If you're coming late to the party for The Evil Dead, you may wonder what all the fuss is about. You may pop the movie into your DVD player, watch the first awkwardly-shot sequence, in which five friends drive to an isolated cabin in the woods, and giggle at how amateurish it looks. You may watch the next few scenes, in which the friends settle into the cabin, stumble upon an old tape recording, listen to a man on tape solemnly describing his discovery of an ancient Book of the Dead and how his wife turned into a demon and bodily dismemberment became necessary, and start to question why anyone would think this piece of crap was any kind of a horror classic.
But maybe you were amused by Bruce Campbell mugging as Ash, or noticed the myriad fresh camera angles presenting the action, or the extreme close-ups on eyes, or liked the low-budget aesthetic, and decided to give it a chance. And then one of the five friends wanders out into the woods, against all common sense, and the woods attack her -- yes, that's right, the woods attack her -- and she barely escapes back into the cabin, and then one by one the friends start turning into demons, and bodily dismemberment becomes a viable solution. And then you might say to yourself, "Ah, that's why."
Sam Raimi (writer/director), Robert Tapert (producer) and Bruce Campbell (actor/co-executive producer) had been making 8mm movies in Michigan before tackling their first feature, a micro-budget horror movie that they envisioned as a "quintessential drive-in movie," and The Evil Dead works best as a communal experience, where audiences tend to laugh at the amateurish seams, scream at the blood and gore, and then start laughing at the blood and gore simply because it's so over the top that laughter is the only appropriate response. But Raimi, especially, was disappointed that people laughed, because he intended to make a straightforward horror flick. The Evil Dead doesn't tap into primal fears in the same way as The Night of the Living Dead (people returning from the dead), The Last House on the Left (criminals torturing innocent people), or Jaws (animals eating people while still alive). But I think it does inadvertently tap into another fear: what if your friends turn against you? What if the only way to survive is to kill them? Really, who would want to face that?
Another source of appeal: once the film cranks up to full speed, it doesn't let up. Things get worse and worse for Ash, who mysteriously is not turned into a demon. In some ways, his fate is worse than that of his friends because he has to deal with the wreckage -- they're already dead, though they keep coming back to torture him, while he's faced with the unholy task of trying to destroy their supernaturally empowered and thoroughly disfigured bodies.
As Ash, Bruce Campbell demonstrates star power (why he never became a movie star has always baffled me), but the other four principal cast members -- credited as Ellen Sandweiss, Hal Delrich, Betsy Baker and Sarah York -- are just as game, likable, and, well, ordinary. We don't know anything about them, really, but their very Middle-American appearance makes them seem like wholesome American kids, thereby making what happens to them all the more horrible.
The film never received a rating, and it's difficult to imagine it would be any different today. Sure, the effects work is more obvious to today's more sophisticated viewer, but the relentless assaults have a cumulative effect, and there's tons of bodily violence and an overload of blood and fluids flowing out of orifices. We know it's all karo syrup and plastic, but still ...
Sam Raimi demonstrates a keen eye for composition and surprising angles, which serve to keep the viewer off balance throughout the grim proceedings. Much of the comedy in the original may have been unintentional -- though there is a strain of macabre humor in the material that had to be evident from the beginning -- but it works well to cut the tension, and that combination of humor and horror was pushed further along in the sequels The Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness. In between, Raimi made the great Darkman, which remains my favorite comic book movie not actually based on an existing comic book.
Raimi has been involved with the Spider-Man franchise for years now, but it's fun to go back to his own origin story and see how it all began. Once you do, you can't help but wish that he move on to something new and fresh. Watching The Evil Dead may make you laugh and/or fill you with dread, but if nothing else it will make you think of possibilities.