The 1980s was a golden age for horror movies. In a new series, Crispin O’Toole-Bateman revisits the decade and casts a spotlight on the greatest and goriest the genre had to offer.
I missed The Evil Dead (1981) the first time around. Despite hearing about the film and its impressive levels of gore from my contemporaries at school, my parents weren’t the type to have “that sort of thing” in the house, so it slipped me by until many years later where a combination of Halloween (the event, not the film), a horror-fan wife, and a desire to fill in the gaps meant that I recently got to view this masterpiece with fresh eyes.
So, is The Evil Dead everything it’s cracked up to be?
The pacing of the 80s
It’s easy to forget how much work has been done in the near-40 years since The Evil Dead‘s release to improve on film pacing. Working with an audience today who can barely go thirty seconds without checking a phone, the slower tempo in the early sections of The Evil Dead might be a little off-putting, but give it the time it affords to allow the atmosphere to build and it’s easy to see why Sam Raimi, the talented director behind the film, is so highly thought of in horror circles. Not willing to sacrifice character and world-building, he also doesn’t allow the film to drag at any point, and it ploughs along nicely.
There’s a cabin in the woods
Many people cite The Evil Dead as one of the originators of the cabin-in-the-woods trope and it’s easy to see why. This is a great early example of a group of older teenagers getting trapped in the cabin while the nasty gets them, and it makes Joss Whedon’s later brilliant film of that name something of an homage. It’s not the first though, and Sam Raimi himself has referenced a film from 1970 called Equinox as inspiration.
The cabin trope is great, though, and leads to a fantastic atmosphere. There needs to be a good reason that the friends are trapped of course, and The Evil Dead manages this with a broken bridge (that is neatly introduced in the first scene) and a very scary wood (seriously, you wouldn’t want to go there in the dark!) Nope – they’re not getting out until it lets them.
All about special effects…
There’s no denying, however, that for all the great pacing, classic originality, neat ideas and more, that the special effects don’t truly hold up after nearly four decades. In short, they look pretty poor at times, and there are hundreds of YouTube videos showing you how to create the zombie look better at home with some tissue paper, red paint and PVA glue. It’s a shame, because you really need the zombies to be believable to make this film a horror and not a comedy (even though it’s always been thought of as both), and it fails somewhat here.
During its time, The Evil Dead was famed for its gore and effects, and there’s a lot of the former about with blood-soaked sections that in 1981 would have been downright scream-worthy. It’s a shame then that, to a modern audience, the horrifying faces and putrid skin have about as much visceral shock impact as The Muppets.
And then it’s over
The Evil Dead is a classic 90-minute film. Those seem to have gone by the wayside these days, but back in the 1980s, an hour and a half is what you tended to get for your horror-buying buck. Raimi does well with his hour and a half, and the film is neither over-stretched nor feels cut. You get to the end and you’re satisfied with the outcome of the story and character resolutions. If there’s anything missing it’s only that you don’t get to see Bruce Campbell’s Ash being the chainsaw-wielding maniac he’s famous for – this first instalment in the series predates such insanity, giving you something to come back for.
The Evil Dead in 2020 – conclusion
It’s hard to recommend this outside of its cult status to anyone under 30 just because the effects are so very dated that it’s hard to keep any sort of terror up. That said, it’s a great film and if you are a fan of the 80s gore genre and are yet to see it (or have forgotten it in the years between), then you won’t regret the time.