The Evil Dead (1981) Zombiehamster Video Nasties Project
Colin McCracken examines one of the most influential horror movies of all time. The Evil Dead was banned in Britain as it became embroiled in the ‘Video Nasties’ furore, but just how nasty was it?
In a desolate cabin in the woods, just outside Morristown Tennessee, a young girl named Clara lived happily with her parents. It was sometime in the 1930’s and one night, when there was a fierce and relentless storm. Clara’s parents were brutally murdered in their own home. The girl escaped this grisly fate and managed to seek shelter in the town. It was said that from that day forth, whenever there would be a storm of equal strength and power, Clara would wander from the Morristown Manor Rest Home back into the forest in an attempt to get home.
So the story goes. This is not in any way a part of the storyline for The Evil Dead, but an urban legend that was attached to the infamous cabin which would become home to the crew for three long, arduous and gruelling months in the winter of 1979. Director Sam Raimi (who had just turned 20 years old), his leading man Bruce Campbell and special effects wizard Tom Sullivan made the considerable journey from Detroit, Michigan with a van full of basic equipment, a crew of unknowns and a vision.
There was a significant amount of preliminary work which went into The Evil Dead. Raimi had spent a great deal of his formative years making Super 8 movies, putting on amateur dramatic productions and practicing magic tricks. All of these skills would be utilised in full over the course of filming and added the elements which created one of the most exhilarating, original and memorable horror movies of all time. The mixture of EC Comics terror and Three Stooges style slapstick combined with a youthful exuberance and a willingness to experiment were also considerable factors in the unique and visceral end product.
It all started with a short film called ‘Within The Woods’. This 30 minute piece was used to showcase to potential ‘investors’. This was a time long before ‘Kickstarter’ and so it literally involved selling the movie door to door. The team would approach local businessmen; dentists, shop owners and lawyers. They even had an investment brochure legally drafted, one which clearly stated:
‘Warning: The securities offered by this document are highly speculative, will have no market and should be considered only by an investor who has no plans to resell the security, and fully and adequately understands the risks involved and can afford to lose his entire investment!’
Even with the apparent lack of belief in the movies financial potential, they still managed to raise the $150, 000 that they needed to make a start. The decision was made that it would be a non-union picture and so SAG actors were not permitted to be a part of the movie (one actress tried under a pseudonym and was found out). They recruited from the amateur scene, people who wanted to become union members but who lacked the relevant experience to do so. Remember, with the Screen Actors Guild, you can’t become a member until you get experience and you can’t get experience if you’re not a member. Raimi offered the local hopefuls a way out of this predicament.
It wasn’t always their intention to schlep everything halfway across northern America. They had spent months scouting locations, it just so happened that the only agency to show them any interest was the Tennessee Film Commission. They even paid a visit to the set one day during filming, convinced that some big budget affair was taking place. When they found a group of young twentysomethings running around the woods covered in blood and makeup, with limbs strewn everywhere, they promptly left them to it.
Over the course of the three month shoot, the cast and crew were subjected to freezes, theft and hillbillies. None of them found it easy, but the majority found it enjoyable and a few found it life changing. The Evil Dead took over a year to find a studio and a distributor, but when Palace pictures, along with the might of Hollywood mogul Ivan Shapiro took the movie to Cannes, everything changed. Reports that Stephen King, the master of horror fiction himself, was cowering behind his seat whilst watching the picture are notorious, but unconfirmed. King did, however, give the movie his ultimate seal of approval in the much referenced line;
‘Evil Dead is the most ferociously horror film of the year’.
All of a sudden, the gang from Detroit found themselves the subject of the attention of the entire world. Magazines came calling for interviews, word spread about this exciting new movie and The Evil Dead was cemented in the annals of horror from then on.
The film itself stands up remarkably well today. The highly stylised camerawork is the result of the comic book styling, extensive storyboards by Raimi himself, quick shots and experimentation. Cameras were taped to Raimi’s hands as he was pushed through murky swamps with smoke machines churning out atmospheric mist on all sides (and in one event malfunctioning and almost burning the entire forest down). He held onto the roof of a moving van to get shots, created rudimentary steadycams and even attached cameras to Vaseline smeared boards. It was this creativeness and determination to achieve the aesthetic that existed in the mind of the young director that helped to form the inimitable look of The Evil Dead.
The film features literally buckets of gore. The unsuspecting holidaymakers unwittingly discover The Necronomicon, a book inked in human blood and bound in human skin. Its contents hold the power of raising evil spirits, which descend upon the house and plague its inhabitants. Time is frozen and all hope for mankind rests on ‘Ash’ (Bruce Campbell), who’s matinee idol looks and hamming it up for the camera created one of the most endearing and iconic roles in horror movie history.
Raimi went on to achieve Hollywood success and is now a major league player. Campbell became kind of the B-Movies and now resides in a regular slot on the highly entertaining TV show ‘Burn Notice’. Ash and his adventures were given two more cinematic instalments, an off Broadway musical and a video game, but whatever merits they did have never lived up to the wonderment that is this movie.
It was an unusual title for inclusion on the DPP Video Nasties list, due to the cartoonish nature of the violence. This is indicative of the arbitrary nature of the haul on horror which happened in the UK in the early 1980’s. Possible reasons for complaint are a scene in which Ellen Sandweiss is forcibly raped by tree branches and an excruciatingly painful moment in which a pencil is introduced to an ankle by a malevolent demon.
The Evil Dead is one of the rare movies which I feel I will always revisit. The charm, skill and wonder on display are almost unrivalled and nothing will ever take that joy away from me. Especially not next year’s planned remake. Chances are you have seen this movie many times already, but on the off chance you haven’t, get a high quality copy, turn off all the lights, the computer and your phone and take a journey into a masterpiece.
(1:25:24) (re-released uncut in 2001)