GUEST MOVIE REVIEW: The Evil Dead

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. 

Trivia Corner:

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:
Demon Tree
Revenge of the Toothfish
Surzhai
The Sharpest Tool
Something Bad
Down the Road
Coming Around
Where a Town Once Stood
The Last Night Shift
Subject #270374
Afterword

X X2 X3 X4 X5

AUTHOR INTERVIEW: C.M. Saunders

Meghan: Welcome back to the Halloween Extravaganza. It’s always wonderful to have you here at Meghan’s (Haunted) House of Books. What is your favorite part of Halloween?

Christian: The fact that for a few days each year, everyone turns into mad horror fiends and I don’t appear quite so weird. Afterwards, though, most people go back to being normal and I just stay weird.

Meghan: What is your favorite Halloween tradition?

Christian: The movies! Okay, I watch horror movies all year round, but for as long as I can remember on Halloween night, no matter where I am, who I am with and what else I have going on, I’ve always made time for a horror movie marathon, much to the displeasure of various partners over the years. Some people just can’t handle it when shit gets real.

Meghan: If Halloween is your favorite holiday (or even second favorite holiday), why?

Christian: The movies, the trick-or-treating, the family traditions, the blood, the gore, the serial killers, the rotting corpses rising from graves, what’s not to love?!

Meghan: What are you superstitious about?

Christian: I don’t know if you can call this a superstition, but I’ve always had a thing for the number 27. it follows me, and it seems to come in waves. I might go months without noticing it, and then suddenly it’s everywhere, all around me, as if the universe is trying to tell me something. For example, a few years ago, I was writing an article for a magazine about the 27 Club, all those musicians who have died at 27, when my cousin called me. He said, “I’m just ringing to tell you I’ve moved. Yeah, I live in number 27 now.”

Another time, I was telling a friend about my 27 thing. They laughed and said it was just coincidence. We went into a restaurant, and were given the table number 27. They were like, okay…

Meghan: What/who is your favorite horror monster or villain?

Christian: It has to be Freddy Krueger. What a fantastic concept. A monster that comes to get you THROUGH YOUR DREAMS! I mean, how long can you stay awake? How long can you stay safe? We all know the answer to that because we’ve all seen the movies, right? Often, when I talk about movies 30 or 40 years old, I wonder how a remake or reboot would fare with a big budget and superior special effects. In this case remakes and reboots are not necessary because the original movies are just about perfect.

Meghan: Which unsolved murder fascinates you the most?

Christian: That would be the murder of my wife. Not a day goes by when I don’t think of her. It’s so weird they never found the body. They never looked in the garden, though. Kidding. Gotcha! I’ve never been married. I’m sorry to be so unoriginal, but I’d love to know who Jack the Ripper was. I don’t buy into the stuff about him being the queen’s doctor, but I read a theory recently suggesting that he and H.H. Holmes, he of Chicago’s murder castle, were the same person. The links are tenuous, but that’s the thing, the links to every suspect are tenuous but somebody did it, so one of these mad theories has to be true.

Meghan: Which urban legend scares you the most?

Christian: Ooh! I can tell you a famous Welsh one. Angelystor is a mystical ghostly figure that appears twice a year (Halloween and 31st July) in the village of Llangernyw in Conwy. Standing beneath a 3000-year old Yew tree, the supernatural entity announces the names of all the people who would die in the parish that year. What a guy!

Meghan: Who is your favorite serial killer and why?

Christian: There’s something morally wrong about having a favourite serial killer but you got me. I do have one. I’m going to go with that man H.H. Holmes again. The whole concept fascinates me. He didn’t just moider loads of people, he went to extraordinary lengths to do so and apparently took great pride in his work. He was also a conman, a trickster and a bigamist. I mean, how busy was this guy? He was convicted of 27 killings (there’s that number again, see what I mean?) but may have, and probably did, kill more than 200. That takes dedication.

Meghan: How old were you when you saw your first horror movie? How old were you when you read your first horror book?

Christian: My first horror film was either a little-known zombie flick called The Child, or American Werewolf in London, when I was ten or eleven years old. That’s a movie I must have watched a dozen times since. I didn’t start getting the humour in it until much later, and when I lived in London I made a pilgrimage to Tottenham Court Road underground station where some key scenes were filmed. It literally gave me shivers. It’s harder to remember the first book, but it was probably a Stephen King paperback nabbed from my sister. I’m going to say Pet Sematary.

Meghan: Which horror novel unsettled you the most?

Christian: I had a Richard Laymon phase in my late teens, like I guess most people do. He’s a very underrated writer. Sure, he put out some smut and he had a weird obsession with the word ‘rump,’ but nobody’s perfect! There are two books in particular I could mention, Funland and Body Rides. The most disturbing of the two is the latter. Not in a gruesome kind of way, but in the sense that when you finish it you feel as if Richard Laymon just reached inside your head, pulled out your brain, licked it, kicked it against a wall a few times, then put it back.

Meghan: Which horror movie scarred you for life?

Christian: The original Evil Dead. I remember watching it alone when I was twelve or thirteen and my parents were away for the night, and I was too scared to turn the lights off or go to bed. That creepy refrain, “Dead by dawn!” was running through my head constantly.

Meghan: What is your favorite Halloween costume?

Christian: I dressed up as Dracula when I was nine. See embarrassing pictorial evidence. I was certainly sullen enough, but I think the hair let me down.

Meghan: What is your favorite Halloween-themed song?

Christian: The Ramones Howling at the Moon from their 1984 album Too Tough to Die. Punk forever. You’re welcome.

Meghan: What is your favorite Halloween candy or treat? What is your most disappointing?

Christian: I’m British, and when I was a kid all the kids in my street used to get together and play ducking apples. You know, when you’re blindfolded and have to stick your head in a bucket of water and try to pick out apples with your teeth? Let me tell you, it got quite competitive! There’s no such thing as a disappointing treat.

Meghan: Thanks again for stopping by. Before you go, can you share your favorite Halloween reads and movies?

Christian: Even though I’m a writer, I’m going to give you my Top Three Halloween movies because I think reading more than one book in a night would be a challenge, but we can all squeeze in enough time for a classic horror movie marathon!

  1. The Fog (1980)
  2. The Howling (1981)
  3. Pet Sematary (1989)

FYI, every month I watch a classic horror film and post about it over on my blog. You’re welcome to take a look.


Boo-graphy:
Christian Saunders, 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 latest release being Back from the Dead: A Collection of Zombie Fiction.

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Back from the Dead
A collection of zombie fiction from British journalist and dark fiction writer C.M. Saunders, featuring two complete novellas alongside short stories previously published in the likes of Morpheus Tales and Crimson Streets, plus a brand-new novelette. Also includes an exclusive introduction and artwork by the award-winning Greg Chapman.

Featuring:

Dead of Night: young lovers Nick and Maggie go camping in the woods, only to come face-to-face with a group of long-dead Confederate soldiers who don’t know, or care, that the war is over.

Human Waste: Dan Pallister wakes up one morning to find the zombie apocalypse has started. Luckily, he’s been preparing for it most of his life. He just needs to grab some supplies from the supermarket…

‘Til Death do us Part: When the world as we know it comes to an abrupt end, an elderly couple are trapped in their apartment. They get by as best they can, until they run out of food.

Roadkill: A freelance ambulance crew are plunged into a living nightmare when a traffic accident victim they pick up just won’t stay dead. He has revenge on his mind.

Plague Pit: A curious teenager goes exploring the Welsh countryside one summer afternoon and stumbles across a long-abandoned chapel. What he finds there might change the world, and not for the better.

Dead Men Don’t Bleed: A gumshoe private eye is faced with his most challenging case yet when a dead man walks into his office and asks for help solving his own murder.

Drawn from a variety of sources, all these tales have one thing in common; they explore what might happen if our worst nightmares are realized and people came BACK FROM THE DEAD.