For a long time, I’ve wanted to write an article on The Evil Dead movies. After all, they’ve been favorites of mine since high school. I’ve seen them several times over the years, including those days in October of 2016 that preceded the construction of my Top 50 horror film list. Both The Evil Dead 1 and 2 made the top 10. Then I watched the movies again a few weeks ago in preparation for this article.
Whenever I had thought about penning this piece, the timing never seemed right. I always felt ill prepared, that even though I had seen these films several times, I was missing something. I needed to take the time to research the films and learn the story of their making. In addition, there was that nagging hesitancy brought on by the opinion that these films are “not truly haunted house films.” First of all, there is no “house”. Only a cabin. Second, there are no ghosts or other mysterious entities from the past that linger. Only some nasty, ageless demons. Thirdly, as a colleague of mine pointed out, “It’s not the house (cabin) that conjures the evil, it’s a book that does that.”
For those that don’t know, The Evil Dead is a low budget film about five teenagers that shack up in a cabin in the woods. On the premises they discover “the book of the dead”. “Bound in human flesh and inked in human blood,” the book of the dead is an ancient manuscript describing Sumerian burial practices and funerary incantations. A tape recorder accompanies this book. On a tape, the voice of a professor explains that he and his wife had taken refuge in the cabin to study their precious historical find! The professor recites passages that will summons demons. The teens play the tape, the foreboding incantation speaks to both the world and underworld, and the demons come. Not all at once mind you! They sneak up on the cabin dwelling teens and attack them one by one, possessing their bodies and claiming their souls! The demons tease their prey in a similar way that a cat plays with his mouse before going in for the kill. This “play” contributes to an uncanny, chilling atmosphere that also is part camp and comedy. But don’t worry, eventually “all hell will break loose!” (See what I did there?)
To address my initial hesitancies about writing this piece, I took my time planning out this article, researching when necessary. I discovered that learning about the making of this film enhances the viewing experience. I will share with you my findings. In regards to the dilemma about whether or not The Evil Dead is appropriate for my blog, being that it may or may not be a haunted house film, I argue that this film is very much at home here. Your honor, I bring forth my testimony!
While I love the concept of a house acting as “the-haunter-in-chief”, possessing some kind of supernatural power that conjures up ghosts, not all haunted houses have to be this way. In my article Applying Social Theory to Themes in Haunted House Stories, I argue that sometimes a house is merely a backdrop upon which ghosts perform their ethereal shenanigans. It is hauntingly neutral until the ghosts show up. The cabin in The Evil Dead surely qualifies as such a backdrop. True, the cabin does not harbor ghosts or serve as a magnet for entities from the past. Or does it? At the beginning of the movie, before any demonic incantations take place, a two-seat porch swing bangs against the cabin on its own accord. The trap door that leads to the cellar opens all by itself. This leads me to believe that the cabin is indeed haunted, not by ghosts of the past, but by traces of the last demonic episode that occurred on the premises before the events in the film, possibly with the professor and his wife. Their spiritual presence has remained in the cabin, but these demons need that incantation in order to make a more startling appearance.
Finally, Your Honor, even though it is a cabin that is central to this story and my Blog deals with haunted houses, I am currently running a special series about haunted cabins. You can read all the details at my article: Beyond the House: An Examination of Hauntings Within Alternate Structures. Part 1 – Cabins.
For this series, The Evil Dead series is not only welcome, but its omission would be blasphemy!
I rest my case, your Honor.
With all that out of the way, let’s proceed further into the inner workings of this great film.
When I was between the ages of 18-22, college age, I had friends that dreamed of being rock stars – making it “big” with the music of their own creation. I would have joined them in this dream, except for the fact I was a mediocre keyboard player at best with a poor sense of musical timing. But I had friends that were good guitar and bass players, drummers, etc. They would get together now and then with their instruments and see what they could accomplish. What I’m describing is nothing new. College age kids forming bands – I think it’s been done before.
The creative team behind The Evil Dead were just a bunch of kids; friends who had cameras and costumes – friends that made films on the weekends in pursuit of a hobby. According to the documentary of The Evil Dead director Sam Raimi on The Incredibly Strange Film Show, – Raimi and starring actor Bruce Campbell were high school buddies from Michigan. Co-star Ellen Sandweiss was a friend of theirs from high school as well. Producers and assistants Rob Tabert, Josh Becker and David Goodman were part of this clique as well. Like the college age kids that join a band to rock, these guys banded together to make short films.
According to Evil Dead: The Untold Saga, Sam Raimi, using a student discount, would rent an auditorium at his college and charge students to watch the films. he made in high school. Eventually this gang of friends took a big step forward. They would drop out of school and devote all their time to making a feature length film. This film would be The Evil Dead.
Sam Raimi was not an aficionado of horror films. Comedy was more of his style. But according to consequenceofsound.net , they wanted to make a film to market to the audiences of drive-in theaters. Horror was a popular genre at the drive-ins of the 1970s and early 80s. Many times a drive-in would feature a triple feature of horror. Raimi noticed that many of these films were quite awful. He thought, “I can at least make a film that’s better than these!”
One of his complaints had to do with the uneven pace of these films. They began slowly, slowly and then something exciting would happen. Then it was back to the slow..slow and finally more good stuff He thought, “Why not eliminate make a film that has no slow parts.” And that’s what he did, effectively so. More on this later.
So, was it time to make Evil Dead? Close but not quite. First these kids needed some money. So they put together a short film that they would show to prospective investors. This short thirty-minute film, Within the Woods, was just a sample of something that would be much better, if only they had the proper financing. But it would give the potential investors a sense of the their style and story. This intro film has the same camera style as The Evil Dead (a great style it is!) and features a similar cabin in the woods/demons storyline.
Here is a copy of the film. It is poor in quality, but it provides an interesting glimpse into the evolution of the film’s story:
In the end they received three hundred thousand or more from local businessman. It was time to make a movie!
The film crew of college buddies, along with hired actors/actresses from local theater groups went out to a cabin in the woods of Tennessee to make the film. Amateurs with a low budget. Unprepared for nature’s harsh temperatures.
“Yes, I was very young. There was no running water, and it was in the 20s and 30s — we didn’t have any winter wear. It was freezing. When you’re in that cold for 16 hours, you start to — I started to die. There was no food, and everything was covered in Karo syrup in that temperature. So I’d be running the camera, but my hands were covered in Karo syrup. You’d lean against something and get it all over your hands. The only water we had was in a hot water heater so you could make instant coffee. Boiling water over your hands from the tap; that’s how you’d wash them, to load the film into the camera” – Sam Raimi.
(By the way, the Karo syrup was used to imitate blood.)
The film ran weeks over schedule. The actors, having already committed their time, went home. It was up to these film buddies to finish the film. And so they did, using what Raimi termed as Fake Shemps.
According to wikipedia, a ‘Fake Shemp’ “ is someone who appears in a film as a replacement for another actor or person. Their appearance is disguised using methods such as heavy make-up”
Raimi based the term “Fake Shemp” on a Three Stooges dilemma. Shemp, one of the Stooges, passed away before four shorts were to be completed. So the editors spliced in images of Shemp, and had actors stand in for him at certain parts.
For The Evil Dead, it was up to the clique of buddies to fill in as Fake Shemps. There was Fake Shemp Bruce Campbell, Fake Shemp Rob Tabert, Fake Shemp Josh Beckert, Fake Shemp David Goodman (cue in that Romper Room lady – “I see Fake Shemp Billy and Fake Shemp Trudy…)
When the film was finally completed, United States distributors wanted nothing to do with it. According to the The Incredibly Strange Film Show documentary on Sam Raimi, they took the film to Europe where it was screened at the Cannes Film festival in France. After this, they found a British distributor – Palace Pictures. They distributed the film across Europe to frightened and amused audiences. Then with a recommendation from horror great Stephen King, the film found success in the United States and went on to become the gem that it is today.
I hope you enjoyed my summary of the making of The Evil Dead. I feel its inclusion was necessary in order to fully understand and appreciate the overall style of the film – even if you have not yet seen it! It is amateurishly entertaining in the best way possible. It’s a simple story embellished with low budget effects backed up by the kind of energy that only young adults have – impassioned with a hobby, inspired by a dream, ready to take chances and make mistakes, unfettered by rules, all for the love of the project with nothing much to lose in the long run.
Some films just aren’t destined to have great characters and compelling dialogue. Whereas “Ash” played by Bruce Campbell would go down in horror film history as an iconic figure, in this original film, the exchanges between the characters, when they are not possessed by demons, are noticeably staged and forced. But these exchanges are kept to a minimum, which is smart and shows a keen display of foresight. Earlier in this review, I mention that Raimi wanted to minimize the slow scenes. He is true to his conviction. This film doesn’t try to fake depth. It doesn’t needlessly create all kinds of non-horror drama for its characters. It’s filmed in its entirety in and around the cabin in the woods.
The Evil Dead is known for its signature point-of-view camera style. Audiences “see” with the eyes of the encroaching demons as the elevated camera zooms forward at bizarre angles, often accompanied by a growling kind of noise.
The clip below is worth a thousand words:
Often the camera is a voyeur, looking in the windows of the cabin from the outside and seeing one of the characters across the room. The camera also hides in some interesting places, like behind the clapper of the clock. I for one appreciate the time the camera devotes to capturing certain props such as the clock clapper, especially at the beginning of the film, letting the viewers know that what they see will be important later. This is true for a mirror, for certain weapons – for the book of the dead!
In my article An Examination of Hauntings Within Alternate Structures. Part 1 – Cabins I write about four themes that are often prevalent in stories about haunted cabins. Two of them play out in The Evil Dead. I write about isolation. Cabin dwellers are cut off from civilization. Technology breaks down. While there were no cell phones or Internet in the days of this movie (1981), Ash’s car fails to start at one point. Even after he gets it started, it really doesn’t matter because they soon discover that the bridge they drove in on has fallen apart. They are teens that are shit out of luck, trapped in a forest infested with demons. This brings me to my second point – a second theme. Cabins serve as outposts on dangerous terrain. They are the last refuge of “civilization” for miles and miles. Sooner or later, the savagery that exists in the woods will get to them.
Almost always, the demons in this film manifest out in the woods. Via the camera style as shown in the clip above, they encroach upon the cabin. Or they possess one of the characters that just so happens to be out in the woods. Unbeknownst to her, she takes the demon back to cabin as it hides inside her. One by one, the kids give into the savagery. One by one, their bodies “zombify” as they become hosts to the demons.
As for the special effects as they pertain to these “deadites” (humans that become zombified), whether it is the transformation process or the gory slicing and dicing of these creatures, they are quite, well, rudimentary. There is no modern day CGI and the film is better because of it. Somehow these “horror show” creatures that emerge are all the scarier in their primitive garb. At the end of the film there is an interesting scene involving claymation. Old in style but, I dunno, cool to me.
The Evil Dead is somewhat controversial, partially on account of the gore but mostly due to a scene where a tree rapes a woman. Raimi admits that, looking back, the scene was gratuitous. In The Evil Dead 2, there is a scene involving a woman and an animated tree, but the scene is less graphic and licentious.
Speaking of The Evil Dead 2, that will be the next review. At this time, I have no plans to write about the third film of the series – Army of Darkness, or the 2013 remake or the series Ash VS, The Evil Dead. These films I have only seen once and I have no opinion of their contents. In regards to Ash Vs. The Evil Dead, at the time of press, I have not yet seen a single episode. I know, I know – Bad me. But stay tuned for The Evil Dead 2. Same Cabin Time – Same Cabin channel – Thebooksofdaniel.com