In the fourth part of CM Saunders’ five-part series, he talks about another one of my favorites, The Evil Dead.
Top 5 Eighties Horror Flicks #2
Title: The Evil Dead
Year of Release: 1981
Director: Sam Raimi
Length: 85 mins
Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker, Hal Delrich, Theresa Tilly
I remember the first time I ever saw The Evil Dead. I was in my early teens, and my folks had gone on holiday leaving me home alone. I scared myself so much that I stayed awake the entire night with every light in the house switched on. Apart from an early encounter with An American Werewolf in London, that was my first experience of being absolutely shit scared by a film. During subsequent viewings, I learned to appreciate the crude humour as well as other aspects like the kick-ass script and innovative cinematography. But that first time, it was all about pure, unadulterated fear. I was absolutely terrified, and traumatised for weeks afterwards. At that tender age, I had no idea a piece of art could stir such visceral emotions. It was epic.
If I had to pin down the single most frightening aspect of the whole movie, it would be the trapdoor to the cellar. As innocuous as it probably sounds if you haven’t seen the movie, it still gives me chills thinking about it now. In my fevered imagination it came to represent the thin barrier between good and evil, or life and death. I’d love to live off-grid in a secluded log cabin in the woods. But if it has a trap door to the cellar, you can fucking keep it.
Wait a minute, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s rewind a little. If you haven’t seen it, (why?), The Evil Dead goes something like this…
Five college students go on vacation to a secluded log cabin in the woods. You know they’re going to have sex and take drugs, which is bad, obvs, so you know some terrible shit is going to befall them. As I mentioned, the cabin has a trapdoor leading to the cellar. You can probably attach any one of a dozen metaphor to not just the trapdoor, but the cellar. It could represent hell (the underworld), the subconscious mind, or any number of other things. But for the sake of argument, let’s just call it what it is. It’s a trapdoor. And as you can probably tell by the way I’m still obsessing over it, it scarred me for life.
Obviously, the students go exploring, and find some audio tapes made by a researcher who talks about something called the Book of the Dead, a book of spells and incantations bound in human flesh and written in human blood. Incidentally, the original script called for the characters to be smoking marijuana when they are first listening to the tape. The actors decided to try this for real, and the entire scene had to be later re-shot due to their uncontrollable behaviour.
The tapes summon a demonic entity (or entities) and one by one the students become possessed. The next thing you know, people are speaking in tongues and getting raped by trees left, right and centre. The scene where Cheryl (Sandweiss) initially falls under the influence, levitates, and stabs her friend through the ankle with a pencil before being locked in the cellar is utterly horrifying. She keeps pushing her hands through the gap in the trapdoor and making gurgling noises. Ew. As you can probably imagine, things deteriorate drastically from that point on and pretty soon Ash (Campbell in his defining role) is locked in a nightmarish battle for survival. Things don’t improve much when he realises the only defence against his group of possessed ex-friends is to dismember them with a chainsaw. Needless to say, it gets messy. Really messy.
The only thing letting the side down is the quality of the special effects, which though innovative for the time, sometimes come across as slightly cheap and tacky. But you have to remember The Evil Dead was made over forty years ago and cost around $350,000. Finances were such an issue that the crew consisted almost entirely of acquaintances of Raimi and Campbell, who had met at high school.
Upon release, the film was met with a lot of controversy, mainly because Raimi had made it as gruesome as possible with neither interest in nor fear of censorship. Writer Bruce Kawin described The Evil Dead as one of the most notorious splatter films of its day, along with Cannibal Holocaust and I Spit on Your Grave. Largely as a result of an appearance at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival (where it was seen, and emphatically endorsed by one Stephen King) the movie did manage to generate around $2.6m, small potatoes in comparison with the $212m raked in by that year’s biggest hit Raiders of the Lost Ark.
In the UK, the film was trimmed by 49 seconds before it was granted an X certificate for cinema release. A campaign by pro-censorship organization NVLA led to it being labelled a “video nasty” and when the Video Recordings Act was passed in 1984, the video version was removed from circulation. In 1990, a further 66 seconds were trimmed from the already-censored version and it was eventually granted an 18 certificate for home video release. In 2000, the uncut version was finally released. In the US, the film received an immediate ‘X’ rating, which has since been converted to NC-17 for “substantial graphic horror violence and gore”. It remains banned either theatrically or on video in some countries.
Even the censored version is preferable to the 2013 big-budget re-boot, largely because of the unpolished, rough-and-ready approach. It’s no surprise, either, that none of the original cast with the exception of Campbell went on to have much of an impact on the Hollywood A-list.
The cabin (near Morristown, Tennessee) used as the film’s set was also lodging for the 13 crew members, with several people sleeping in the same room. Living conditions were terrible, and the crew frequently argued. The cabin didn’t have plumbing, so the actors went days without showering, and fell ill frequently due to the freezing weather. By the end of production, they were burning furniture to stay warm. Ironically, the cabin didn’t have a cellar, most of the cellar scenes being filmed in a farmhouse owned by producer Rob Tapert’s family in Michigan.
On the 13th of every month I put a fresh spin on a classic movie in my RetView series over at my blog. Go here to check out the archive.
Boo-graphy: Christian Saunders, a constant reader who writes fiction as C.M. Saunders, is a freelance journalist and editor from south Wales. His work has appeared in almost 100 magazines, ezines and anthologies worldwide including Fortean Times, the Literary Hatchet, ParABnormal, Fantastic Horror, Haunted MTL, Feverish Fiction and Crimson Streets, and he has held staff positions at several leading UK magazines ranging from Staff Writer to Associate Editor. His books have been both traditionally and independently published.
The fifth volume in my X series featuring ten (X, geddit?) slices of twisted horror and dark fiction plucked from the blood-soaked pages of ParABnormal magazine, Demonic Tome, Haunted MTL, Fantasia Diversity, and industry-defining anthologies including 100 Word Horrors, The Corona Book of Ghost Stories, DOA 3, and Trigger Warning: Body Horror.
Meet the local reporter on an assignment which takes him far beyond the realms of reality, join the fishing trip that goes sideways when a fish unlike any other is hooked, and find out the hidden cost of human trafficking in China. Along the way, meet the hiker who stumbles across something unexpected in the woods, the office worker who’s life is inexorably changed after a medical drug trial goes wrong, and many more.
Also features extensive notes, and original artwork by Stoker award-winning Greg Chapman.
Table of Contents:
Revenge of the Toothfish
The Sharpest Tool
Down the Road
Where a Town Once Stood
The Last Night Shift