Okay, so maybe the Evil Dead movies aren’t really the best movies ever made. But they are sort of like my generation’s version of the Kennedy assassination: we all remember where we were on that bloody day we first saw Evil Dead.
For me, it was during a blizzard. I was living in Albany, New York, and some friends and I, aware of the coming monstrous snow storm, loaded up at the grocery store with food and beer, and hunkered down in an apartment to wait out the storm together. For entertainment, we had rented three films none of us had ever seen before: The Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2, and Army of Darkness.
Or, as horror geeks know them, the Holy Trinity.
The clouds came in early, blotting out the sun. (Then we will watch in the shade!) In no time at all, there was a complete whiteout, snow whipping around, the wind howling. It may not have been dark as night, but it was pretty darn eerie. We popped in the first DVD, and watched as the cheesy goodness of Sam Raimi’s early masterpiece unfolded before our eyes.
The Evil Dead is dated (1981), super low-budget, and too over-the-top by modern standards to be scary scary, and yet the film works magnificently: not as a so-bad-it’s-good guilty pleasure, but a so-good-it’s-freakin’-awesome cinematic gem. For one thing, it was a very early performance of Bruce Campbell, a man who made his career in cheesy B-productions, and it’s fun to see him young and subdued in this film. Also of note, writer/director Sam Raimi created the formula that was followed by The Blair Witch: a small budget, several game actors, and a good idea can be all you need to create a horror masterpiece. Oh, and luck, too. You need a LOT of luck. Which, fortunately, he had.
The plot is simple: five college kids go on vacation and stay at a cabin the middle of the woods. They stumble upon an evil book, which in the sequels is referred to as The Necronomicon (a name borrowed from horror author H.P. Lovecraft), and, one by one, the kids become possessed. Something awful happens to one of the women, which is so grotesque I can’t bring myself to describe it here, but it’s something only a man would come up with, and if you’ve seen the film you know what I’m talking about. Characters turn into zombie/demons, and begin hacking away at each other.
Only Bruce Campbell’s character, Ash, is not corrupted by the Evil Force that is the antagonist of the film — unusual for horror films, which typically feature a Final Girl as the hero (although, interestingly, his character’s full name is Ashley).
The movie is, for the most part, a splatterfest, filled with blood and guts and gore, oh my. It is sick and twisted and a great deal of fun, and I highly recommend it. But if you’re squeamish like I am, you might want to skip the part where Cheryl is lured into the woods.
At this point in our blizzard-induced film festival, we took a break and shook off the mild heeby-jeebies that one gets from such a film. We all agreed we had allowed ourselves to exist as uncultured mouth-breathers for not having seen this classic film earlier. We joked about the cheesy effects and talked about how Sam Raimi was finally getting the mainstream success he deserved as the director of the Spider-Man movies. Previously, I had been familiar with Sam Raimi only as a name in the credits for Xena: Warrior Princess, and had put two and two together and figured he was related to Ted Raimi, the actor who played Joxer. But I had had no idea just how cool he was. Oh, what lessons I had before me!
We popped more corn, grabbed more beer and put in the next DVD, Evil Dead 2. It’s an interesting film in that’s it’s kind of a sequel, and yet kind of a remake. The first ten or so minutes essentially replayed all the major plot points of the first film, not as a flashback, but as a quickie do-over. It seemed to assume that no one in the audience would have seen the first film. Evil Dead 2 is even more over-the-top than the first film, and in it Bruce Campbell truly begins to embrace his campy style of humor, going so far as hacking off his own demon-posessed hand and attaching a chainsaw in its place.
Both the gore and the comedy is amped way up, as is often the case in horror sequels, and the film ends on an exciting cliffhanger, with Ash being sucked through a portal and ending up in a medieval kingdom, where he’s hailed as a hero for killing a zombie, which the medieval people refer to as a “Deadite.”
One look outside told us we weren’t going anywhere any time soon. Not only were our cars completely covered with snow, so was everything else. It was a white world outside, so we delved into the black world of the third film, Army of Darkness.
Filmed 12 years after the first film and with a greatly increased budget, the film is a wholly different animal than the first two. It takes place entirely in the medieval world, and Ash has become an almost superhumanly cocky caricature of a movie hero. Bruce Campbell chews the scenery with panache, and the wacky slapstick makes for a funny, silly time. There’s no attempt at the scares as with the first two — in fact, this film mostly resembles one of the sillier episodes of Xena. It also boasts one of the best endings in all of film, when Ash returns to the present, and must do battle with another Deadite. It’s the cheesiest of the cheese, but will bring a smile to pretty much anyone’s face with a shred of a sense of humor.
I honestly can’t remember if we left that night or if we all crashed at my friend’s apartment, but I do know we did all get out of there before we had to start chowing down on each other, Alive-style. I have a blizzard to thank for a huge chapter in my horror film education, and I couldn’t be more grateful.
Incidentally, a few years later, I caught Evil Dead: The Musical when it was playing off-Broadway. The show was insanely good — it captured the feel of the first two films, had great, catchy songs, and dumped gallons of blood on the first two rows, known as the “splatter zone.”
The show still tours, and if you can catch it, do yourself a favor and go.
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A number from Evil Dead, The Musical