Film reviews and more since 2009

The Evil Dead (1981) review

Dir. Sam Raimi

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★

NOTE: This review of The Evil Dead is reworked from my original review from 2013, upon rewatch.

The Evil Dead and its two sequels have achieved a small, but loyal cult following in the field of horror. These are movies bound less by plot and conventional characterization, but instead by the pursuit of the wacky and surreal. They’re bloody and unsavory. They take skip all the character development and interpersonal dynamics, fast-track the scenario of a group of friends heading out to a remote cabin in the woods, and let the bloodshed begin. One has to admire the economy of the entire production.

The film follows a group of twentysomethings — Ash (Bruce Campbell), his girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker), his sister Shelly (Sarah York), and his friends Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) and Scotty (Hal Delrich) — as they embark out to a remote cabin in the middle of the woods. They stumble upon “The Book of the Dead,” inked in blood and bound by flesh, which unleashes a number of demons and evil spirits that quickly begin to take over the cabin and the souls inside. As the body-count piles up, it is Ash, the cool-guy hero of the group, who has to defeat the spirits.

The plot is, without a doubt, as standard as it gets. At the end of the day, we come for the scares and the gore and that’s exactly what we’ll receive. Buckets and buckets of blood are utilized; one of the best scenes involves Ash puncturing a demon’s eyes with both his thumbs, with huge amounts of blood quickly oozing out. The blood itself looks like ketchup, but it’s still likely to make you wince as it oozes from the eyes of the demon.

Even with all this constant, flashy violence and gore, the film never veers off on course from being neither sadistically exploitative nor depressingly nihilistic. Its gore and violence isn’t meant to be taken seriously or offensively. There’s an aesthetic and tonal cheeriness to this material that is widely unexpected. The Evil Dead refuses to get bogged down by plot and a sense of hopelessness that sometimes permeates even the most enthusiastic slashers.

Director Sam Raimi knows how to employ such a bevy of worthwhile tactics when he works on horror movies. His involvement with the 1980s horror film Intruder, while one of his more obscure films, definitely replicates a style with which he’d become affiliated. Here, Raimi always seems to be trying something new, specifically with the camera angles. Consider the POV shot we get of someone (or something) gliding through the forestry near the cabin, even going as far as to colliding through the windows of the cabin. The trick to these scenes is we never know exactly what the POV is of, but we don’t need to. We know it’s not good, since it zips by at an unusual, lighting speed and makes the characters scream when they come in contact with it.

These scenes work because Raimi largely knows when to utilize them and how to have them work accordingly with the cinematography. Shot on a budget somewhere around $350,000, much of the atmosphere is presented through a lens concerned more with naturalism than polish. The presentation of the picture feels rawer and grungier than most other horror films of the time period. It’s all the more audacious that the rugged style doesn’t lead to a film more sinister, such as the likes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Make no mistake: that film’s documentary realism chilled viewers to the bone with piercing effectiveness. In contrast, Raimi is trying to make you laugh while you squirm.

As a horror film, The Evil Dead remains faithful to the genre in other ways too. It features obligatorily faceless characters, little development, and devotion to smaller events that may or may not lead up to a grandiose finale. And yet, it works mainly because it aspires to be a bit more ambitious in the regards to its film techniques and gore usage. It’s a delightful blend of black comedy but not outright mean-spirited, queasiness aside.

NOTE: As of this writing, The Evil Dead is available to rent on multiple platforms.

My review of Evil Dead II
My review of Army of Darkness
My review of Evil Dead (2013)
My review of Evil Dead Rise

Starring: Bruce Campbell, Betsy Baker, Sarah York, Ellen Sandweiss, and Hal Delrich. Directed by: Sam Raimi.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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