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Entries in Evil Dead [1981] (1)

Sunday
Mar102013

The Evil Dead (1981)

Putting Away Childish Things

Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead is a movie for children and aspiring filmmakers--exclusively. While a ground-breaking, controversial "video nasty" in 1981, today it's the horror-movie equivalent of Stan Lee: a revered pop cultural totem that modern audiences simply can't turn to for thrilling, relevant entertainment.

It hurts to write that. For decades I thought The Evil Dead was one of the most disturbing films ever; so much so that I was unable to play the DVD without Raimi and star Bruce Campbell's lively, hilarious commentary track accompanying it. Yesterday, I revisited the movie on blu-ray and had to reconcile years of amber-frozen teenage memories with a production drowning in cheese and charm, but devoid of genuine scares.

Campbell plays Ash, one of five college kids who travel to a remote cabin in the woods for a weekend party. In addition to mounted deer heads and an antique clock, they also find a reel-to-reel tape recorder and a blood-inked book bound in human flesh. On playing the recording, they learn that a researcher and his wife had discovered the "book of the dead" in some ruins and brought it to the mountains for undisturbed study. Its incantations, when read aloud, unleashed ancient demonic spirits who possess and feed off of the living.

Cue Ash's friends being lured outside by strange voices and scary noises. Cue the woods coming to life and raping Ash's sister, Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss). Cue Scott (Richard DeManincor) freaking out and trying--futilely--to abandon his friends in the midst of a crisis. Cue Ash's girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker) hosting and evil spirit and singing in a creepy litle-girl's voice. Cue everything else you've seen in movies that did a better job of copying The Evil Dead than The Evil Dead did at being a horror movie.

Don't get me wrong: this film is a massive technical achievement by an insanely talented young director. To watch The Evil Dead is to receive a master class in creating innovative shots, making the most out of a limited location, and delivering an audio mix that's far more intimidating than anything that happens on screen. But you'll have to suffer through atrocious acting,* fright-makeup that alternates between mildly effective gore and droopy gray oatmeal smeared on actors' faces, and a plot that drops dead thirty minutes in.

I know people don't necessarily go to horror movies for consciousness expansion, but The Evil Dead really stops being a movie a third of the way through--mutating into a demo reel for cinematographer Tim Philo, makeup effects artist Tom Sullivan, and editor Edna Ruth Paul (all working at the maestro's behest, of course). Once the demons take over everyone except our hero, the remaining fifty minutes are devoted to Campbell freaking out and chopping squishy limbs off of mannequins. And I'm not sure if the mark of a great horror movie is pulling the audience out of the story every five minutes to marvel at camerawork or wonder how long it took to film the seemingly endless stop-motion zombie decompositions.

It's hardly surprising that Raimi and company followed up this film with 1987's Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn--which is both a remake and a sequel. Watch these back-to-back and notice how the melodrama and poor execution of the first film are used as the second, more accomplished movie's comedic template. I've seen the sequels multiple times, and am amazed at how much of Dead by Dawn was lifted directly from the original (and put to much better use).

Other genre staples like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hellraiser, or Night of the Living Dead can be watched and appreciated by anyone, un-ironically, without qualifiers or assurances beforehand about the great things they led to. The Evil Dead amounts to an impressive celluloid sketch that is unlikely to entertain those who don't already know who Sam Raimi is. Look past the fanboy admiration and rose-colored nostalgia and you're left, sadly, with a rather boring, well-filmed zombie movie.

This brings me to the forthcoming remake, which debuted at SXSW this weekend to mostly positive reviews. I won't wander too far into the wilderness of speculation, but when I first heard that a no-name director was being brought in to "re-imagine a classic", my eyes popped out and rolled across the floor (stopping at a dried-out, limited-edition Thing-prequel vomit bag). Horror fans have been stuck in this bear trap of mediocrity for a decade now, and it may be time to rise up against the faceless, money-grubbing pricks who won't leave horror classics alone.

But what if some of those classics aren't all that great? Could a passionate kid with a bloody homage as his calling card be just the shot in the arm our beloved genre needs? I suppose we'll find out next month, when Fede Alvarez's Evil Dead opens nationwide. For now, I can say that I'm not nearly as skeptical as I was twenty-four hours ago. In fact, I say, "Have at it".

*Remember, this was loooong before Bruce Campbell was "BRUCE CAMPBELL!!!"