The ultimate experience in grueling terror.
I am unsure how or why you are reading this review. Maybe you are reading it shortly after it was posted because you read every review we write. Maybe you’re reading it because you’re a fan on my work (in which case, thank you). But, this review is primarily written for those who specifically came to this site looking for a review of The Evil Dead. You see, this movie has a very specific niche audience: those who like their horror movies as gory as possible. If you’ve never heard of this movie, or if you can’t stand the sight of fake blood or demon possessions or dismemberment, you might as well press the back button in your browser now and go read my review of Tarzan or something.
There. Hopefully one or two of you stuck around. Now that only the die-hard horror fans remain, I thank you for reading on.
Reviewing anecdote: The first time I watched The Evil Dead, I sat down to watch it at around ten o’clock on a Sunday morning. About halfway through the movie I said to myself, “A bowl of oatmeal sounds pretty good right about now.” I may or may not have said it out loud. The judge isn’t senile; he just talks to himself sometimes. Anyway, the latter half on the movie made me very glad that I saved the oatmeal until after it was over. The disemboweling and dismemberment and fake blood may have caused some digestion problems. And of course, there is the point on the commentary track when Bruce Campbell notes, “And yes, that is oatmeal.”
The Evil Dead was made in the glory years of the horror genre, before redundant sequels to the greats (Halloween, A Nightmare On Elm Street, Friday the 13th), quick knock-offs, and horror-lite aimed at the teen audience ruined the genre. There’s no substitute for originality, low-budget effects, and uncompromised gore.
Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell were friends from high school. Along with their friend Robert Tapert, they raised the money to start their own production company, Renaissance Pictures. Their sole project was a movie they called “Book Of The Dead.” Filming commenced in rural Tennessee in 1979, but the movie was not released until 1982 for various budgetary and technical reasons. Its premiere was the only time it was billed as “Book Of The Dead;” after that point, the title was changed to The Evil Dead. Seems the producers or distributors thought the teenaged audience would get the impression that it was some sort of literary adaptation.
The Evil Dead can be summarized in twenty-five words or less: Five students travel to a remote cabin. They discover the Book of the Dead, which unleashes demons from the woods. One by one they die. How’s that? The students are Ash (Bruce Campbell), his girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker), his sister Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), “hunky” Scott (Hal Delrich), and his girlfriend Shelly (Sarah York). Ash and Scott discover a book and a tape recording in the cabin’s basement. The tape was made by a professor (voiced by American Movie Classic’s Bob Dorian), who explains the book’s ominous origins and says that it must not be read aloud. Of course, he reads aloud from the book on the tape, and when it is played…well, all hell breaks loose. Cheryl is the first to be possessed. She leaves the cabin to investigate a strange noise. The spirits in the woods use the vines and trees to capture her and rape her. It’s the most shocking scene in the movie, and you have to see it to believe it. Shortly after returning to the cabin, her possession becomes evident, and she is locked in the basement. Shelly is the next to go; Scott hacks her to pieces with an axe, and he and Ash bury her outside. At this point, Scott decides to take off on his own. You can guess how far that gets him. He returns to the cabin a bloody mess just in time to witness Linda’s possession. Pretty soon Ash is the only sane person left, and he must battle the possessed Cheryl and Scott. Ash emerges from the cabin victorious just in time to see the sunrise before the spirits come to get him.
The Evil Dead was a launching point for the careers of its main star and its director. Bruce Campbell may not be an A-list Hollywood star, but he is a favorite among genre fanboys. He starred in the sequels, Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness, as well as other flicks such as McHale’s Navy and Escape From L.A. He has had reoccurring roles on TV’s Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (both executive produced by Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert). He’s even had two shows of his own: The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. and Jack of All Trades. Sam Raimi has gained a certain amount of respect as a director, most notably for his brilliantly understated character piece A Simple Plan. In addition to the other Evil Dead films, he’s also directed Darkman, The Quick And The Dead (my favorite Western), and For Love of the Game (which I won’t hold against him). In the works are The Gift, a supernatural thriller written by Billy Bob Thornton, and a live-action adaptation of Spider-Man.
As I’m sure you are aware, The Evil Dead was a pretty low-budget affair. Not as low budget as The Blair Witch Project, but stuff actually happens in this movie. Most of the gore looks quite realistic, and the makeup work for the possessed people is good, but there are many shots that are obviously dummies and the stop-motion work is atrocious (but then, you don’t usually find that kind of stuff in low-budget fare). It was filmed on color 16mm and was released with mono sound.
There are two DVD versions of The Evil Dead on the market. One was released by Anchor Bay, and is the version you’ll find in most stores or rental outlets. It is packaged in a clear case, and there are five different picture discs available. That version does not have any extras. Elite released the version I reviewed. It will definitely be worth your while to find this version online. The movie is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. No digital artifacts were noticeable, but the picture is very grainy in keeping with its low budget past. Colors are accurate and the black level is appropriately dark. Audio is presented in Dolby Digital Stereo (which was remastered several years ago for a VHS release) and in Dolby Digital 5.1 (which was remastered for Anchor Bay’s release). The 5.1 track still retains some of the lo-fi hollowness of the original mono, but is overall an excellent mix. Dialogue is accurately placed, and the surround channels are used to good effect. The LFE channel isn’t used that much, but it is featured in several scenes.
The extras are a testament to how popular this movie is. Included are the theatrical trailer, an extensive photo gallery, 18 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage, and two commentary tracks. On my copy of the disc, there was no audio with the trailer or the raw footage. I have heard that there were some problems with certain pressings of the disc, and that you could return the audioless versions to Elite for replacement. That word is from an unconfirmed posting on alt.video.dvd, so take it for what it’s worth. The commentary tracks were both recorded in mono, and sound…well, they sound like mono, but at least it’s accurately restricted to the center channel. Actor Bruce Campbell recorded the first commentary. He is very funny, and it’s an entertaining track to listen to. There are very few gaps in his commentary, as he has a sly comment or anecdote about everything. Director Sam Raimi and producer Robert Tapert (who, incidentally, married Lucy Lawless of Xena: Warrior Princess in 1998) recorded the other track. I didn’t sit through the entire track because it seems redundant after listening to Bruce Campbell and wasn’t nearly as interesting.
There’s really nothing to which to object. Elite did a fantastic job with the transfer (considering the source material) and with the extras. If I had to find something wrong, I’d complain that purchasers of the Anchor Bay edition get a cooler case and picture disc. Elite packaged this version in an unusual keep case manufactured by Scanavo. It’s not as annoyingly difficult to remove the disc as with the Alpha keep case, but not as easy as the Amaray keep case.
Fans, this is the definitive version of The Evil Dead, unless Anchor Bay releases the rumored THX-certified edition. No, I didn’t make that up. This special edition is available online from Reel.com and Amazon.com for around $25US.
Special thanks are due to the great webmasters who have written the fan sites listed at right. They were the sources for much of the background information in this review. Of particular note is the journal at Evil Dead Interactive. It was written by disgruntled crewmember Josh Becker (credited for second unit lighting and sound). Becker was a friend of Campbell and Raimi, but was relegated to menial tasks. He has since written and directed several films of his own (none of which I’ve ever heard of).
While I’m mentioning crewmembers, you’ll see Joel Coen listed in the credits as Assistant Film Editor. Along with his brother Ethan, he has made films such as Fargo and The Big Lebowski.