It’s an old story: A group of young people go out into the forest with the best intentions, and a few hours later, they’re covered in blood and gore, and going for each other’s eyes. By now, The Evil Dead has been so picked apart by fans that it’s sometimes hard to separate the backstory from what happened onscreen. Thirty years ago, writer-director Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, and a host of others risked life and limb in the Tennessee woods to make a movie that would teach the world the dangers of reading aloud from anything with “of the Dead” in the title. In the decades since, Evil Dead has spawned two sequels, jumpstarted Raimi and Campbell’s careers, and become a cultural touchstone for horror fans in the video age. It’s been released on multiple formats, and been theatrically screened at midnight showings across the country. It’s practically an institution now.
But how does it hold up as an actual movie? Not bad at all, really. There’s no plot beyond the broadest clichés: idiots wander in the wild and die horribly, rinse, repeat. The characters barely exist. Hal Delrich is the joking asshole best friend. Betsy Baker is the sweet girlfriend. Ellen Sandweiss is the sister who does stupid things and suffers horribly. And a young, gangly Bruce Campbell holds it all together, not so much a hero as the bystander who happened to pull the long straw. For the first 20 minutes or so, it’s easy to wonder what the big deal is. The dialogue is flat, the performances charmingly unpolished at best. But there’s something going on here; the camera angles and editing have a manic wit that’s unusual for low-budget slash-and-screamers, and there’s an intensity to the proceedings that promises carnage down the road.
Then the carnage comes, and when it does, it delivers on all promises and more, with a parade of gushing wounds, demonic howls, and oceans of gore which approach the line of good taste, toe it, then gleefully dance across. It’s easy now to watch Dead and see the kind of filmmaker Raimi would someday become; it’s also easy to see just how much of Campbell’s appeal relies on the fact that underneath all his swagger and bravado lies the best of all good sports. Even without the foreshadowing, though, the movie is a pulpy, gruesome treat—often artless, occasionally draggy, and more than a little tasteless, but still charming in its bullheaded determination to bludgeon the audience with every trick in the book, and a few more besides.
Key features: The world wasn’t clamoring for a high-def release of Evil Dead, but the movie looks great—grainy and grimy in all the right ways, and the 1.85:1 enhanced version makes good use of a widescreen television. The two-disc set also includes featurettes, trailers, and a new commentary track with Raimi, Campbell, and producer Robert Tapert that does a great job laying out the difficulties ahead for first-time filmmakers.