In terms of horror formula, The Evil Dead is as elemental as they come: College kids plus a cabin in the woods plus demons equals gore. So it’s ironic that the movie has been talked to death as much as it has, over the course of 40 years of interviews and reunions (and panels, and conventions, and documentary retrospectives...).
We even know what ingredients went into the recipe for the film’s DIY splatter effects: Karo syrup, spoiled milk, creamed corn, oatmeal, snakes, cockroaches, marshmallow guts, and Alpo dog food. These substances were all sprayed in the faces of the film’s cast of fresh young Michiganders, who months earlier piled into 19-year-old director Sam Raimi’s 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 and drove to Morristown, Tennessee, for what was supposed to be a fun shoot.
Cue the horror-trailer voice saying, “They were wrong.”
The legend of The Evil Dead has been gleefully spread by many, and none so enthusiastically as Bruce Campbell, the film’s star. Campbell has made a career out of his role as wisecracking final boy Ashley “Ash” Williams, who Campbell officially hung up after the cancellation of Ash Vs. Evil Dead in 2018.
Still, the character continues to follow Campbell around: Next month, he’s starring in a movie called Black Friday, where he plays the cheerfully dopey, bow tie-clad manager of a toy store fighting zombies on the biggest shopping day of the year—shades of Ash and S-Mart, our hero’s place of employment in Army Of Darkness. And just in case you miss that connection, the movie helpfully uses the Evil Dead font on its poster.
Both Campbell and Raimi have an instinctual talent for the art of exaggeration, adding details to some of their well-worn war stories and outright making others up for their own amusement. The apocryphal tale of Raimi breaking Campbell’s jaw by riding a motorcycle through the front door of the cabin trying to get one of the film’s famous “demon cam” shots is, for better or for worse, not true.
What is true is that The Evil Dead was the first professional onscreen credit for one Joel Coen, who worked as an assistant editor on the film. Joel and his brother Ethan would later copy Raimi, Campbell, and producer Rob Tapert’s method of making a proof-of-concept short to fundraise for their debut feature, Blood Simple.
Some things about The Evil Dead and its lore—Raimi’s gleeful sadism towards his actors, the general lack of concern for safety on the set—have not aged very well at all. And while the film’s infamous “tree rape” scene, where co-star Ellen Sandweiss is attacked by an animated tree limb, didn’t go over well at the time, it looks even worse now. Raimi has spent the last four decades expressing his regret for filming it, however, so at least a lesson was learned.
Watching The Evil Dead now, it’s difficult not to be influenced by the series’ later turn into comedy, reading between the lines of the “ultimate experience in grueling terror” in order to find the comedic intent.
And you don’t have to dig very deep: Three Stooges superfan Raimi giggles and does the Stooges’ signature eye poke throughout contemporary interviews, and he called the stand-ins who lent forearms to be chopped and feet to be severed “fake Shemps” after the prematurely departed Shemp Howard. But the truth is that the Looney Tunes of it all didn’t fully emerge until Evil Dead 2, which turns Ash into Bugs Bunny, and Army Of Darkness, which plays like a Ray Harryhausen film as directed by Tex Avery.
From 1979 to 1981, though, the creative team was more concerned with one-upping the drive-in movies they saw every weekend in suburban Detroit, movies they felt didn’t live up to their outrageous potential.
As Campbell put it on an episode of The Incredibly Strange Film Show in 1988, “We didn’t want to create a movie that would cause kids to have nightmares. That wasn’t the goal. It was just to give them a roller coaster ride for 90 minutes and they could go home and forget about it.” But despite their intentions, the film was not so easily forgotten.
The first public screening of The Evil Dead took place at the the Redford theater in Detroit on October 15, 1981, under the film’s original title, Book Of The Dead. (Other titles thrown around at one point or another: The Evil Dead Men And The Evil Dead Women, Fe-Monsters, Blood Flood, and These Bitches Are Witches.) As a tribute to another one of his heroes, ballyhoo king William Castle, Raimi hired an ambulance to sit outside the theater in hopes of attracting attention. It worked.
As Campbell recalled in his autobiography If Chins Could Kill, the floor seats at the theater were reserved for a loose gathering of local dentists and doctors and accountants, all of whom had each coughed up a few grand towards funding for the film. The balcony, meanwhile, was crammed with local teenagers, who hooted and hollered and talked back at the screen throughout the film. As Campbell tells The Columbus Dispatch, “There was a lot more laughter than we thought… we were very happy about that.”
The investors were less pleased. As Raimi says on the director’s commentary for the 1998 DVD of the film, after the screening an investor stormed up to him, feeling that he had been misled: ““I’m very upset. I thought you boys said you’re making a horror picture, not a comedy!” the irate backer supposedly said. This is Raimi talking, so who knows how accurate that quote really is. But the film’s eventual cult status, which allowed those small-time lenders to recoup their investment several times over, presumably soothed any hurt feelings.
When The Evil Dead finally limped over the finish line in 1981 after two grueling years of stops and starts, the post-Halloween slasher genre was booming. (You can tell it was post-Halloween by how many films from 1981 are named after holidays: Graduation Day, My Bloody Valentine, Bloody Birthday, Happy Birthday To Me...) The tone for the decade had already been set by Friday The 13th the year before. And The Evil Dead does share a certain mean-spiritedness (and woodsy setting) with Sean Cunningham’s summer-camp slasher.
What sets it apart from those films is twofold: First, it shares a demented sense of humor with the work of Joe Dante, whose The Howling came out in March of that year. But its effects style is more in line with the work of Italian horror director Lucio Fulci.
Both Fulci and Raimi’s films have what Raimi has called a “show everything” attitude, lingering on shots of bodies slowly dissolving in acid like putrefying bath bombs—in the case of Fulci’s The Beyond, which hit American theaters in 1981—or crumbling into chunks of brightly colored play-doh, in the case of The Evil Dead’s famous stop-motion Deadite breakdown.
The Evil Dead’s genius is in combining all of those elements into one film. With a faster pace and better sense of humor than the plodding, deathly serious Fulci, and more voluminous gore than the horror-comedies coming out of Hollywood at the time, The Evil Dead stood out for its propulsive intensity and demented cruelty as well as its elevated craft.
Raimi’s fluid, expressionistic camera work continues to inspire: Uncountable numbers of filmmakers, both amateur and professional, have since copied the film’s famous “shaky cam” effect, achieved by mounting a camera to a 2x4 and, in Raimi’s words, “run[ning] like hell.”
Looking back with decades of hindsight, some of the makeups in The Evil Dead look rather quaint—charmingly so, of course. There’s a handcrafted quality to the light, feathered lines drawn onto Betsy Baker’s face when her character finally succumbs to the Deadites, or the spiderweb that was sketched across her ankle frame-by-frame as the infection spreads through her body.
What gives The Evil Dead the power it still has to this day is not the effects, but that intangible third ingredient: The meanness of it all. From their first appearance on screen, the Deadites had personality, taunting Ash, Linda, and their friends with playground chants and roaring commands.
These are backed by infernal giggling or screeching animal noises, depending on what effect these bloodthirsty demons are going for at any particular moment. Transforming back into Ash’s departed friends, putting on sobbing, sympathetic voices to torture him—a bit Raimi nicked from The Exorcist—adds to the cruelty. But the scariest thing about the Deadites is that they just. keep. coming. back.
The movie wouldn’t stay dead, either: After being turned down by every distributor in New York—including Friday The 13th studio Paramount Pictures, which rejected it on grounds of “excessive violence”—The Evil Dead went on to screen at the Cannes market in May 1982.
Not the festival, mind you, the market. Taking place in the same French seaside town as the more prestigious Cannes Film Festival down the street, in the ’80s the Cannes market was a sleazy and cutthroat place where, as Joe Bob Briggs describes it, “all the lowlifes of the world gathered.”
The Cannes market is where schlock kingpins like Menahem Golen and Yoram Globus of the Cannon Film Group and Roger Corman of New World Pictures went to peddle their latest projects, some of which were sold based solely on the strength of their poster art. (Pre-sales on international distribution were then used to fund the film’s production.) These were all from disreputable genres like erotica and horror, which, as Campbell puts it, was “one rung above porno” at the time.
But while The Evil Dead still wasn’t able to get U.S. distribution at its Cannes market screening—it was picked up for the U.K., which we’ll get into shortly—it did attract one high-profile fan whose endorsement made all the difference.
Stephen King was in the audience, and wrote a glowing review of the movie for Twilight Zone magazine, calling it “the most ferociously original horror film of 1982.” That quote, in a slightly modified form, still adorns the movie’s theatrical poster. It’s not the only nice thing King had to say, however: He also called it “a black rainbow of horror,” and praised Raimi as “a genius.” The article ends with King asking, “Any takers?”
One group that took The Evil Dead seriously was the MPAA, which slapped the film with a dreaded “X” rating for “substantial graphic horror violence and gore.”
This was despite the effects team mixing up the colors being poured onto and spat out by the actors to include white, blue, and black instead of just red. This technique sometimes works, as filmmakers can argue that it’s not all blood being shown on the screen. But here, the sheer volume of fluids was enough to trump that line of thinking.
That judgement wasn’t handed down until 1994, and The Evil Dead wears the scarlet letter of an NC-17 to this day. The film was released unrated in its original theatrical run, as its U.S. distributor, then-fledgling New Line Pictures, thought that an “X” would kill the movie entirely.
But distributing an unrated film had its own set of challenges: National newspapers like The Los Angeles Times insisted on screening the film before they would agree to accept advertising for it, and some papers refused to run ads at all. And TV advertising? Forget it!
In the end, however, it turned out to be a blessing, as the lack of media attention surrounding the film, combined with ecstatic word of mouth and raves from those critics who did write about it, only built its legend.
The Evil Dead had the aura of something forbidden, and having to trek out to a drive-in or an inner-city grindhouse to see the film added a transgressive kick for suburban teenagers curious about this terrifying, disgusting horror movie they’d been hearing about. And audiences in those theaters that would play the film loved it: The Evil Dead was met with much enthusiasm on 42nd Street, then the trash cinema capitol of the world.
Meanwhile, a similar phenomenon was occurring in the U.K., where the British Board of Film Classification added The Evil Dead to its infamous “video nasties” list after demanding extensive cuts in 1982. Ironically, it was the response from audiences in England that persuaded New Line to pick it up in the U.S. in the first place.
Distributor Palace Pictures had bought the British rights to the film at that famous Cannes market appearance, and The Evil Dead was met with great box office and crazed fervor during its initial U.K. run in the summer of 1982. That, of course, made its subsequent unavailability on home video all the more seductive. In a making-of documentary about the film, director Edgar Wright remembers: “when I was in college somebody had it on VHS, and it was a crappy third-generation version, which only added to the scariness of it.”
Once people could actually see it, The Evil Dead’s influence traveled far. In 2008, it traveled all the way to Bollywood with Bach Ke Zara, a loose remake that recasts Ash as a feathery-haired tank top bro in the Ashton Kutcher mode and inserts music videos influenced by American teen pop and hip-hop into the gonzo undead action. In the early ’00s, the film was cited as a formative influence by directors like Wright and Eli Roth, who packed up his own scrappy crew and set out to his own remote cabin to shoot his debut horror feature, Cabin Fever.
Since then, the film has become so embedded in our collective consciousness that when a group of kids pulls up to an abandoned shack, we all know exactly what’s about it happen.
Drew Goddard played on this association in his 2011 horror-satire The Cabin In The Woods, in which the titular building’s layout is remarkably similar to that of the original Evil Dead cabin in Tennessee. Juan Of The Dead director Alejandro Brugués did, too, using an Evil Dead-esque clapboard cabin as the launching pad for his meta sci-fi/horror short “The Thing In The Woods,” featured in the 2018 anthology film Nightmare Cinema.
In short, every time a director fills a fire hose with fake blood, Sam Raimi earns another halo in horror-movie heaven. And although the original team has since tapped out, the Evil Dead franchise lives on.
Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez took the reins for a 2013 remake of the film, which took the original’s “more is more” approach to blood and guts and dialed it up as far as it could go. A fifth official Evil Dead film, Evil Dead Rise, just wrapped in New Zealand earlier this week; that film is helmed by Lee Cronin, who made sure to mention the “6,500 litres of blood” spilled during the production process in a tweet announcing the completion of shooting.
But while The Evil Dead has long since gone Hollywood, the original film’s greatest legacy is its DIY spirit. Made completely outside of the system, The Evil Dead is a reminder that anyone can make a movie. All you need is persistence, ingenuity, one good-looking friend who’s willing to perform pratfalls, and all the Karo syrup the local grocer has to offer.
When you pack up your dad’s station wagon for the journey, however, take this tip from the cast of The Evil Dead, who had to wash their hands with water from a coffee pot when they put in the white contact lenses that transformed them into Deadites: Bring some wet naps.