The name Sam Raimi can mean different things to different people. Probably best known by mainstream audiences as the director of the three Spider-Man films released during the last decade, Raimi has dipped his toe into several different movies in various ways over the last thirty years including 2009′s (some would say return to form) Drag Me to Hell, the female-lead western The Quick & The Dead, the Kevin Costner baseball movie For Love of the Game and the comic-book fantasy Darkman, as well as being involved with other projects such as The Grudge remake, Xena: Warrior Princess, Young Hercules, American Gothic and Hard Target. But to genre fans he will forever be associated – along with cult actor Bruce Campbell – with the notorious Evil Dead trilogy, so let’s all go take a trip to that cabin in the woods for a look at this seminal series.
The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, USA, 1981)
Having raised the funds for their first feature film by using their short film Within the Woods as a marketing tool, director Sam Raimi, producer Robert Tapert and actor Bruce Campbell began production on The Evil Dead at the end of the 1970′s, immediately giving the horror genre a swift kick up the backside with its relentless energy, quirky filming techniques and stomach-churning gore. It also marked out Raimi as a film maker with a very kinetic and individual style and someone not afraid to put his cast through the ringer – but more of that later.
The film begins with five students travelling to a remote cabin deep in the Tennessee woods for a weekend break. The group consists of two couples – Ash (Bruce Campbell) and Linda (Betsy Baker) plus Scotty (Richard DeManicor as Hal Delrich) and Shelly (Theresa Tilly as Sarah York) – and the gooseberry of the group, Ash’s sister Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), and after investigating their surroundings they discover the Necronomicon, an ancient book bound in human skin and written in blood, plus a tape recorder of the cabin’s previous occupant reading out the spells within the book, which of course they play and unleash all sorts of merry hell as a wave of demonic spirits possess each member of the group until only Ash is left.
Along with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Evil Dead was a poster child of what has become known as the video nasty era. Looking at the film now it seems positively ridiculous that anybody would think that stop-motion plasticine zombies and ludicrously-coloured fake blood would be enough to corrupt the nation and turn everybody into psychos, but the government of the time tried to protect our delicate moral fibre by trying to stop it being distributed at all (just look at their overly smug faces in Jake West’s brilliant Video Nasties documentary and then take a look at how many of those films are now available on DVD uncut – who’s really got the most to smile about?). Luckily the good people at Palace Video stood stood their ground and went to court in order to get the film distributed, and lo-and-behold they only went and won, despite the film still being cut somewhat.
But that was way back in the 80s. Since then the advent of DVD, a change in hierachy at the BBFC and a generally more lenient attitude towards gore and violence has seen the film released uncut – which means the infamous tree-rape scene is back in, despite Raimi ironically claiming he now wishes he hadn’t done it – and although to anyone over the age of thirty this film is pretty much horror royalty, it is quite easy to see why anyone below that age may dismiss it as a laughably cheap bit of fun. Much like the aforementioned The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and the similarly inventive Night of the Living Dead, The Evil Dead is testament to what can be done when your resources are limited and you have to resort to talent to overcome any obstacles.
Despite Raimi and Campbell going on to bigger and – some would say – better things, the roots of everything they represent and are known for today are here in this film. As it was filmed over several years there is a slightly inconsistent feel once you get to the latter stages of the film and it’s basically Campbell on his own fighting the invisible demons, but the obvious passion that went into making the film still sparkles over thirty years later. To some The Evil Dead remains the best of the series, it’s blacker than black humour mixing with the OTT gore and Raimi’s maverick directional style to create something truly unique and inspiring. To others this is merely a prototype for what was to come later, a showreel for Raimi and Campbell to prove what they could do if given the means. But however you feel about it, The Evil Dead remains a beacon of independent film making and a true genre classic.
Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn (Sam Raimi, USA, 1987)
Having directed the crime comedy/thriller Crimewave after the release of The Evil Dead, Sam Raimi was approached by publicist Irvin Shapiro to make a sequel to his then-notorious horror movie. Initially scoffing at the idea, Crimewave didn’t make the returns that Raimi thought it would and after Stephen King got involved and had a word with the right people, the wheels were set in motion for Raimi, Bruce Campbell and Robert Tapert to go ahead with a follow-up.
Beginning with a re-telling of the events of the first film (Raimi didn’t have the rights to re-use the footage so he re-shot the basics with Bruce Campbell and Denise Bixler replacing Betsy Baker as Linda) the story picks up as Ash is about to be possessed by the attacking demons in the cabin. However, the rising sun forces the demons out of him and after unsuccessfully searching for a way out of the woods he returns to the cabin where he is forced to cut off his right hand which has become possessed and has turned against him.
Meanwhile Annie (Sarah Berry), the daughter of the previous occupant of the cabin, is on her way there with her partner Ed (Richard Domeier) and a couple of local rednecks named Jake (Dan Hicks) and Bobby Joe (Kassie Wesley) to find out what happened to her mother and father. Initially thinking that Ash has killed her parents, Ash convinces Annie that he knows what happened to her father and plays her the tape and naturally all sorts of mayhem is unleashed once again as everybody at some point gets possessed and/or dismembered along with all sorts of other nasty shenanigans, culminating in something of a surprise ending that sets up the next film quite nicely.
Obviously working with a bigger budget and more of a mainstream sensibility, albeit still not a commercial one, Raimi lightened the tone for part two, creating what some consider to be the perfect mix of horror and comedy, which is actually a pretty tough combination to master. Infusing his love of The Three Stooges with colourful amounts of gore, Raimi created what is now commonly referred to as ‘splatstick’, making Evil Dead II less of a horror film and more of a comedy.
Despite Raimi’s obvious talent and directorial style Evil Dead II will forever be remembered for Bruce Campbell’s tortured performance; not tortured in the emotional sense but rather the almost method-type punishments that Raimi put him through to get the desired results, so much so that by the end of the film you really can feel his pain. It’s also the film where Campbell’s now-familiar screen persona first appeared, and some would say has never been bettered.
Often cited as one of the most popular genre films of its era, Evil Dead II still holds up well today. If the stop-motion tomfoolery of the first film didn’t flick your switch then this will certainly be more to your liking; indeed, there has been many an internet film forum that has been the battlefield for fans of both films to duke it out about which film is best out of the two. It’s all subjective of course, but in terms of iconography and defining the style, Evil Dead II is one hell of a calling card.
Army of Darkness (Sam Raimi, USA, 1992)
After the critical and financial success of Evil Dead II it was inevitable that Raimi, Campbell and Tapert would reunite for a third instalment, particularly seeing how part two ended. After the financial success of his Darkman film, Raimi was given a $13 000, 000 budget to make Army of Darkness and, in an era when the formerly-reliable franchises of the 80s were on their dying legs, it seemed that the film would need to do some pretty big business if it was going to be a success.
Having been carted back to the fourteenth century at the end of the previous film, weary reluctant hero Ash (Bruce Campbell) finds himself a prisoner of the knights that rule the land. After being cast into a pit and doing away with a Deadite demon using his ‘boomstick’, Ash is treated as a hero and seeks advice from the King’s wise man who tells him he must find the Necronomicon and recite some magic words. After retrieving the ancient book, Ash fluffs the magic words and unleashes Evil Ash, his demonic dark half, who enlists the help of the skeletal armies of the dead in a battle against Ash and the armies of Lord Arthur and Duke Henry. Will our wise-cracking hero finally overcome his undead nemesis and get back to his own time?
Well, that depends on which version you have as there are two different endings but nevertheless, Army of Darkness is about as much fun as you can have watching a film without taking your clothes off. The horror elements have been pretty much diluted to the point of being non-existent, the only nod to that side of things being the Deadite in the pit and the Ray Harryhausen-inspired skeletal army, and we’re now in the realm of pure Three Stooges-style slapstick comedy. Once again, Bruce Campbell pulls out all the stops and delivers an iconic performance as the put-upon hero, being slapped around, ridiculed and generally treated like crap by everyone around him; it’s not hard to imagine Sam Raimi smirking away behind the camera as his lead actor – fifteen years on from when they first collaborated together – is put through the wringer.
Unfortunately the climate was not good for old-school horror films – or in this case, films perceived to be old-school horror films – around the early 90s; Freddy had been dead (or just resting) for a couple of years, Jason was about to go to hell and Pinhead was on his way out from there, and Army of Darkness barely scraped a profit. However, over the years the film has gained something of a cult following and many fans now claim it as their favourite of the trilogy. In truth, Army of Darkness is a solidly entertaining film that works as a sequel to Evil Dead II or as a stand-alone film, although it bears very little resemblance to the first film, despite obviously been made by the same people. So all-in-all give the Evil Dead trilogy a go if you like wickedly dark humour, amputated limbs and squirting veins but it’s probably best to view the first film as its own thing and then watch the other two one after the other. The inevitable remake is coming but we all know that it won’t hold a candle to Sam Raimi’s original – in all senses of the word – vision.