All directors have to start somewhere. Some debuts are a little more impressive than others. When Terence Malick sprung the visual poetry and tragic love story of Badlands on the world, he was instantly marked as a man to watch (even if his output is minimal at best). I’m not sure anyone would have expected that the man behind Sugarland Express (Steven Spielberg) could have gone on to make something as magnificent and devastating as Schindler‘s List. Sam Raimi falls more into the Spielberg camp than Malick (not that he ever reached the heights of either). As director of the Spiderman franchise (especially Spiderman 2), Raimi proved that popcorn entertainment could have mass appeal while still touching your heart and mind. It’s a shame then that his debut picture, The Evil Dead, is more of a chance for Raimi to show off his technical prowess (which is apparent beneath the film’s many flaws) than a watchable movie in its own right.
The zombie horror genre (which The Evil Dead inhabits while simultaneously flirting with demon possession films) is rife with movies that are so bad they’re good. Because of how The Evil Dead II embraced an almost slapstick level of humor with its over-the-top gore and campy presentation, it’s enjoyable because it pokes fun at the innately awful nature of the B-movie (in much the same way as the Grindhouse films). If you took Planet Terror seriously, it would be unwatchable garbage, but because it satirizes the genre (while also being a perfectly serviceable B-movie), it works. The original The Evil Dead is more of a case of “It’s so bad, it’s meh.” The acting is a mess (and not always intentionally), the story is a convoluted bit of nonsense, and it fails to be scary whatsoever. However, an always endearing Bruce Campbell and early signs that Sam Raimi was a gifted director keep the film from being a total failure.
Five friends, led by the goofy and charming Ash (Burn Notice‘s Bruce Campbell), decide to go for a weekend away in a remote cabin in the woods .Things move around on there own even as they first arrive and one of the girls is momentarily possessed and forced to draw an eerie book in her bedroom. Yet, they still think it’s a good idea to stay here. After a mysterious force blows open a hatch leading into the basement, the group finds a book (and an audio recording) that appears to be sewn with human flesh. The audio recording reveals a scientist’s research into the occult and how a demon possessed his girlfriend after he read a specific phrase from the evil book (which is then read over the recording) which starts a frenzy of murderous supernatural rage when demons slowly but surely possess Ash’s friends and girlfriend as he has to fight tooth and nail to stay alive and to stay sane.
On virtually every front but Raimi’s camera work, the film is a disaster. There have been some retroactive claims that this was meant to be a horror comedy, but I call bull shit because this is clearly meant to be a somewhat serious horror affair, and nothing about the film is scary. It is certainly as gory as you can imagine (especially impressive considering the film’s miniscule budget), but the supernatural aspects of the film are laughable at best (even the most traumatic moment, a tree raping one of the female characters, is too campy and cheesy to make an impact). The acting is genuinely awful, and although Bruce Campbell shows at least some level of professionalism, it’s painfully obvious that the rest of the cast are just doing Sam Raimi a favor. It doesn’t help that the characters are given zero development (not even Ash), and the story is laughably thin.
Despite the film’s myriad flaws, Sam Raimi manages to pack the film (especially the early moments before he lets absurd levels of gore do the speaking) with tons of great shots. Whether it’s wide-angle lens close-ups, low shots, fast moving dolly shots, and great tracking shots, it’s obvious that Sam Raimi was an artist who was getting to play with a big box of toys he never had access to before. The use of smoke, shadows, and even lighting were well implemented despite the film’s shoestring budget. Raimi succeeds in creating a moody, eerie atmosphere, but when the zombies/possessed friends finally make their big appearance, he abandons any pretense of seriousness and goes for as much gore as humanly possible. His great camerawork draws even more attention to the film’s flaws because it reminds you what kind of film Raimi could be making.
I honestly have very fond memories of The Evil Dead II, but no matter how many times I watch this original, I can’t get over just how bad it is (and how actively grating certain sequences with a laughing zombie are). My sister watched part of the film with me and eventually had to find something else to occupy her time with because she thought the film was so bad. And it is bad. It’s almost irredeemably awful. Yet, those of you who can appreciate the technical aspects of film making will immediately mark Sam Raimi as a gifted auteur, and even if The Evil Dead doesn’t live up to the standard that the rest of his career set for him, it’s worth it to see young talent developing.
Final Score: C