• Daniela Urzola

The Evil Dead: The epitome of cult horror

The quintessential “cabin in the woods” story, Sam Raimi’s debut is equal parts iconic and terrifying, giving birth to a trilogy for the ages and an absolute staple of classic cult horror.

The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981) DP: Tim Philo

When speaking of iconic ‘80s horror, it is almost imperative to talk about Sam Raimi’s debut now turned cult classic: The Evil Dead. Released in 1981 and originally named Book of the Dead, the film follows a group of friends who go on vacation to a secluded cabin, where they find a mysterious book and a tape recorder. They play the tape in it without knowing they are awakening evil spirits that will begin to possess them one by one, with one of them having to fight each of his possessed friends in a gory battle to death.

Now, where to begin when speaking of The Evil Dead? It is simply one of the most influential, effective, and downright terrifying horror classics ever made. It uses and popularizes a famous trope that has been present in the genre ever since, from slashers to supernatural movies, with great examples that can be traced right up to 2013’s meta homage The Cabin in the Woods -which, as you may guess, will have its own review pretty soon-.

The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981) DP: Tim Philo

Sam Raimi’s first feature-length piece, The Evil Dead was widely acclaimed by critics at the time of its release and it has had an ample reception in the horror community ever since, gradually giving it the status of cult horror. And a lot of the praise that the film received at first was thanks to its technical achievements, especially considering it was a B movie based on a short film that Raimi and Bruce Campbell (who plays Ash) did as friends back in college. A term used to refer to low-budget productions, B movies are not generally seen with a positive reaction, due to the fact that they are considered to be the opposite of “art films” or high culture. The term itself has acquired more of a negative connotation throughout time, and in the horror genre today it is mostly used to refer to movies that heavily rely on exploitation, bad acting, and poor writing.

The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981) DP: Tim Philo

But back in 1981, The Evil Dead’s practical effects, stop-motion sequences, and prosthetic make-up all came together to show the audiences that low-budget did not necessarily mean low quality. The film’s production was far from easy, and you can find a lot of gruesome anecdotes from the cast and crew anywhere on the internet. However, this also goes to show how creative Raimi had to be. His iconic shaky camera, Dutch angles, and zoom-ins through the woods were as much of a resource to overcome technical difficulties, as they were brilliant ways to create atmosphere and magnify the terror. Also, Tom Sullivan’s graphic, nasty make-up effects, made in the very best ‘80s fashion, were so well-done and gave the film an element of gore back in the day when gore was still innovative. It is all of these aspects that helped build The Evil Dead as the terrifying cult film it is. I love The Evil Dead because it is classic horror done right, proving that a simple story and practical effects can be so much more effective than a lot of high budget productions we see today.

Another important aspect of the film are its hints at a campy, black form of comedy that would, of course, be the defining factor for Raimi’s tongue-in-cheek sequel, Evil Dead II (1987), and its third follow-up, Army of Darkness (1992). In the length of a decade, Raimi gave birth to one of the most iconic trilogies in the history of horror, managing to make a swift transition from classic horror to horror comedy and being one of the first directors to successfully use a self-referential or “meta” type of humor in the horror genre. My favorite piece from the trilogy is obviously The Evil Dead, and that is because it is pure classic ‘80s horror. But, as I have stated before, I would actually dare say that Evil Dead II is the most influential, mainly because it was the platform where the character of Ash truly developed into the icon we know today.

The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981) DP: Tim Philo

Aside from establishing Raimi as a renowned filmmaker -both within and outside of the genre-, this trilogy gave birth to one of the most legendary characters in horror and in movie history in general: Ashley J. Williams, more commonly known as Ash. One of the most interesting things for me is Raimi’s decision to give this character such sexually ambiguous name, which is clearly a nod to a trope that was becoming more and more popular in the ‘80s: The final girl. (The “J.”, which stands for Joanna, makes this even more obvious). But it wasn’t only a wink that Raimi made to this trope, Campbell’s character has traces of the archetypical final girl all over: it’s the tale of the cowardly victim turned into the badass last man standing. Bearing similarities with other iconic final girls (ie. Sidney Prescott, Laurie Strode, Ellen Ripley), Ash too becomes increasingly braver and stronger over the course of the trilogy, and well into the recent TV show Ash vs Evil Dead (2015-2018).

The franchise was also brought back to life with an earlier remake in 2013; one that received a lot of praise and has even been called one of the best horror remakes ever made. Personally, I wasn't too captivated by it, but there is a chance that this might have been because I am such a huge fan of the original movies. 2013’s Evil Dead was the debut from Uruguayan director Fede Álvarez, and I actually liked a lot his second feature film, Don’t Breathe (2016), so his acclaimed remake is definitely on my re-watch list. Will a second viewing change my mind and make me appreciate this new take on one of my favorite horror classics? Stay tuned to find out.

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