starring Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Richard DeManincor, Betsy Baker
written and directed by Sam Raimi
by Walter Chaw The Evil Dead defies wisdom: It's an ultraviolent horror film made on a nothing budget (rumoured to have been in the neighbourhood of three-thousand dollars) that still manages to produce an enduring and brilliant performance and demonstrate (like a Dario Argento shocker) that gore, if it's perverse enough, can be the beginning and the end of horror. The product of Bruce Campbell's hilariously physical turn, of Sam Raimi's genius in fashioning dazzling camera moves, and of an uncredited Joel Coen's flair at the editing table, The Evil Dead bristles with life and joy. It is a testament to how bliss and the spark of inspiration can elevate a film of any budget in any genre from routine to sublime.
Ash (Bruce Campbell) is a schmuck whose only talent appears to be killing zombies, thus making The Evil Dead a coming-of-age film in an odd sort of way. He takes his girl Shelly (Sarah York) and three of their pals into the woods for a romantic weekend. Before long, artist Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) channels a mysterious force that compels her to sketch a book with a face on the cover, a "Book of the Dead" (the original title of the film) bound in flesh and residing in the cabin's cellar with a reel-to-reel recording of an archaeologist translating the text therein. The idiots of course play the recording, summoning the titular dead to possess each of them in turn.
Using mostly ambient noise, The Evil Dead opens with a riotous near-accident that sets nerves on edge before segueing into a long tracking shot of a car driving towards an ominous structure. Comparisons to Kubrick's The Shining are extremely interesting, particularly in the usage of sound in the banging of a porch against The Evil Dead's cabin as set against the rumble of Danny's Big Wheel in The Shining. As jock archetype Scotty (Hal Delrich) first examines the interiors of the dusty cabin where the film will find its setting, Raimi makes the interesting choice to allow his silent reactions to the Texas Chain Saw Massacre-esque interior to carry the establishment of dread. The reserve of the first act of The Evil Dead is a marvellous counterpoint to the unfettered bombast of its final hour and speaks to the first-time director's cinematic competence.
As the supernatural events escalate after a relatively sedate half-hour (including a simply fantastic sequence involving playing cards), The Evil Dead finds a hyperkinetic rhythm that continues through to the last shot. Although mainly remembered for its gore, The Evil Dead spends fully half its running time in presenting the isolation of the cabin while inexplicable point-of-view shots announce the presence of an invisible voyeur. When the bloodletting commences (and it does commence in earnest), The Evil Dead has already demonstrated that it's a far cannier suspense vehicle than appearances would first suggest.
Throughout this blood-dimmed haze, there remains a spark of wit, a dry sense of humour that revolves around Ash's tendency to get pinned beneath bookshelves as the ghoul slouches towards him. (In one inspired scene, Cheryl says, "I know the car won't start! It won't let us get away!" just prior to the car roaring to life.) The Evil Dead is not so much indulging in its charnel as commenting upon it. More than a decade before Kevin Williamson's Scream made that kind of reflexivity passé in regards to the slasher picture, The Evil Dead provided that which remains the definitive auto-analysis of the splatter picture.
The image that stays with me from The Evil Dead is of a movie projector flipping on to the accompaniment of a ragtime ditty blaring from a phonograph, a grue-smeared Ash framed in its blank glare as blood drips over the lens. Here The Evil Dead encapsulates its visceral horror, its sense of absurdity, and its visual genius. The film is intelligent, scary, and funny, never underestimating or belittling its audience and providing what is possibly the most influential American independent since George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Decidedly not for every taste, The Evil Dead is one of the smartest and best movies of the Eighties.
After Elite's The Evil Dead: Special Edition DVD of a couple of years ago, it seemed as if the door had finally closed on Sam Raimi's opus for the format. When Anchor Bay announced that it had licensed the title and was preparing its own limited collector's edition, however, I met the news with a great deal of excitement: Anchor Bay is the horror cultist's best friend, a company that treats euro-horror and low-budget splatter classics to first-rate AV transfers, an astonishing depth of special features (not the least of which spectacular filmographies), and a laudable dedication to completing libraries of obscure, sometimes impossible-to-find titles. Anchor Bay's The Evil Dead: Book of the Dead Limited Edition is destined to be the most sought-after DVD incarnation of the film.
The packaging is a 6"x 8" rubber and latex-paint number created by Tom Sullivan (the designer of the books used in the film trilogy) that simulates the "flesh-bound" hell tome with a gaping face on the front and a disembodied ear on the back. The interior features ten heavy-bound pages that beautifully reproduce the blood-inscribed drawings and Sumerian text glimpsed briefly in this film (and at the beginning of Evil Dead II), as well as a twenty-page inset booklet written by Michael Felsher detailing the many home video releases of the film. It smells like a gas station, but it looks amazingly nifty and has a place of high geek honour on my bookshelf.
This disc's 1.78:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer is wonderfully bright and well-contrasted, remastered from the original 16mm negatives. The film looks as good as modern technology will allow without actually corrupting the nature of the source elements and, given their decidedly low-fi origins, the quality of the picture is astounding and free of digital artifacting. Crucially, black and shadow levels allow for a clear platform for all of the nocturnal shenanigans. The THX-certified surround remix, in 5.1 Dolby Digital EX and 6.1 DTS-ES options, is the real star of the show, expanding the audio domain of the presentation into an immersive and startling environment. The LFE channel gets a rumbling workout and the rear speakers chime in with rustling leaves and other ambient effects.
The Book of the Dead LE provides jovial and entertaining feature-length commentary tracks from Raimi and producer Robert Tapert, and then Campbell in a separately recorded track (which is disappointing because Raimi and Campbell's co-yak tracks for Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness are classics). The commentaries are transplanted from Elite's special edition DVD--worth the revisiting, but collectors take note. In addition to an 18-minute outtake reel (misleadingly named as it's more composed of B-reel footage than gaffes), also transplanted from that same version, Anchor Bay offers two new documentaries: Bruce Campbell's 26-minute "Fanalysis" and the fascinating 13-minute "Discovering The Evil Dead". Campbell's documentary follows the actor as he muses on the nature of fandom during his recent book tour. Its funny, if nothing we haven't seen in stuff like Trekkies. "Discovering The Evil Dead" traces the early days of the film as it was shepherded by Palace Entertainment (Nik Powell and Stephen Woolley). Public outcry, brief "video nasty" status, and a sterling Stephen King endorsement are also covered.
The handsome and superlative package is rounded out by a nice new trailer, four vintage (meaning "grainy") thirty-second television spots, an extended stills gallery, the THX Optimode test, and then there are those edifying Anchor Bay filmographies provided by Jay Marks and Mark Wickum that go far above and beyond the call of duty. Must reads, all, they go into such stunning depth (complete with pithy quotes and hilarious anecdotes) that they are themselves indispensable to the DVD. Originally published: February 21, 2002.