Evil Dead retrospective – a look back at Sam Raimi’s horror franchise





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With the most recent version of ‘Evil Dead’ currently bloodying up theatres, we are going to travel through the vortex of time back to the early 80’s and check out the original Evil Dead and its subsequent sequels, official and unofficial.

Groovy.

‘The Evil Dead’, born from the mind of Sam Raimi and his super8 filmmaking chums, Bruce Campbell and Rob Tapert was not our first look at the world of the Necronomicon and the Deadites, that honour fell to the super8 short ‘Within the Woods’ which was made as way of the filmmakers raising cash for their feature (and much like Evil Dead, inspiring a wealth of filmmakers to do the same, myself included). It is slow, laborious, but has some fun makeup and shows Raimi was willing to put his star Campbell through torture for art. Campbell plays the monster in this covered for the latter part of the short in a mountain of makeup, being tortured, something Raimi would do to him again, again and again.

Raimi is probably these days better known as the director of the Spiderman trilogy and Oz – The Great and the Powerful (more of this later), but few can forget the original Evil Dead and the impact it made on the horror genre during the 80’s. The Book of the Dead, later re-titled ‘The Evil Dead’ upon its release in 1981, 82 (or 83 depending on your source or country of origin) was essentially the product of a student filmmaking ethos – do by any means possible. Working outside of the studio system, with independent funding, The Evil Dead made enough noise at the Cannes film festival to first be released by Palace Pictures in the UK, before a certain Stephen King helped bring it to a wider audience with his quotes from his Twilight Zone magazine article, attached to the cinematic poster.

With its wondrous imagery, sound design, and sheer inventiveness; the Evil Dead made a lot of noise with an exceedingly small budget. We all know the story, if not from this, from its sequels or the countless influenced horrors. Five college kids go to a cabin in the woods, they find a basement, they find a weird book, they read from the book (or in this case they hear a reading from a book), and then things happen. Trees come alive, possession takes place, bodily dismemberment, and souls are swallowed.

That’s it, Evil Dead in a nutshell. So why did it cause such interest, such fandom, such a legacy?

On viewing of the first Evil Dead it is hard not to notice some of the technical aspects on display, the beginnings of Raimi’s cinematic stylings, his dutch angles, his make shift steadicam, his torturing of actors, his use of blood and his use of Bruce Campbell.

Yes, Bruce Campbell, horror icon; Ash – but not the Ash we come to know, not yet…

Campbell is almost playing a different character in this film. Ashley, as he is known, doesn’t really become the Ash we now know and love, until the sequel. In this he is the poor unfortunate that sees his friends tortured one by one by the unseen force, before he too is tortured and in what seems to be apparent, killed in the final shot, in what is one of the best sequences in any horror, then or now.

Digressing for a moment, The Evil Dead was the first horror film I ever saw, at around the age of 10. We had just invested in a VHS player, one that had a remote that was attached by a very short lead, something to this day still baffles, but my brother and his friends introduced it in the form of a bootleg tape, of exceedingly good quality, not like the ET one I witnessed at a friend’s the previous week. The final shots of the film, where Ash steps out of the cabin, into the woods in the daylight, only to have the unseen force pay its final respects to poor Ashley still wow me to this day. Even at age 10 this film made me sit up and take notice, as I watched it from the stairs, only to imagine every time I went into the woods from that day on, something was going to get me.

Of course, The Evil Dead finally made enough people sit up and take notice for a sequel to eventually come to fruition. Raimi, opposed at first, but eventually resigned himself due to his screwball comedy, made with the Coen Bros, “Crimewave”, not making much of a splash. Therefore a return to the woods seemed inevitable. Luckily for us, the devoted followers, this was not a mere rehash of the original, or even a straight sequel. This was something different, a bigger budget, a bigger Ashley. This was Evil Dead 2 – Dead by Dawn in 1987.

In those years between Evil Dead 1 & 2, Ashley lost his ‘ley’ and gained an attitude, and a great amount of Three Stooges mannerisms. Here was ‘Ash’ and we saw the beginnings of a cult icon growing in a film that gave him room to do just that. Bruce Campbell owns this movie. The other characters are pretty superfluous, this is Campbell’s gig and he plays it for fun. Gone is the dourness of some of Evil Dead, the creepiness that settled into that film, and what we have here is more fun, more gags, and more ‘Groovy’ catchphrases. We see that he didn’t die at the end of the first film (the first film being replayed, condensed in characters as well as time) but Ash, he sure did change.

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Evil Dead 2, many agree, is the perfect Evil Dead film – funny, gory and batshit crazy enough to remain fresh after all these years. I feel the supporting cast, aside from perhaps Dan Hicks, let the film down enough to turn it from amazing to just pretty great. But there is enough here to keep Raimi on track to play and expand his toolkit with the toys and tricks that have made him the name he is today. For example, without Raimi, there would be no Edgar Wright, or at least not the same Edgar Wright, or for that matter Sir Peter Jackson – both of which seem very influenced by Raimi’s visual style. Raimi has taught a lot of young filmmakers the way to play with genre cinema, and is greatly helped along the way in Evil Dead 2 by his collaborators, which by this film included cinematographer Peter Deming, make up studio KNB, composer Joseph LoDuca; all of which he’s used again and again.

This is another reason I love the man that is Raimi, he never forgets his friends.

The next film in the Evil Dead cannon dispenses of the moniker Evil Dead altogether, or at least it did on its eventual release. In 1992, I remember going to a Hong Kong movie convention a good year before we in the UK got to see Army of Darkness to be faced with a bootleg of Evil Dead 3. What must have been a workprint didn’t peak my interest at the time, foolish me. When Army of Darkness reared its head in UK cinemas in 1993, shorn of the Evil Dead 3 title, I finally caught it on its blink and you’d miss it tour of cinemas and was bowled over once again by Raimi not sticking to the same formula. Not only had the location moved on to Medieval times (seen briefly at the end of 2) but the humour was more prevalent, and the Campbell was now a walking talking catchphrase machine. “Groovy”, “Come Git Some”, “Well hello Mister Fancypants”, “Gimme some sugar baby” and “Hail to the King” being some of the memorables. It was brilliant, big, bold and bonkers. Again, it was Campbell’s show, but being surrounded by the likes of Embeth Davidz and in a cameo, Bridget Fonda – this outing had enough credentials to straddle, but not quite delight the mainstream. One of those films that is deemed either amazing or so bad it’s good by many, Army of Darkness just shows what amazing fun you can have when you allow a director to just…play.

Two endings were offered up to Army of Darkness, the one we all got to see in the cinemas, where Ash got back to his S Mart day job, but brought the deadites back, and the Raimi approved and preferred waking up in the future. I like both, for different reasons. The supermarket one is just that play element, Raimi serving up all his trademark licks with the camera and Campbell. The future one gives us scope, a reason to dream for future instalments.

1992/3 saw the Evil Dead saga put to bed by Raimi, or did it?

During this time and beyond, we saw many other directors pay homage to the Dead movies, notably Peter Jackson with Brain Dead (Dead Alive), Eli Roth with Cabin Fever and Cabin in the Woods by Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon, but where was Raimi, the horror auteur? Was he too busy with Spiderman to concern himself with Ash and the Deadites?

Kind of, but after he left Spiderman behind, he has made 2 unofficial Evil Dead films.

What? Really… yeah, why not? Go with it…

Drag Me to Hell, from 2009, could easily have been the next Evil Dead film. Raimi’s triumphant return to the horror genre throws us so many deadite styled demons, some inspired camera work once again from Peter Deming and also by now longtime collaborator Bob Murawski on editing duties (he joined the Raimi family on Darkman, taking full editing duties on Army of Darkness and subsequent films). This film is Evil Dead styling in everything but name.

Another fun ride, some great gags and a showmanship that allows us, the audience, to see Raimi hasn’t lost his touch.

Which then brings us to this year, and 2 very special Raimi films. Oz – the Great and Powerful was the first out of the stables, and whilst Dr Lenera wasn’t a big fun, I loved the giddiness of this film, from Franco’s Oz to Campbell’s cameo as the Winkie Guard that gets beaten by a stick. In Oz, there was a good deal of Raimi and a nagging feeling I had seen it all before. Yes, here was Sam Raimi remaking Army of Darkness for the Disney crowd, and pretty much getting away with it. Sure, Franco is no Campbell, but again we have a really braggish unlikeable coward lead learning to help himself by helping others. We have scenes almost shot by shot the same. It’s crazy, but for me, it worked. We even have a very Deadite looking Rachel Weisz as one of the witches, Evanora. All of this bodes well for Raimi edging ever closer to a new Evil Dead film with Raimi himself at the reins.

In the meantime, we have an ‘Evil Dead’ film by the same team, but with a different director in the chair. Fede Alvarez had made a fab short with ‘Panic Attack’ which brought him to the attention of Raimi, Tapert and Campbell, and Evil Dead, the continuation of the saga, rather than a straight remake was in production. Whilst this ‘continuation’ lacks the charm of the original, it brought a different energy to the franchise and brought a lot of influences Raimi has been toying with since his last ‘official’ Evil Dead film. We now have a J horror feel to the proceeding, which Raimi employed as producer on a lot of his Ghost House pictures, right through to mixing the practical effects with gallons of blood – another Raimi trademark. We still have chainsaws, we still have basements. Hell, we even have that tree that caused Raimi to be banned once upon a time, and, yes, that Oldsmobile. Along with this, we also have a return to the almost serious nature of the first Evil Dead, though there is still room for humour, and a lot of this humour is knee deep in fake blood.

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We also have opportunities, in the appearance of an old friend after the end credits, something films seemingly cannot get away with not doing nowadays, but with this one it has set the internet ablaze with rumours, and truths about a 4th Evil Dead, or a 2nd Army of Darkness. Even a meet of the two Evil Dead worlds has been mooted. For my money, if this later was to happen, we should have been dealt with a clearer cut call in the new Evil Dead. Perhaps a survivor of the wood cabin, walking wounded in the woods, could have seen a figure sat on a tree stump, older and less in shape, but still tied in mind, body and spirit to these woods. He looks lost, but also at home. He looks up at the survivor and we see it’s our old friend Ash, forever tormented, but now supported by another poor unfortunate soul.

Something’s brought him back to these woods, and we set off on a new adventure. With chainsaws!

Funnily enough, in a recent Empire interview, Alvarez implied they had actually shot a sequence where Ash did return, but decided not to ultimately use it, because they wanted to keep their options open. What we know from Alvarez is that the surviving character from the new Evil Dead will return in a sequel, and Raimi will hopefully make another one with Ash. Hopefully they find the right tone to bring these worlds together, then these 2 worlds can collide in an all guns blazing, Evil Dead.

Exciting, but will it happen?

Will we go back to those woods one, two or even three more times. If we don’t, a part of me will be sad, as I feel that if Saw can do it the amount of times it has, then Evil Dead can surely too. Evil Dead as a franchise seemingly has more legs, because each film takes on a different tone to the last, so as an audience we are left wondering ‘what next?’. I want to see the survivor of Evil Dead play against an older Ash. It’d be fun. It’d be fab. Bring along his friends, old and new, let’s have a bloodbath party.

Heck, if we do, it could even be all kinds of…groovy.

Peter Hearn
About Peter Hearn 5 Articles

Writer/Director, sometime Editor. Currently I am working on promoting short silent horror movie ‘Motto’ whilst putting the finishing touches to feature horror ‘Scrawl’. I love movies, watching and making them. Check us out at www.scrawlfilm.com or follow us on fb at www.facebook.com/scrawlmovie

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