The Evil Dead, cult horror classic, rated NC-17, The Screen (one show only), 3 chiles Many film careers are birthed in blood. Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, Francis Ford Coppola, Oliver Stone, James Cameron, Curtis Hanson, John Sayles, Johnny Depp, Jennifer Aniston, and Kevin Bacon are among the talents in the movie industry who got early breaks in horror films.
Few of those movies, however, are as bloody as The Evil Dead, which comes to The Screen in a restored 35 mm print at 10:15 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 4. This 1983 celebration of gore, makeup, and more gore launched the careers of director Sam Raimi (best known these days for the Spider-Man franchise) and Bruce Campbell (best known for being Bruce Campbell). If you squint and look closely at the credits, you will even see the name Joel Coen (one of the Coen brothers) listed as an assistant editor.
The reason so many people get their start amid the shrieks and screams of the horror genre is that horror films provide easy ways to show off one’s chops on a low budget. The Evil Dead was shot in the Tennessee woods over a period of about 18 months for less than $400,000. As with other cheapie horror debuts — including George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left, and Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever — the filmmakers managed their financial limitations in part by casting just a handful of unknown actors and staging a majority of the action in one rural house.
It is to this house that five college students travel for a weekend vacation, driving in Raimi’s 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 (which would go on to appear in each of Raimi’s films, including the whole Spider-Man trilogy and, supposedly, as a covered wagon in his 1995 Western The Quick and the Dead). Once at their destination, weird omens begin to suggest that something isn’t right.
All hell breaks loose when they stumble into “The Book of the Dead” and some tape recordings of demonic incantations, which is a surefire way to ruin any vacation. The recordings summon evil spirits who possess the people one by one, turning them into wild, violent demons known as “deadites.” From there, the careful pacing of the film’s first half gives way to lots of fake blood and folks with freaky makeup jumping out and shouting “boo!”
It’s fun stuff, even if such rapid-fire antics can make the film’s scant 85-minute run time feel a touch long. What grabs you with each viewing is the sheer energy on display. One of the more memorable techniques that Raimi employed was his use of handheld camera to invoke the monster’s point of view. That wasn’t a new device in cinema, but Raimi’s camera soars through the woods at odd angles and incredible speeds that still feel fresh and exciting today — even after being co-opted many times since, such as with the smoke monster in Lost. Raimi developed this technique by mounting the camera to a two-by-four and then running through the woods, he and Campbell holding opposite ends of it.
The Evil Dead lacks the Three Stooges-esque slapstick and iconic one-liners (“This is my boomstick!”) of the sequels, 1987’s