Tuesday, 10 January 2012

The Evil Dead (1981): Video Nasties, Misspent Youth and the Ultimate Experience in Grueling Horror

It was the summer of 1992, during my school holidays, when I first saw “the ultimate experience in grueling horror.” About nine and a half years had gone by since Sam Raimi’s ‘The Evil Dead’ had its first British cinema release in 1982. It had also been nine years since it was one of the first films to get a ‘video nasty’ label in the United Kingdom.

Video Nasties

The introduction of the domestic video recorder into the households of my native homeland brought with it a blacklist of low budget exploitation movies. These were deemed too violent by religious organizations and campaigners for moral decency, of whom the most vocal being Mary Whitehouse who coined the term ‘video nasty’. Their concern was that there was no regulatory system for Beta Max/VHS tapes and that any of these cassettes could fall into the small hands of children. This moralistic crusade led to the Video Recordings Act 1984 which was to control the distribution of these video nasties. This made for even stricter censorship than for cinema releases with these films heavily cut or just out right banned.

Most of these so-called video nasties were bottom of the barrel Z grade rubbish deserving a ban for just being God fucking awful. However, there were quality pieces of filmmaking on the seventy four title nasty list: ‘A Bay of Blood’ (1971), ‘The Beyond’ (1981), ‘The Burning’ (1981 ), ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ (1980), ‘The Driller Killer’ (1979), ‘The House by the Cemetery’ (1981), ‘Inferno’ (1980) , ‘I Spit on Your Grave’ (1978), ‘The Last House on the Left’ (1972), 'Nightmares in a Damaged Brain' (1981) and of course ‘The Evil Dead’.

The BBFC had already cut the 1982 cinema release of the title of subject here with a total of 2:05 seconds of cuts to all the scenes of splatter. It was this version that was transferred to video by Palace, the same one that Mary Whitehouse showed in court to support her idea of the 'video nasty'. Unsuccessfully prosecuted it was removed and re-added several times to the ‘video nasty’ list, and rightfully so considering it was the same version the BBFC had already cut and passed 'X'. In October 1983 it even received a ban that was lifted in September 1985.

Long before 1990 VHS had won the war against Beta Max (even though Beta Max was the stronger quality product). It was in this year that 4 Front Video re-released ‘The Evil Dead’ with the BBFC cuts. This was the only available version in the UK until it got passed uncut for the Astro DVD release in 2001. For a detailed comparison of the cut VHS version and the uncut DVD release go here.

Misspent Youth

So here I was in the summer of ‘92, a 13 going on 14-year-old horror hungry teenager growing up in a severely dull part of South East London. If my school friends and I were not riding our mountain bikes, playing Sega Megadrive or listening to hard rock and heavy metal - we were watching horror. My fascination with the genre started before my age was in double figures with the nerve shredding intense Spielberg blockbuster ‘Jaws’ (1975) and the quite beautiful Tobe Hooper directed ‘Poltergeist’ (1982). However, when introduced to 18-rated horror at the age of 11 I forever cemented my fandom. This was with respectively the unique surrealistic dreamscape terror of Wes Craven’s ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ (1984) and the master class in horror filmmaking that is John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ (1978). What attracted me to the genre so much was my fascination in how these filmmakers were projecting onto the screen theirs and ours own fears. To quote Mr Carpenter: “What scares me is what scares you. We're all afraid of the same things. That's why horror is such a powerful genre. All you have to do is ask yourself what frightens you and you'll know what frightens me.

Up until this point of my life in 1992 I had been brought up mostly on a diet of the big three slashers and I was tired of the later formulaic entries in these franchises. Michael Myers should have remained burnt to a crisp at the end of the only good sequel ‘Halloween II’ (1981). Jason Voorhees should have stayed dead as a mutilated corpse at the end of the best instalment of that series ‘Friday The 13th: The Final Chapter’ (1984). Freddy Krueger should have stayed buried in the second best of that saga ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3: Dream Warriors’ (1987). After these sequels, it was just downhill for these icons of modern horror.

Therefore, I wanted to branch out with the sub-genres of the horror film looking to find original, creative and innovative filmmaking within my beloved genre. When it comes to ‘The Evil Dead’, a horror fan cannot go wrong when looking for these three elements. One of my school friends had recorded off Sky TV the BBFC cut version that was also available on retail through 4 Front Video. Recorded on a cheap cassette it was of poor quality. However, the bad picture and the censorship did not stop me from realizing that what I was watching was far more than just a sleazy ‘Video Nasty’. What I witnessed was a virtuoso, unrelenting assault on the senses. It is extremely imaginative graphic terror stretching every cent of its miniscule budget.

The Ultimate Experience in Grueling Horror  

'The Evil Dead’ started life as the 32-minute prototype short ‘Within the Woods’. Filmed on Super 8mm in 1978 by 20-year-old aspiring filmmaker Sam Raimi while attending Michigan State University, he teamed up to shoot it with his brother’s roommate Robert Tapert and childhood best friend Bruce Campbell who played the male lead. It was actually made to raise the budget for the full-length feature with the then working title of ‘The Book of the Dead’. It experimented with the techniques and plot elements they were to employ in the full movie. It proved to be a great success raising an estimated $350,000 from friends and family and a network of investors. This was enough to finance the production of Raimi’s feature film debut, and with that, he dropped out of university after only three semesters.

The principal shooting of ‘The Evil Dead’ was indie guerrilla filmmaking at its most economically inventive. The filming took place in an old abandoned cabin in the wilderness of woods near Morristown, Tennessee. Although mainly shot here the cabin did not actually have a basement and the script called for a fair amount of scenes to be set in one. They filmed most of this footage in a farmhouse owned by producer Robert Tapert’s family except for the scene where Ash and Scotty discover ‘The Book of The Dead’, the dagger, the tape recorder and the rifle in the last room of the cellar, which was Sam Raimi’s garage. For the scenes with the cellar door, they cut a hole into the floor of the cabin and dug a shallow pit with a ladder placed into it. The duration of the shoot lasted over a period of one and a half years finishing in the winter of 1979 - 1980.

During this lengthy photography, the filmmakers performed all kinds of creative ways in order to achieve Sam Raimi’s terrifying vision. The opening sequence of the evil moving over the pond is in fact leading man Bruce Campbell pushing Director Raimi in a dingy while he films. To achieve the rest of the demon POV shots they mounted a camera on a 2X4 while they ran along holding each side. The make up for the fake blood in the splatter scenes is a combination of Karo syrup, non-dairy creamer and red food coloring. Used for the demon's guts was dyed green creamed corn. The white liquid pouring out of the possessed when severely hurt is partly milk, not only used for a visual effect to show that these are un-human creatures but also a worry on Raimi’s part in getting an x rating from the MPAA. The idea was to have a combination of different blood splatter so it was not just human like red blood gushing everywhere.

There was still a lot of work left to do when the principal photography was finally over. However, most of the cast had left the production. This called for various loyal friends of Sam Raimi - Bruce Campbell, Robert Tapert, Josh Becker, David Goodman, Scott Spiegel and Brother Ted Raimi - to stand in for the missing actors. This is when Raimi coined the term ‘Fake Shemps’. This means when someone stands in for an actor and performs under heavy make-up or the crew shoots them from the back or only films their arm or foot. Raimi is a big Three Stooges fan and with his vast knowledge of the trio’s work recalled in 1955 when fourth stooge Shemp Howard died of a sudden heart attack. Due to budgetary constraints, the trio had to use stock footage from completed projects to be able to complete their unfinished short films without Shemp. Edited together with the stock footage they filmed new scenes of two of the other Stooges Larry Fine and Moe Howard. When scenes required Shemp to appear they used a stand-in to replace him with the camera only shooting him from behind or with an object to cover his face. This technique helped complete the filming of ‘The Evil Dead’.

The result is a movie which although is different in sub-genre and also stylistically to Tobe Hooper’s ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (1974) and Dario Argento’s ‘Suspiria’ (1977) is similar in the respect that it looks and feels just like a real nightmare. There is no underlying sub-text as it is a film made without mercy to scare, shock and totally unnerve its viewer. Encapsulating an atmosphere of constant dread from the outset all the way through to its unresolved end ‘The Evil Dead’ is an unrelenting mind fuck throughout the course of its running time.

A group of five university students drives to an isolated cabin in the wilderness of woods in the hills and mountains of Tennessee to spend a weekend. In the cabin’s basement, they find the fictional Canaanite text of ‘The Book of the Dead’ (Nyturan Demontah). They also find a tape recording of recitations of demonic incantations from the book. Playing the tape, they unknowingly resurrect Kandarian demons. One by one, the evil spirits possess them and they become Deadites (corpses used as vessels for the demons). Lone survivor Ash Williams (Campbell) is left to do battle with his once girlfriend Linda, Sister Cheryl and two friends and couple Scotty and Shelly who are now “The Evil Dead”.

The movie might play on traditional horror conventions - the set up and setting of isolation etc. - and what it lacks in strength of narrative makes up for with the injection of fresh ideas done with superb composition. ‘The Evil Dead’ is an invigorating and unique experience in supernatural splatter horror. The most memorable stand out moment is that of Cheryl lured out of the cabin by the unseen force and brutally raped by a demon-possessed forest which comes to life and forcibly penetrates her with a long vine to possess her. It is a horrifically effective and original scene of extreme graphic terror followed up by an intense chase sequence as Cheryl runs back to the cabin. Raimi employs energetic cinematography throughout the film with this pursuit through the woods being no exception - a POV of the demon that effortlessly glides across the ground. This all aided as in the rest of the movie by a nightmarish and surreal score with equally eerie sound effects of the demonic spirits.

The characters are hugely likable and while the script lacks depth in characterization the cast show a great deal of personality and humour. The most likable being the lead Ash who is an all-round nice guy and when left alone to defend himself is sadistically taunted by the possessed and is subjected to maddening tricks on the mind with the imagery here being just simply brilliant. The character has now become a cult icon in modern popular culture.

Since its first release in America in 1981 ‘The Evil Dead’ has gone on to be a defining moment in the history of cinematic horror. Sam Raimi a filmmaker with an undying love for the genre lovingly created an experience of in your face terror purely to enthral his audience with not just one of the most terrifying horror films ever made but with one of the most fun and entertaining ones also. That latter element of enjoyment was upped a considerable level in the equally seminal follow up ‘Evil Dead 2’ (1987). The sequel expelled the seriousness of the violence of the original with slapstick horror humour in homage to Raimi’s love of the three stooges. ‘Amy of Darkness’ (1992) the third in the trilogy almost completely did away with the horror and is more of a meshing of adventure, comedy and fantasy.

After ‘Evil Dead 2’ Sam Raimi graduated onto the major studios going into different genres with his very best work from this being ‘Spiderman 2’ (2004). He returned to horror with the brilliant ‘Drag Me to Hell’ (2009). The Evil Dead Trilogy is his legacy though with in my opinion ‘The Evil Dead’ still being his greatest work. It is one of the most important American horror movies of all time. Along with its first sequel it deserves to stand alongside any of the other culturally significant masterworks from the states: ‘Frankenstein’ (1931), ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ (1935), 'Psycho' (1960), ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968), ‘Dawn of the Dead’ (1977), ‘The Exorcist’ (1973), ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (1974), ‘Halloween’ (1978) and ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ (1984). Indeed, like the film’s tagline states it is “the ultimate experience in grueling horror”.

**** out of **** 

Dave J. Wilson

©2012 Cinematic Shocks, Dave J. Wilson - All work is the property of the credited author and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission.


  1. Fantastic stuff Dave. I was a teenager growing up in the 90's as well and I was crazy about horror films. Dark Side magazine's Video Nasties issue changed my world forever, when I discovered the likes of Argento, Fulci, Deodato, Franco and so on. A lot of stuff has been written about Dark Side mag over the years but I owe them a huge debt for that issue...

    Evil Dead, one of the best. I still watch it today and it never fails to impress. I only ever had the BBFC sanctioned version back in the day but it still seemed gruelling. What a revelation the Elite DVD was. The sequel is okay, I wax and wane about it, it has an amazing first half but the film spectacularly falls apart when the supporting cast enter the film. Army of Darkness, I could live without. I remember seeing that in an almost empty theatre after most of the audience walked out. No mean feat to empty a cinema. Thanks for posting the 4Front sleeve - that's a blast from the past. Remember the colorized Night of the Living Dead ?? What we had to put up with ! The DVD generation doesn't know how lucky it is !

  2. I've never read Dark Side magazine to be honest. I was a Fangoria boy when I was growing up in the 90s. I wouldn't touch it now though since it's turned into such a rag, and their website is even worse.

    I love 'Evil Dead II' as well but not quite as much as the first. And despite 'Amy of Darkness' not being in the same league as the first two I find it very entertaining for what it is.

    I had a 4Front copie of 'Halloween' '78 when I was a kid. It was one of the worst VHS transfers I've ever seen.

    That version of NOTLD is an abomination.