For horror fans, Halloween is the most important day of the year. To celebrate horror’s official holiday, ADV presents the 31 Days of Halloween: each day in October, we will suggest a film or film series that we consider essential viewing during the season of fear. This isn’t a “Top 31 List” or a countdown of the “Best” or “Scariest” horror films out there, just a rundown of films that are sure to creep you out or otherwise put you in the Halloween spirit. Enjoy!
With STARZ’s new television series Ash vs. Evil Dead debuting on Halloween night, there is no better time to indulge in a viewing of the original The Evil Dead trilogy. Halloween is about about fun and frights, and no series captures that spirit better than Sam Rami’s classic horror-comedy series, splattered with equal measures of gore and guffaws. If Bruce Campbell and his Boomstick can’t get you in the Halloween spirit, than nothing will.
The original The Evil Dead was a low-budget sleeper hit released in 1981 to rave reviews, directed and written by a 19-year old Sam Raimi, who dropped out of college with his childhood friend Bruce Campbell so that they could make the film together. Campbell stars in the film as Ashley J. Williams, known to his friends as Ash, the series’ extremely reluctant protagonist. In this first film, a teenaged Ash and his friends are trapped in a remote cabin deep in the Tennessee woods, beset by an ancient evil unleashed from an ancient Sumerian book of the dead. One by one the friends are possessed by the otherworldly evil, resulting in death, dismemberment, and the geysering of an unprecedented amount of gore. If the set-up for this movie sounds familiar, it is because this movie has spawn an untold number of imitators and knock-offs- including its own sequel (more on that in a bit). But while today the story might be treading on familiar ground, at the time it was released nothing like it had ever been seen before. After seeing its debut at Cannes, Stephen King became a vocal supporter for the film, a fact that has been attributed to part of the film’s great success.
The reason that the film works so well is the passion, energy, and creativity that went into its production. Sam Raimi, despite having to produce the film on an extremely shoestring budget, putting much of its production costs on his own credit card, had a unique image of how the film should be shot, inventing new and original methods to give the production a gritty, organic, weirdly supernatural feel. The most infamous of these methods involved strapping a video camera to a dirt bike and driving it at high speeds through the filming area, creating a “demon-eye view” as the evil bears down on the teens. The film drips with otherworldly atmosphere and menace, in part because of its grainy, gritty, slightly off-kilter look. Atmosphere isn’t the only thing it drips with, as hundreds of gallons of fake blood made from karo syrup were spilled in its production. The film was so brutal and bloody that at the time of its release it was given an X-rating, putting it in the same category as pornography.
By today’s standards, some of the special effects now come across as laughable, relying heavily on outdated methods such as stop-motion animation that can be hard to take seriously by an audience reared on cutting-edge CGI and big-budget productions. One sequence, involving the rapid transformation of a human head, now induces laughs, when 30 years ago it induced screams. Another famous sequence, involving the stop-motion dancing of a dismembered corpse, now feels almost like something out of A Nightmare Before Christmas– it is strangely quaint and charming rather than terrifying. As can probably be expected from a movie made by what are essentially teenagers, the acting isn’t anything to write home about either (sorry Bruce).
That isn’t to say that The Evil Dead has entirely lost its power to scare though. Filmed on 16-mm that was converted to 35-mm, the film retains a gritty, earthy, organic feel that is impossible for modern film makers to replicate, something that goes a long way towards creating the film’s unsettling atmosphere. The sound design, lighting, and innovative camera work also contribute to the feeling of otherworldly menace. And though the special effects are dated, some of the scenes will never lose their power to disturb and frighten audiences- the tree-assault scene, for example, will forever be seared into the collective memory of the horror genre.
The interesting thing about The Evil Dead franchise is that it got progressively weirder and funnier with each film, moving further and further away from the film’s gritty, pure horror roots (and now I’m thinking about the tree sequence again… shudder). Normally, this would be seen as a disappointing dilution of the horror of the original by fans of the genre, but somehow, with this series, it works. The Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn feels like it should have instead been subtitled The Evil Dead II: Ash Meets the Three Stooges. Released in 1987, The Evil Dead II is in some ways a remake of the original with a higher budget and production values, but with with strong elements of dark humor thrown into the mix. At the same time it is a pseudo-sequel: in this version of events, Ash and his girlfriend Linda inadvertently unleash the evil of the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis (the book of the dead from the first film) while on a romantic getaway at the cabin, by playing a tape containing incantations from the book read by Professor Knowby, the cabin’s original owner and the discoverer of the book. Things go south really quickly, and soon a shell-shocked and highly disturbed Ash is joined in the cabin by Knowby’s daughter Annie and her friends, who suspect Ash of having murdered Knowby due to his psychotic behavior. Unfortunately, Annie brought more pages of the Necronomicon with her, and soon the evil is unleashed all over again. Many of the scenes from the first film are recreated in the sequel to much better effect, due to the higher budget, turning it into a kind of sequel and a remake at the same time.
However, this time around Raimi and Campbell, both life-long Three Stooges fans, decided to inject a little humor into the otherwise grim proceedings, and the result is delightful. Though the film is still undoubtably a pure horror film, it is underpinned with pitch-black humor and a bizarre, deranged quirkiness that somehow fits the setting perfectly. The laughing room scene is one perfect example. Another is when Ash is assaulted by his own hand, which had become possessed by the evil and proceeds to beat the crap out of him. Forced to cut off his own hand with a chainsaw, Ash then traps the reanimated appendage under a garage can, weighing it down with a book- Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. These are just a few examples, and can be jarring to those who might have gone into the film expecting unadulterated horror like the first film. But by the time Ash straps a chainsaw to his stump in place of his hand and grabs himself a shotgun for the other hand, it is hard not to get into the madcap spirit of the over-the-top insanity happening on the screen.
Needless to say, by the third film, Army of Darkness, the series had transformed from a pure horror franchise to a horror-comedy to a comedy-horror-action movie. In fact, it was so far removed from the first film that it no longer carries The Evil Dead in its title, though it undoubtably the third film in the franchise. Thrown through a vortex in time by a botched incantation from the Necronomicon, Ash, along with his chainsaw-hand, shotgun, and Oldsmobile, ends up in Mediaeval England, where a group of knight are fighting against the evil unleashed by the Necronomicon. They call those possessed by the evil “Deadites”, and soon Ash is embroiled in a battle to stop an evil that he has once again unleashed. By this time Ash is bitter, borderline insane, battle-hardened, and just plain sick of dealing with the Necronomicon and all its insanity, resulting in a character who is one of the most charmingly uncultured misanthropic meatheads in the history of film. This film pulls out all the stops, tipping over the edge of horror-comedy into the realm of comedy tinged with horror elements. From beginning to end it is fun, absurdly humorous, and one of the most quotable movies of all time. In fact, Duke Nukem stole all his best lines from Ash in this film.
Even though by the end of the trilogy the series had strayed pretty far from its gritty horror roots, this is the one franchise where this actually works, most likely because it was an intentional choice by the film makers rather than becoming increasingly cheesy as a result of lower and lower production values and even less effort on the part of the studios. The escalating wackiness is completely intentional, and as a result it feels like an entirely natural progression for the series. For those who prefer their Evil Dead gritty, humorless, and visceral, Fede Alvarez’s 2013 reboot, just called Evil Dead is an extremely effective and brutal no-nonsense return to the series roots in pure horror (more on that later this month). And for those who are craving more of Bruce Campbell’s brand of wacky, over-the-top demon killing, Ash’s story continues on Halloween night in STARZ new Evil Dead tv series, Ash vs. Evil Dead (stay tuned for our upcoming coverage of both of these permutations of the Evil Dead franchise). Either way, nothing will put you in the mood for Halloween faster than a back-to-back viewing of the original Evil Dead trilogy. Come get some.