. He’s a great guide through an acid nightmare, and plonked in an ending that’s so downbeat, yet makes for one heck of a setup for Part Three…

The Film Cynic’s rating: ****

 

Army Of Darkness (1992)

After the relative box office success of Dead By Dawn, De Laurentiis was willing to fund a second sequel. Raimi finally saw the opportunity to make The Medieval Dead. Sadly, this working title would not be used on release.

Army Of Darkness was co-written by Raimi and his brother Ivan (Spiegel couldn’t write it as he was committed to rewrites on Clint Eastwood picture The Rookie). They wrote the script throughout the production of Raimi’s superhero film Darkman. A $12 million dollar budget, split between De Laurentiis’ company and Universal, gave Raimi (almost) enough scope to bring his Middle Ages jaunt to the screen (He and Tapert had to give up $1 million of their salaries to reshoot the ending, though). Shooting took place in mid-1991 in the Mojave desert and in the countryside around Los Angeles. Campbell, returning as Ash, put in another gruelling shoot, with choreographed fight scenes and effects shots making sure he drew the short straw yet again.

At the end of Evil Dead II, a portal opened to destroy the Kantharian demons, but it also sucked Ash in and deposited him in the year 1300. He is caught in a fight between two warring lords, both of whom are fascinated by this fast-talking futuristic new arrival. One of the lord’s Wiseman (the late Ian Abercrombie, a.k.a Seinfeld’s Mr. Pitt) tells Ash he must find the Necronomicon to transport him home. Find it he does, but a misreading of the book’s passages causes Ash to summon the skeletal Army of Darkness.  Despite the awe of the locals and a worthy wench (Embeth Davidtz) for him to romance, Ash just doesn’t seem to get a break. He must rally the troops and help them defeat the Army he inadvertently raised. Cue sword-wielding, rib-ticking, quote-worthy mayhem!

“This… is my BOOMSTICK!”

The first two films were Raimi’s visions through and through, but Army Of Darkness suffered a tortured post-production. Universal were initially unhappy with Raimi’s demands of $3 million for reshoots, and were even more peeved by his original cut, boasting a depressing ending and threatened by an NC-17 from the MPAA. With a reshot happier ending, the studio cut the film by six-odd minutes, securing an R-rating. Various versions with either ending are available, but does this scattershot production process show itself up in the final product?

It’s clear that Raimi is enjoying the liberties of bigger-budget filmmaking, with entertaining set-ups and giddy battle scenes in which shaky skeletons get the crap blown out of them (Ray Harryhausen would laugh). Yet there’s a shakiness to the plotting that can’t be glossed over. There’s a lot of padding here; a scene where Ash fight miniature versions of him sees Raimi at his slapstick best, but it’s narratively unnecessary. The emphasis on the laughs and slapstick means Army Of Darkness doesn’t have the ferocious staying power of its predecessors. In every aspect, the film is either well made or done with tongue buried firmly in cheek. The special effects, whether the skeleton army or the chroma-keyed backgrounds, are entertainingly cheesy.

American Apparel’s latest model

The problem is there’s nothing much here that’s new. The unelaborate Medieval design recalls Monty Python and the Holy Grail, whilst the skeletons (both puppets and claymation) are pure Jason and the Argonauts. It is this tongue-in-cheekiness that perhaps neuters Army of Darkness’ impact, but it also makes it very, very funny. The dialogue is often hilarious, with Campbell spouting an array of one-liners that have become synonymous with him. With “Yo, She-Bitch, let’s go!” and “This… is my BOOMSTICK!”, Campbell became a cult icon. His cult status is probably Army Of Darkness’ enduring legacy. The matter of the endings is still a matter of debate between fans (Without spoiling anything, for this critic the studio’s preferred ‘happy’ ending keeps with the pervading cheesiness of the film and is just too funny), but that’s about the only real kink in the film’s iron after the studio debacle. As amusing as it is, Raimi’s indulgence of his own sense of humour is what keeps Army Of Darkness from being the equal of its older siblings. Still, that sense of humour also makes it the most accessible and purely entertaining of the trilogy so, without delivering a killer blow, Army of Darknessstill packs a slapstick punch. Gimme some sugar, baby.

The Film Cynic’s rating: ***

Since Army Of Darkness’ release, rumours have abounded about another sequel, and goodness knows Raimi and Campbell would (and should) be the ones to make it, with the klout and admiration behind them to get it made. Sadly, before that arrives (if ever), a remake of The Evil Dead is scheduled for a 2013 release, with Ash becoming Ashley, a girl. Say hello to the 21st century! Despite reaching for the proto-feminist audience, there is absolutely no need for this film. The original film still holds up today, and its sequels are masterful entertainments. They remain an affectionate and well-intentioned trio of nightmares. Hail to the king, baby!

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