by Andre Couture
This month in the fantastic world of the largest film archive known to man and Washingtonians (Scarecrow Video), we’re celebrating Earth Month by showcasing films that feature nature in an unrelenting standoff against humankind, to varying degrees. This time we’re visiting the 1981 horror classic The Evil Dead.
The story might be familiar to most of you, otherwise it’s simple to re-cap since Evil Dead has been referenced so many times and parodied. We follow a group of kids on a road trip to a lightly mentioned cabin in the woods belonging to someone renting it out for an unmentionable low price. They stay in the cabin long enough to discover an evil presence and accidentally awaken it. They must fight the evil in order to survive the coming sunrise, but this evil is almost impossible to see until it takes a body captive.
We see the kids driving to the cabin, intercut with “something” flying through the woods, shot in POV. After some difficulty on the road (and a terribly faulty bridge), they arrive at the cabin. Everything looks decrepit and dank, the house looks less than hospitable, and to top it off, the porch swing, swinging squeakily as if a morbid welcome, halts in an instant once the ring of keys to the house is found. Thus begins the wooded terror of Evil Dead.
The kids in the cabin eventually catch on to something fishy happening, especially after they find and listen to a tape recording detailing the discovery of a rare tome: the Book of the Dead. This book contains illustrations of bad demons and passages that, when recited, summon specific types of demons and creatures from who knows where.
Of course, the guy on the tape player tries his hand at reciting a chapter as the kids huddle around and listen. Other than being a natural at spell recitation, he summons the same demons he did the first time. Fool me twice, shame on modern technology, I guess. After the spell is uttered, the evil is ready to move on the cabin.
But first, it needs a host. Some might not remember that the evil in Evil Dead starts as a menacing presence in the woods. It takes over the landscape in a way that complements it, therefore the Evil and the woods work together to consume and destroy the humans that trespass on their grounds. The vocalizations of the phrase “Join Us,” whether audible to the subjects of each sequence’s shots, seem less of a mercy and more of an act of marking specific members of the group for death.
Eventually one character, Cheryl, decides to leave the relatively safe haven of the cabin for a brief while, after getting spooked by the tape-recorded spell. She walks into the woods and realizes something isn’t right. This is a turning point in the film, because after this scene, the threat of the woods moves in much closer to our frightened kiddos in the cabin.
We follow Cheryl into the woods late at night, and everything is spooky to the max. Heavy fog drifts low and thick, making it nigh impossible to see past it, especially in the deep dark. The trees themselves seem to lean closer soundlessly, and the leaves crunching underfoot are loud and unsettling in the eerie acoustic bubble that the trees, the fog and the soft earth provides. The trees have been waiting, and their patience is rewarded as branches slither around Cheryl’s legs. She screams but more branches and vines wrap around her arms and the force of the woods pulls her down to the soft earth. Each moment new branches and vines grab hold, increasing influence onto the helpless Cheryl. The trees part her legs and unceremoniously inseminate her with the evil infecting the woods. The evil has advanced from their stalemate; the dead have invaded. Cheryl escapes and runs like hell.
Cheryl returns to the cabin and no one believes her when she says that the woods attacked her, even with the strange things happening around the cabin and her sudden cuts and bruises. She demands to leave the woods and go into town, so Ashley, one of the others in the group, decides to drive her. They run into the bridge that they drove over earlier in the film, and it’s a mangled mess. These kids are here to stay until they live or die. The nightmare must continue, as we must fade out of the fog. The Evil Dead is considered by many (including myself) as such a classic in horror cinema that if you haven’t seen it, it really should not be spoiled by some amateur internet write-up.
Shot on an estimated budget of $350,000, The Evil Dead rocketed to success despite release issues based on its graphic content. Chunks of the film were cut in some countries, and a couple actually banned the film for a number of years. This just fueled the flames of the black markets, leaving some of the most die-hard horror heads scrambling for any copy they could find. But in the US, Raimi saw the film succeed immeasurably after an appraisal by none other than Stephen King. His recommendation ran in newspapers and helped to sell the film to the public.
“The Evil Dead has the simple, stupid power of a goof campfire story – but its simplicity is not a side effect. It is something carefully crafted by Raimi, who is anything but stupid. Five college students on holiday, two boys and three girls, find a deserted cabin and an ancient book – a Lovecraftian Book of the Dead [….] The only way to get rid of these zombies – the evil dead – is by dismemberment. Luckily a chainsaw is handy, and……..
And it doesn’t sound like much.
Well, neither does Hansel and Gretel nor Bluebeard in the hands of an untalented teller. What Raimi achieves in Evil Dead is a black rainbow of horror.”
-Stephen King (Liner notes in Evil Dead soundtrack CD release by Varese Sarabande, 1984.)
As an independent film, a horror film, the beginnings of a cultural phenomenon, and an emerging style of storytelling, you owe it to yourself to host The Evil Dead in your brain as you watch it. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll rethink your approach to nature and you DEFINITELY won’t stay in a lone cabin in the woods, no matter how many people would keep you company. But if you had to, you’d thank yourself for finally sitting down with The Evil Dead because you’ll know just what to expect.
And when you’re done, you’ll have Evil Dead 2 to look forward to…..
André Couture is a known nerd living in the great city of Seattle. He watches ungodly amounts of failed cinematic works, writes music, self-produces the terrible, terrible, TERRIBLE Hamburger Theatre podcast, volunteers at the great Scarecrow Video, eats occasionally, reads incessantly, edits video & audio, plays way too many tabletop games, and sometimes goes to work.