Friday, 5 July 2013

The Evil Dead (1981) - review

1981 (USA)

Contains spoilers.

If I'm honest I'd not been looking forward to this. Not the film, even though it's been the best part of twenty years since I'd last seen it, I was having trouble with whether this had a place on a zombie film list.

It seems I was worrying about nothing. Not only was the film everything I remembered and more but I do think the possessed kids in the cabin in the woods definitely tick a lot of the right boxes albeit if on a different tangent to what we've mostly seen before.

Let's cut to the chase. The Evil Dead is one of the most influential horror films of all time for a reason. The ridiculously young writer and director Sam Raimi aided by Bruce Campbell who plays the now iconic Ash Williams looked at the crop of horror films abusing the drive in theatre market and fashioned a ridiculously ambitious, totally over the top film of their own. With a tiny, when compared to modern efforts, budget they got everything right with sumptuous directing, perfect casting, exquisite performances, chilling sound track and genuinely frightening make-up and effects; it really is the perfect blend of horror, gore, tension and ridiculousness.

Now I'm not going to go on too much about a plot which is now so uniformly recognised it's a trope of its own. Five college students choose to holiday in a run down isolated cabin in the woods. In the cellar they find an ancient Sumerian human skinned  Book of the Dead (the films original title) and a tape recording from the late archaeologist who dug it up. Playing the tape they wake an ancient evil with dire consequences. First the forest awakes attacking and raping Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) who returning to the hut is the first to be possessed. After Ash and Scotty (Hal Delrich) have got her locked in the cellar Shelly (Sarah York) is next to turn followed by Linda (Betsy Baker) with the violence and horror notching up each passing minute.

So they're possessed right? Not zombies? I kind of agree, they're not zombie per se, as Romero envisaged them but the fact they can be sliced, diced and dismembered and still keep going tells me they can survive death and it's not black and white. A zombie is a reanimated corpse and though they don't explicitly die before being possessed there's definitely a lot of ambiguity as to what they actually become. To go alongside their new demoniacally possessed souls they're bodies mutate, wither and change. They don't exactly look alive any more and they're now seemingly able to survive the sort of damage that would certainly kill them if they were. They're also actually pretty similar to the undead from The Return of the Living Dead and you can see the influence. The tape also informs them that the only way to kill the demons for good is total dismemberment, though even like in Return the body parts still show signs of life even after extreme separation. Watching the many extras on the Blu-ray the word zombie also seems to be synonymous with the demons and is used regularly by the cast. Let's be clear though, I don't think this is a zombie-film; it's a horror possession film with zombie-like protagonists.

There's not a lot more that needs to be said. Raimi perfectly understands what a horror film requires. The pacing is perfect from the brief slow build up to the riotous finale. The demons are genuinely unsettling and the gore, effects and staged brutality are brilliantly choreographed just sitting the right side of comedic. Such is the over top violence and effects at times, it can also make watching the film disquieting and uncomfortable and I found myself more than once chuckling just to break the unease. Much is also often said about the relatively poor effects forced on them because of such a limited budget, and the jerky stop motion scenes at the end but I feel it all adds to the charm and the dream like, unreal feeling the film evokes.

In many ways the film shouldn't work. The narrative is simple and formulaic, the effects are amateurish and the whole production is ludicrously over the top and overly ambitious, but somehow Raimi made it all come together. Not a zombie film in the strictest use of the term, The Evil Dead is still a horror film with demon-zombies in and one that has certainly influenced the genre ever since. It's as near the perfect horror film as you're going to get, 10/10.


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