Written and directed by Sam Raimi, The Evil Dead is one of the most popular low budget horror films of all time. Shot in a guerilla style under hazardous conditions with a cast and crew of college students, the movie would launch a popular franchise of sequels, remakes, musical, and a television series.
The premise was a familiar one for the era, a group of college kids decide to vacation at a remote cabin and things go terrifyingly wrong. Raimi spins a film of suspense and guile, a symphony of incessant chaos. When all hell literally breaks loose, a haunted house claustrophobia sets in. The gore aesthetic utilizes a cacophony of methods, usually involving Karo Oil, coffee, milky substances, and fake blood. Gore effects in movies seem to work best when they achieve verisimilitude, somewhere between the real, fake, and the fantastic. The Evil Dead succeeds to near perfection with its litany of splattering bodily fluids.
Things quickly go amiss when they are driving through the woods and they stumble upon a rickety bridge as a POV presence follows them. The banality of these five kids, not unlike The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, adds tension to the opening act. Ashley (Bruce Campbell) is the only with any personality, more quiet and passive at first. Things go awry when they discover an ancient book in the cabin basement with a set of tape recordings. They listen to a professor recount a horrific series of events, then even creepier voices read from the book and summon the evil spirits. Once the terror takes off, starting when Cheryl (Ellen Sandweis) is sexually assaulted by a tree in an unnervingly convincing and controversial scene, but it serves a purpose: we've crossed a threshold into a terrifying realm with no rules. An onslaught of demonic possession, cannibalism, and dismemberments ensue.
Raimi's visceral filmmaking is of the highest level with the resources available: jarring and unrelenting. A flurry of uncanny imagery and scenarios ranging from comic to nauseating, often times both. We witness the female characters become demotic fiends as Ashley looks on in shock. The sexual nature of their attacks adds another layer of unease for the audience, Ashley being straddled by his beheaded ex-girlfriend being an example. There's also the idea of being dead, but not really dead, that's a recurring motif (especially in a morbid burial scene). All of human decency and ritual are overturned in a fight for survival. Raimi cut out more serious scenes when Ash reflects on the losses and wisely kept the focus on the slapstick splatter.
An enduring quality of The Evil Dead is that it simultaneously repulses and entertains, straddling the line between the cartoonish and realistic. Breaking taboos while reestablishing a sense of normalcy through the character Ashley. Raimi's skillful direction prevents The Evil Dead from being just another schlock horror film.