Flashback: the UC Theater in Berkeley, circa 1985. The double feature that night was The Evil Dead and A Nightmare on Elm Street, neither of which I had seen, and the house was packed with exactly the “right” crowd for this kind of movie mayhem.
The group I went with that night was the Diablo Valley College Filmmakers Association, the president of which was my high school friend — and now Popdose colleague — Ted Asregadoo. He recalls our group giving The Evil Dead (1981) a standing ovation at the end. While I don’t specifically remember that detail, I do recall the entire evening being one of the most satisfying filmgoing experiences I’ve ever had.
The Evil Dead, directed by Sam Raimi (the series, ), was notorious in the early ’80s for being a relentless, gory, over-the-top horror film, but because it was unrated, it was difficult to find theaters willing to show it. The flick gained further notoriety when author Stephen King reviewed it in The Twilight Zone magazine and called it “the most ferociously original horror film of the year,” a quote smartly added to The Evil Dead‘s posters and newspaper ads.
I remember staring at the videocassette box in my local video store, wondering if I should rent it. I’m glad I held off, though, and that my first viewing was with the UC Theater crowd. Had I watched The Evil Dead alone, I’m not sure what I would have thought, as it’s ultimately a cheesy low-budget effort rife with some extraordinarily bad acting.
Now I embrace it for the iconic horror masterpiece that it is, and I’ve developed a true admiration for its star, Bruce Campbell. I highly recommend his book If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor (2002) if you’re at all interested in an account of a working actor trying to make a living.
Campbell, Raimi, and Evil Dead producer Robert Tapert were high school buddies in Birmingham, Michigan, who made movies together on Super 8 film. In 1978 they shot a 30-minute film called Within the Woods, essentially a short version of The Evil Dead, designed to demonstrate to potential investors exactly what they were capable of accomplishing as filmmakers. They successfully raised the money, and “Book of the Dead,” as the feature-length film was originally called, began shooting in 1979, this time on 16-millimeter stock.
Because the young filmmakers were shooting with 16-millimeter equipment, which is considerably lighter than the standard 35-millimeter gear, they were able to accomplish some inventive camerawork, such as strapping the camera to a two-by-four and propelling it along with a crew member on each end of the board. These shots are used in the film to represent the point of view of the demonic forces in the woods — the “evil dead cam,” if you will. One of the highlights of the UC Theater screening in ’85 was the entire audience stomping their feet whenever the evil dead cam was used; the sound in the theater was especially thunderous during the film’s final shot.
The Evil Dead was followed by two great sequels,(1987) and (1993), both featuring more of an emphasis on humor than horror. That’s not a criticism, by the way — the comical tone suits the sequels perfectly. In fact, in terms of the progression of Campbell’s “groovy” wise-guy character, Ash, the humor is absolutely necessary.
While the sequels are more tongue-in-cheek, the original has some genuinely suspenseful moments, like when Ash peers into the cellar, as well as some cool gross-out moments, like when Scotty (Richard DeManincor, credited here as Hal Delrich) chops up his demon-possessed girlfriend with an axe and her pieces flop about in the aftermath.
Another fun sequence is the montage in which Ash straps his demon-possessed girlfriend, Linda (Betsy Baker), to a workbench so he can cut her into pieces with a chainsaw (demon-possessed girlfriends who require dismemberment are apparently commonplace in the Evil Dead universe). It’s comprised of a bunch of short, quick shots as Ash straps her down; a sequence photographed and edited in this manner has found its way into all of the Evil Dead movies, and it’s interesting to note, according to Raimi’s running commentary track on the film’s DVD, that this sequence was cut by assistant editor Joel Coen — yes, the same Joel Coen who went on to make, , and , among many other films, with his brother, Ethan.
It occurred to me while watching Raimi’s 2009 film, which was heralded among the director’s fans as a return to his Evil Dead roots, that he’s the master of “jump” scares in horror movies. I’m normally not a fan of them, but it’s as if he knows the exact amount of time to linger on a particular shot before having shit jump out at you.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Irvin Shapiro, a producer who helped negotiate The Evil Dead‘s distribution deal with New Line Cinema. After it was screened for him for the first time, he said to Raimi, Tapert, and Campbell, “It’s your lucky day, boys. It’s not Gone With the Wind, but I think I can make you some money.”