The early 1980s were a revolutionary time for horror. Franchises were being established that still continue to this day. Some of the most iconic horror films of all time were released during this period and many of them were major studio releases. This was the most successful period for big budget studio horror that audiences would ever see. Poltergeist (1982) was a huge hit, Creepshow (1982) sold enough tickets to spawn a sequel and even if features like The Thing (1982) weren’t beloved at the time, they went on to become some of the most cherished pictures in genre history.
During all of this, a group of friends fresh out of film school were working on something that—like many horror films of the era—would completely change the course of the genre. They had no money, no stars, virtually nothing to work with but an endless amount of passion and creativity. With that and little else, Sam Raimi and his cast and crew made The Evil Dead (1981).
Originally shown in the US in 1981, it sat finished for a few years, slowly gaining traction before it actually saw a wide release in 1983, and yet it still seemed to come out of nowhere to take the world by storm. People weren’t prepared for The Evil Dead. But that’s exactly what Raimi designed it to be: something you weren’t prepared for, something you didn’t even know how to react to.
Like many of the most classic horror movies, the premise is extremely simple. Friends go to a cabin in the woods and accidentally unleash demons when they play a recording reading from an ancient, evil book. At the same time, it plays on tropes of the time in interesting ways. Most movies like this rely on suspense and dread, showing almost nothing, yet Evil Dead is an exercise in excess. Most feature a female protagonist, yet Evil Dead features a male survivor—it seems right to call Ash that, as he doesn’t reach “hero” status until the second or maybe even third installments of the franchise.
Ash is not even a traditional male protagonist in the original Evil Dead. The only characteristic that really stems from any specific maleness in the narrative is his relationship with Linda. Even then, his relationship with his sister, Cheryl, feels much deeper. He’s even given a gender-neutral name. Ash is, of course, short for Ashley, and it is the name his sister regularly calls him by. While this could all be interpreted as simply one of Sam Raimi’s rules of horror filmmaking (“You must taste blood to be a man”) there’s nothing that Ash goes through in the film that is explicitly, stereotypically male in nature.
We leave him in an almost identical place to where we leave Sally Hardesty at the end of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Ash, at least in the original film, is a feminized male hero, and arguably one of the best.
The film as a whole is a tonal roller coaster. Because of that, people still argue about what it even is. Some insist it’s meant to be funny, some insist it’s supposed to be dead-serious. But Evil Dead—as with most good movies—is never just one thing. It’s not even one kind of horror.
The tagline promises “the ultimate experience in grueling terror” and that’s almost exactly what it is. The Evil Dead promises every kind of horror, every kind of scare, all at once. That should be impossible to pull off. But even with its limited resources, the movie goes for broke and it works. One of the things that’s best about The Evil Dead, one of the things that cements its place as a classic is that it is moves seamlessly between every kind of scare, and you never know which kind is coming next. It’s scary for so many reasons.
First, there’s the traditional isolation of the characters. They want to leave, but they can’t. The bridge has collapsed and they’re stranded. Then, there’s the evil itself. It’s invisible. You never know when it’s coming, it could get inside you at any moment. If it doesn’t, it will possess those closest to you and you’ll be forced to murder your friends and family to save your own life. Jump scares, slow burn moments, creepy nursery rhymes, buckets of gore, all of them right after the other. It never lets up. There’s a purity to the rawness of The Evil Dead. This is horror stripped to the essentials, skinned down to the bone.
Most fans still look at the film and see it as something unintentionally funny. It doesn’t have the rabid fan-base of the second or third—or, now, the TV series. Despite its reputation in the horror community, the Evil Dead brand has affected the mainstream, where people are largely dismissive of the original. They see the smallness, they see the lack of money. The feature prominently displays those things, no doubt. But for a debut feature, it masks inexperience impossibly well.
It’s a technical achievement made even more impressive by how little it had to work with. From the opening shot of a sinister force moving through the woods, to the last shot of the camera zooming toward Bruce Campbell’s screaming face, The Evil Dead is a manic, energetic thing. It continues to prove that some of the best horror films are created with limited resources that force the creators to be innovative and imaginative. During this era especially, that often led to pushing the boundaries of what was expected of the genre, as well as what was even thought possible. Raimi and Co. didn’t set out to make something better than the horror films that had preceded Evil Dead, but they expected to make something different. And in that, they certainly succeeded.
Of course, in its wake we’ve seen features like Demons (1985) and Night of the Demons (1988) and countless more that have clearly taken influence from The Evil Dead. That makes perfect sense, too. It’s a simple movie, but it’s an energetic, visceral powerhouse of a feature that almost screams to be imitated, the same way The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Halloween (1978) had done before it. It’s a simple formula, but one that works.
It works so well, in fact, that the film is still recognized as one of the biggest, most iconic horror movies of all time. Over thirty years later and we have a television series with the same star and most of the same creative team. This is a phenomenon that will never go away. Like the demonic force at its center, The Evil Dead has taken root in our culture. It cannot be exorcized. The effect it has is simple, no different from listening to an old, ratty tape recorder in the basement of a secluded cabin: see this movie only once, and it will stick with you forever.