The Evil Dead Movies
The Evil Dead, Join Us!
By Bert Ehrmann
February, 1 March, 1 & April, 5 2013
Over the last few years Hollywood has become remake crazy, and it seems as if one of the more popular types of movies to be remade are horror films. One of the movies that's in the process of being remade for good or ill is The Evil Dead.
What would become a trilogy of movies began with The Evil Dead in 1981, continued with Evil Dead II in 1987 and was completed with Army of Darkness in 1993. While The Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness would introduce varying degrees of slapstick humor and comedy into the Evil Dead mythos, the original The Evil Dead was instead a straight-up horror movie literally billed as "the ultimate experience in grueling terror."
The story of The Evil Dead is simple and, I hate to say it, not that original. But it's how the creators of The Evil Dead execute this simple story that separates this film from lesser ones and keeps people like me talking about it 30+ years after its release.
In The Evil Dead, a group of teens decide to spend part of their school vacation in a cabin in the woods partying. The cabin is spooky and creepy enough, but what the teens find within is even more scary. There, they find a book bound in skin and written in blood; the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, the book of the dead. While the teens can't make out what's written in the book they find a tape recording left behind by a professor who was translating the text and reading it aloud. And when the teens listen to the tape they unknowingly release an evil force into the woods around the cabin.
This force terrorizes the group one at a time before turning most into possessed "deadites." Alone is Ash (Bruce Campell) who can't escape to safety because of the things in the woods and must face his deadite friends who want him dead by dawn.
Shot on just $357,000 in the late 1970s and early 1980s, or a little less than $1 million today, the limited budget of The Evil Dead shows through with every bad monster makeup appliance or mismatched hairstyles between scenes .Yet how the film is shot and the overall creepiness of the real cabin location more than makes up for something that could have come off cheep and cheesy.
While similar horror movies rely on gore and guts for scares, The Evil Dead instead relies on clever editing and dynamic camerawork. In The Evil Dead, the camera swoops and dives through the woods chasing characters and, at one point, literally crashes through a window at someone. In one shot, Ash watches the clock hoping for morning and we watch him from behind the clock as the pendulum swings in and out of view.
That's not to say that there isn't gore in The Evil Dead, but it's so over the top that it sometimes verges on humor. The blood here is a vibrant red and is so voluminous that at one point Ash literally falls into a deep pools of it. Humorous or not, some countries outright banned The Evil Dead from their lands for years. In fact, The Evil Dead wasn't legally available for purchase in the UK in an uncensored version until 2001!
Banned or not, The Evil Dead would go onto become one of the most successful independent movies of all time. Ironically enough, it would take another movie about a group of teens who become lost in the woods and are terrorized by an unseen force, The Blair Witch Project (2000), to become an independent movie more successful than The Evil Dead.
I originally saw an edited version of The Evil Dead on cable TV in the mid-1980s during the cable show Commander USA's Groovie Movies that used to air all sorts of genera movies Saturday afternoons. I in no way shape or form got what The Evil Dead was about back then and I didn't like it. It would take many years for me to see it again on DVD to really appreciate The Evil Dead for all its over-the-top horror. Grade A.
Evil Dead II, Dead by Dawn!
While The Evil Dead was mostly a straight horror movie Evil Dead II was a crazy mix of comedy and horror. But it's horror by way of slapstick The Three Stooges.
Personally, I like Evil Dead II a lot, but it's my least favorite of the trilogy. In many ways Evil Dead II seems like a bigger budget remake/ alternate take on The Evil Dead. In fact, the first half of Evil Dead II is a revised retelling of that first film.
In Evil Dead II, instead of Ash (Bruce Campbell) and his four college friends visiting a spooky cabin in the woods and discovering the tape left by the professor reading aloud passages from the Necronomicon Ex Mortis, the book of the dead, it's just Ash and his girlfriend. But mostly the same stuff happens in Evil Dead II as it did in The Evil Dead; she becomes possessed by demons and no matter how many times Ash kills her she keeps coming back for more.
There are differences in how Evil Dead II tells The Evil Dead Story and its mix of a bigger budget and slapstick humor make the tone and feel of the two movies completely different from one and other. The beginning of Evil Dead II is much more over-the-top, goofy and is funnier than The Evil Dead and after this retelling Evil Dead II continues the story of The Evil Dead in some pretty interesting ways.
L to R: Sarah Berry, Dan Hicks, Bruce Campbell and Kassie Wesley DePaiva
The last half of Evil Dead II introduces a group of new characters to the mix including the professor's daughter who pays a visit the cabin looking for her father. There, they find a blood-covered Ash and assume the worst. But after they find the professor's "deadite" wife hiding in the basement and as the woods around them literally begins to creep towards the cabin these new characters realize Ash is the least of their problems.
There is gore and terror in Evil Dead II but there is also a lot of humor too. In one scene Ash's hand becomes infected by some evil presence and he's forced to cut it off, which is gruesome enough. But after the hand is detached it runs around the room on its own climbing through Looney Tunes-like mouse holes in walls and at one point flips Ash the bird. When Ash gets the upper hand (tee-hee) on things he mutters, "Who's laughing now!?"
There are lots of these scenes like this in Evil Dead II that are so over the top (detached eyeballs fly across rooms, walls spew blood) they would would be gross in any other movie. But here they're really funny. And that separates Evil Dead II from just about every other horror movie ever made. There are as many laughs in Evil Dead II as there are scares. If not more.
Evil Dead II also introduces a different, more action-hero like, version of the Ash character. Gone is the sensitive wimpy Ash of The Evil Dead and instead here is the catch-phrase muttering (one of his favorite lines is "groovy") demonite killing Ash with a chainsaw attached where one hand used to be and a shotgun in the other. Evil Dead II and Ash are lot more comic book-like than The Evil Dead but they're also a lot more fun too.
While Evil Dead II is kind'a sort'a a remake of The Evil Dead, it also directly sets up the third and final film of the trilogy; Army of Darkness. This last movie would take Ash from the creepy cabin in the woods to a medieval castle in the desert! Grade B+.
Part 3: Army of Darkness, Hail to the king
While The Evil Dead was for the most part a straight horror movie and Evil Dead II a crazy mix of comedy and horror, Army of Darkness was a comedy with a bit of action and a few elements of horror thrown in for good measure.
Army of Darkness was a movie that came along at the perfect time for me. I first saw it on VHS as a teen and its mix of comedy, humor and downright goofiness totally clicked with my sensibilities back then. In fact, I only sought out and saw Evil Dead II then watched The Evil Dead again for the first time in years after seeing Army of Darkness.
Army of Darkness begins right where Evil Dead II ends; Ash (Bruce Campbell) finds himself transported back in time to the 14th century where he's seen as a prophesied hero that will destroy the evil forces that are plaguing that time. Ash, along with his car, chainsaw and shotgun that were also accidentally magically sent back the centuries, are seen as a sort of savior by the locals. But he doesn't want to have anything to do with the natives and just wants to go home.
To get back to the 20th century Ash must retrieve the Necronomicon Ex Mortis, the book of the dead from a graveyard. But when he messes up a magical incantation he's supposed to speak before taking the book and accidentally unleashes the deadite army of darkness, it's up to Ash to stop the army before it takes over the world. (In fact the on-screen title of the film is really Bruce Campbell vs Army of Darkness.)
Compared to The Evil Dead and even Evil Dead II, Army of Darkness feels like a much bigger, though not quite epic, action-comedy with Ash constantly spouting t-shirt slogan ready catch-phrases like "groovy," "hail to the king" and "gimme some sugar, baby." In any other movie lines like that would come off as a dumb joke, but in the goofy Three Stooges/Looney Tunes inspired Evil Dead universe this works. It makes the Ash character like some sort of reluctant comic book hero who's not nearly as smart as he thinks he is.
While most horror movies constantly go for the scare and become less and less watchable with each outing since after the first time know the twists and turns the goofy sense of humor that permeates all the Evil Dead films separates those movies from almost every other horror flick. And I think because of all the humor and action and horror is why we're still talking about the Army of Darkness and the other two Evil Dead movies 30+ years after the first one was released.
And this is precisely what worries me most about the Evil Dead remake due in theaters April 5. From the look of the trailers and marketing materials that's been released from that movie, the simply titled Evil Dead is horror first, terror second and humor not at all. Which, to me anyways, makes Evil Dead look like just another 21st century horror remake like The Hills Have Eyes or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that might make a splash at the box office one week but will all but be forgotten a month or two later.
After Army of Darkness, Evil Dead franchise director Sam Raimi would go onto direct the Spider-Man trilogy of films and would become a prolific producer of TV and movies along with co-Evil Dead franchise producer Robert G. Tapert. Star Bruce Campbell would spend the years after the Evil Dead trilogy as a working actor who bounced around between various TV and film roles. Recently, though, Campbell has found success co-starring in the long-running TV series Burn Notice. Grade: A-.
The Evil Dead trilogy is available on home video and digital download.