I enjoy all of the Evil Dead titles but Sami Raimi's original flick, about five college students vacationing at a cabin in the woods who unwittingly unleash a bunch of demons and get themselves possessed one by one, remains my favorite. It's frightening and it's fun. There's a gleeful, manic energy that permeates Raimi's debut feature and his filmmaking choices are incredibly creative and appropriate. The Evil Dead also introduced horror movie lovers to the brilliant Bruce Campbell and, even though it's the sequel that cemented Campbell's cult status, I have a soft spot for the more traditional "Final Girl" performance Campbell gives in this first film. And the fact that The Evil Dead was shot on location in my own back yard, in Morristown, is a tremendous source of pride for me as an East Tennessean.
There's very little that needs to be said about the plot of The Evil Dead; it's straight-forward and basic and, given all the imitators over the years, it's more or less become horror cliche at this point. Five Michigan State University students, siblings Ash and Cheryl Williams, Ash's girlfriend Linda, his friend Scotty and Scotty's girlfriend Shelly, venture into the remote backwoods of Tennessee for a little R&R at a rustic, isolated cabin. The friends discover a Book of the Dead in the cabin's basement, along with audio recordings of spells and incantations that, when played (unbeknownst to them), release the demonic forces within the forest. Once the recordings are played and the demons unleashed Cheryl, Shelly, Linda and Scotty become possessed one after the other by the evil entities, leaving Ash to fend them off and fight to survive the night with his life, and his soul, intact.
For a movie made thirty one years ago The Evil Dead holds up incredibly well. There's a creepy, unnerving quality to the location which is heightened by the camerawork, particularly the eerie tracking shots that race through the forest and are meant to represent to the demons' point of view. Shot for peanuts, the low-budget movie has a crafty, homemade quality that enhances both its horrifying nature and its charm. It's the etsy of the horror genre. Even the more outlandish and unbelievable effects towards the end of the movie, the stuff that looks like outtakes from an 80s-era Peter Gabriel video, still hold up because they are so wonderfully odd. And Bruce Campbell is truly delightful and lovable as Ash, the movie's very reluctant hero. His reaction shots throughout the story are hilarious. He seems less afraid and more repulsed and exasperated by each terrifying turn of events. But there's genuine warmth and affection in Campbell's performance as well, which keeps the character from backsliding into snarky, ironic parody.
The small-scale, intimate nature of The Evil Dead makes the terror feel more real and immediate. It also makes this movie endlessly endearing. This one's a real gem.