Retrospective: A Look Back at the Evil Dead Trilogy

evil-dead-retrospective

While I came to know him as the director of the original Spider-Man trilogy starring Tobey Maguire, Sam Raimi came to prominence with another series of films, the “Evil Dead” trilogy. In the summer of 1979, on a budget of $375,000, Raimi and high school friend Bruce Campbell, as well as a four other actors and a film crew, went to an abandoned cabin outside Tennessee and began filming what would become one of the defining horror films of not only the 1980s, but of all time. And more than thirty years later, “The Evil Dead” (1981) has gotten the remake treatment. With the remake released, I decided to take a look back at the trilogy and give my thoughts on the films. I only recently watched the first two films in the franchise just last year, and they quickly became two of my favourite horror films. And having just watched the third film, “Army of Darkness,” the “Evil Dead” trilogy would have to rank among my favourite film trilogies as well.

What’s remarkable about the trilogy is how each film, while following a loose continuity, is its own kind of film, fitting in to a different genre. The original film is a straight up horror film, the second is a horror-comedy, and the third is a medieval horror slapstick action comedy. It’s hard to think of many franchises that have played with what genre they belong to as much as “Evil Dead.” Of course, there are the three Christopher Nolan Batman films, the James Bond franchise. I’d also put up the first two “Alien” films, directed by Ridley Scott and James Cameron, respectively. In fact, I’d say both the “Alien” and “Evil Dead” franchises are similar in the way their main protagonists evolve from being ensemble players to the main characters of their franchises (more on that later). But I digress. Let’s get to the meat of things and discuss the original “The Evil Dead.”

“The Evil Dead” has a pretty simple plot. Five college friends, Ash (Campbell), Linda (Betsy Baker), Ash’s sister Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), Shelley (Sarah York), and Scott (Hal Delrich) drive to a cabin in the woods for spring break, only to uncover the Book of the Dead and a recording by an archeology professor who recites passages from the book, unleashing evil demons that begin to possess them. Ultimately, the plots of these films are just there to give Raimi something on which to hang his set pieces. Not that this is a bad thing. In this film, particularly, the lack of a complex plot makes the terror seem all the more real. The bad stuff just happens in a manner of fact fashion, without a lot of exposition or character development. What also makes it terrifying is how unadulterated the evil is in this film. These aren’t misunderstood demons that can be reasoned with. These are straight up evil monsters. Like the Joker, they just want to watch the world burn, all while swallowing your soul.  Adding to this, there’s also the claustrophobia of it all primarily taking place within the cabin. The cabin basically becomes the threshold of hell, with no escape in sight.

The only set piece, if you can call it that, which takes place outside the cabin is the infamous “tree rape” scene,” where Cheryl is, you guessed it, raped by a tree. Raimi has said he regrets putting in that scene and some critics have accused the scene of being misogynistic. While the scene is unsettling, it’s also pretty imaginative, in a sadistic way, and is a truly surreal “is this really happening” sequence, putting us in the mindset of Cheryl. The scene also establishes how the female characters will be the most victimized of the characters. In fact, with the exception of Scott at the end of the film, it’s the women that become possessed by demons. It’s quite startling to see these women in demon makeup, their identities and beauty stripped away. The demons torture Ash and Scott by using the women they are closest to against them. In one memorable sequence, the demon who has possessed Cheryl, and who is trapped in the fruit cellar, uses Cheryl’s real voice to trick Ash in to trying to free her. There’s also the scene when Linda becomes possessed, laughing at Ash. Ash tries to stop her by punching her, which demonstrates how the demon is also turning Ash against his girlfriend. She doesn’t stop laughing and it’s one of those moments in the film that really puts us in the place of its characters. It showcases how angry and desperate one would become in a situation like this. It’s also very saddening when Linda become un-possessed, only to revert back later. Through Ash’s relationship with Linda, Raimi infuses emotion in to the film, giving some dramatic weight to grotesque material.

Eventually, Ash is left by himself to fight the demons. I like when films like this, and there are plenty in the horror genre, end with one person last standing. Dramatically it makes sense, and increases the tension, as well as putting us in Ash’s mindset. How would we fight something so uncompromisingly evil?

I mentioned earlier that one could find a comparison between the “Alien” franchise and this franchise in regards to their central protagonists. What I meant was that in the original “Alien,” Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) was part of an ensemble but by the end of the film became the last woman standing against the alien, and in the later films, even with other ensemble players around her, Weaver became the main protagonist, as defining an element of that franchise as the alien. With the “Evil Dead” franchise, Ash also started as an ensemble piece, only for the film to end, like “Alien,” with Ash as the last man standing. And like Ripley, in the subsequent two sequels Ash became the central character, with “Evil Dead II” being, for long stretches of time, a one man show. Ash, like Ripley, came to define the franchise. Some have even said that without the character of Ash, or Bruce Campbell playing him, the remake won’t really be “Evil Dead.”

It took some time for “The Evil Dead” to find a distributor. The film was nevertheless shown at the Redford Theatre in Detroit, where Campbell had watched movies as a kid. Raimi eventually met Irvin Shapiro, who had distributed George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” and other horror films. After viewing the film, Shapiro expressed interest in distributing it. Shapiro allowed Raimi to show the film out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival, of which Shapiro was a founder. Author Stephen King was at this showing of the film and in an article published later about King’s favourite horror films, it was listed as number 5. This piqued the interest of New Line Cinema, who ended up distributing the film. Another interesting tidbit: one of the editors on this film was Joel Coen, who, with his brother Ethan, would go on to direct classics such as “Fargo” and “The Big Lebowski.”

After The Evil Dead” performed surprisingly well at the box office, the next film Raimi directed was 1985’s “Crimewave,” a crime comedy with a script by the Coens and Raimi. Shapiro suggested Raimi do an “Evil Dead” sequel next. The idea of a sequel was thrown around while the first film was being shot. Supposedly Raimi wanted to do a medieval version of the story, which would become the basis for “Army of Darkness.” During the production of “Crimewave,” Raimi and old friend Scott Spiegel started work on a script for the second “Evil Dead.”

After “Crimewave” was met with poor box office and reviews, Raimi didn’t want another flop on his hands, so he made “Evil Dead II.” Now, with sequels, especially horror movie sequels, the rule of diminishing returns comes in to play, as the same plots are recycled with little or no reinvention of the universe. With “Evil Dead II,” Raimi solved this problem by using the same basic concept of the original but shifted genres, going from the pure horror of the original to a hybrid of horror and slapstick comedy. I think this shift in genre came to define people’s image of this franchise, as well as Raimi’s personal aesthetic. “Evil Dead II” ranks amongst the best horror sequels ever made, as well as the most imaginative. Like the first film, this is a film of set-pieces, and the best parts of this film involve Campbell putting on a one man show, with Ash fighting to stay alive in the cabin, facing off against his undead girlfriend Linda, as well as his demon possessed hand. The possessed hand sequence is probably the most memorable in the film. It’s remarkable and hilarious to see how convincing Campbell is at pretending his hand is possessed. When he flips himself over completely, all you can do is applaud. Then there’s the moment where Ash uses a chainsaw to cut off his hand, laughing manically as he does so. I love how Campbell isn’t afraid to throw himself in to this bizarre material and isn’t afraid to look silly.

Unfortunately, the other characters in the film aren’t nearly as entertaining. I like Sarah Berry as Annie Knowby, the daughter of the professor on the recording from the first film, who has come to the cabin with new pages from the Book of the Dead. She feels like the most interesting of the new characters, and one that makes sense. Jake and his wife Bobby Joe on the other hand feel very random, though I find it funny that Bobby Joe was supposedly inspired by the actress Holly Hunter, with whom Raimi was living with, along with the Coens and Frances McDormand. Professor Ed Getley (Richard Domeier), who was an associate of Professor Knowby and Annie’s boyfriend, isn’t that memorable or essential either. I do like some of the emotional beats involving Annie and her mother, who had become possessed by a demon. The demon tricks Annie by appearing like the normal version of her mother, singing “Mama’s going to buy you a mockingbird.” It’s a nice call back to the original where the demon that possessed Cheryl pretended to be the real Cheryl.

There’s a sequence where Ash is possessed and is chasing Annie around the cabin. When he sees the necklace he gave to Linda, he gets control of himself and has to tell Annie that he’s okay, even as she tries to kill him. It’s the moment that establishes that these two characters are finally going to come together to fight evil. Then comes the iconic moment where the Ash everyone knows and love comes in to being. He attaches a chainsaw to his arm and with shot gun in hand he simply says, “Groovy.” The film ends with Annie opening a portal in time, sucking the evil in to it. Ash gets sucked in to it as well, being transported back to 1300 A.D, where he is hailed as the one who will destroy the demons. The image of Ash with his chainsaw hand was foreshadowed earlier in a page of the Book of the Dead- suggesting one of those time travel paradoxes movies love to employ.

This cliff-hanger ending can be viewed as Raimi’s hopeful set-up for the medieval version of Evil Dead tale he wanted to do. In 1992, he got his wish, making “Army of Darkness.” If you go in to Army of Darkness expecting a hardcore horror film like the original, or a blend of horror and comedy as with the second, you may walk away disappointed, especially if you didn’t like the shift towards slapstick comedy in “Evil Dead II.” “Army of Darkness” is not really a horror film. It’s more of a spoof of medieval period pieces, and definitely plays up the slapstick comedy of the second film. I had a lot of fun with film, and again admired Campbell’s skill at physical comedy. The sequence where fights off mini-Ashes, with references Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” is quite funny, as is his face to face confrontation with Evil Ash. “Good. Bad. I’m the one with the gun,” Ash says as he blows him away.

Out of all the “Evil Dead” films, this film seems to give Ash more of an arc, as he goes from a guy who just wants to get home, to a man who steps up and becomes a hero. I do sometimes wish these films were a bit longer, to flesh out more of the characters. Still, this film is very entertaining and I definitely see how Peter Jackson was inspired by the final battle in this film when he was filming the Helm’s Deep Sequences in “The Lord of the Rings: The Towers.”

There’s been talk of Raimi and Campbell possibly doing another “Evil Dead,” which may eventually tie in to the remake. After seeing the original films, I wouldn’t mind seeing Ash again. He’s a great character, one that no one but Campbell can touch. The remake looks quite darker than the last two “Evil Dead” films, so it’d be interesting how Ash’s personality would fit in to the style of the new films. But if they could make it work, it’d sure be groovy.

Andrew Davies
I'm a tiny Canadian who loves movies and William Shakespeare, and am an aspiring actor. I'm also a graduate of the Journalism Program at King's College as well as a grauate of Dalhousie University.

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  • Liam

    Well done sir!