Sam Raimi‘s cabin in the woods film par excellence The Evil Dead stands as the paragon of independent, cult, and horror films since it’s release in 1981. It’s influence is felt in the films of the Coen brothers, Peter Jackson, and Edgar Wright. It’s dynamic direction and camera work declared a new and bold style for the 80s and 90s, but it’s real influence for independent filmmakers is in it’s success story as a bootstrapped production.
The Evil Dead launched the careers of childhood friends director Sam Raimi, and lead actor Bruce Campbell, which you probably recognize as Brisco County Jr. from Fox’s 90s television hit The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. During and after high school they collaborated shooting short films on super 8 film. This film began shooting right after Sam Raimi turned 20, and he considers it a right of passage in his life.
As first time filmmakers, Raimi, Campbell and producer Robert Tapert sought financing by shooting a “proof of concept” short film titled Within the Woods. The strategy worked, and as the result of many rounds of private investment, they were able to cobble together a budget of $375,000. Even Bruce Campbell’s family’s property in Northern Michigan was leveraged to finish the film and blow it up to the industry standard of 35 mm to be shown in theaters.
Initial photography was shot over the course of 12 weeks from the end of 1979 to the beginning of 1980. It was a grueling experience for all involved. The production was shot on location in an actual cabin in the remote woods of Morristown Tennessee. The cabin had no running water, and actors would go days without showering. Campbell described being doused with fake blood so much that he could only ride in the back of a truck to get home. While filming, the cast and crew of 13 actually slept in the cabin.
The conditions were so cold that Campbell said that after drying a blood soaked shirt outside, it cracked in half when he tried to put it on again. The ironic part is that Raimi and crew decided to shoot in Tennessee instead of their home state of Michigan to avoid extreme conditions in the winter. As it turned out, Michigan has an unusually tame winter, and Tennessee had one of the coldest winters in 1979.
Ingenuity with a small budget
The makeup and effects were accomplished by Tom Sullivan completely without CGI, relying on foam latex, corn syrup blood, and stop motion photography.
The low budget production was creative in its use of makeshift camera riggings such as the “vas-o-cam” which slid the camera down wooden ramps. One of the most influential techniques was the “shaky-cam” which was accomplished by mounting the camera to a 2×4 and having two operators at each end to roughly simulate a steady-cam. This technique was used for the POV shots of the demons running through the woods, along with the final shot that was accomplished with a tripod mounted to a motorcycle driven by Raimi. The Coen brothers used the shaky-cam technique in Blood Simple after Ethan Coen was inspired as an assistant editor for The Evil Dead.
Reception of The Evil Dead
The film is so gory that it was unrated, and banned in many countries upon its release.
The grueling and plucky production resulted in a unique and shocking film that has since become a cult icon in the horror community.
It tells the story of five Michigan State students vacationing to a remote cabin in the Tennessee country. During their playful and drug fueled exploration of the cabin, they stumble upon an ancient Samarian tome that is a translation of the Egyptian Book of the Dead and a curious recording. Upon Ash (Bruce Campbell) playing the tape that contained incantations from the book, the friends are beset by evil demons that possess one of them, turning them into an undead “deadite”.
They eventually learn that the only way to kill the entity is to dismember a possessed host. As the demon turns the friends against each other, the remaining living fight to save themselves torment, death, and vine rape.
Review of The Evil Dead (1981)
The Evil Dead is the film that all other cabin in the woods movies are compared to, and for good reason. It spawned an entire subgenre of horror that was so prevalent in the decades following, that the meta-comedy-horror film Cabin in the Woods had plenty to draw on in 2011.
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Even with the jaded eyes of someone that grew up on the films influenced by Raimi’s directorial debut, it still is impressively violent, visceral, and darkly funny.
What it lacks in character development, it makes up for in over the top violence that always keeps you on your toes.
The special effects aren’t amazing, and are obviously operating on a budget, but it still works. Like a lot of 80s special effects, the grittiness of the practical effects still holds up today, because it feels so real. Many of the effects in this film look real because they are real. They used live ammunition in the shotgun and a real chainsaw in the chainsaw scene.
The acting is great, mostly because like Tobe Hooper did with the actors in TCM, Raimi was torturing the cast during shooting with highly uncomfortable conditions on set. Actors endured being accidentally stabbed, scraped, thrown at objects, and more on set. The discomfort seems to have elicited believable performances of people being tortured.
The real hero is Raimi. His directing style is what really makes the movie. The Dutch angles and dynamic POV shots throw the audience off kilter and make the experience almost like an amusement park ride. His artistic integrity and vision shine through with uncompromising violent and offensive scenes that have delighted horror fans for decades. Though Raimi has expressed regret for the violent sexual content, it stands as a testament to how far this young director would go to push the limits of the genre.
The Evil Dead Franchise
While the sequels became increasingly slapstick and absurd, this film still has some really good dark humor. There is something about the Midwest’s matter of fact sensibilities that create the uniquely dry and dark humor in directors that call it home such as Raimi and the Coen brothers. I love it, because this type of humor is the Da to my Norwegian heritage’s Uuf..
While I haven’t seen all of the films and television episodes of the Evil dead franchise, of those that I have watched, they are all stellar. This film is no exception.
Spooky Origins of the Cabin Used in The Evil Dead
The cabin that they used in production, has it’s own spooky story. Three generations of women, a grandmother, mother, and daughter lived at the cabin when one night, the daughter discovered that her mother was dead when she tried to crawl into her bed to snuggle with her for comfort in the night. When horrified, she ran to tell her grandmother, she discovered that she too had died in the night.
That girl as an elderly senile woman would wander the same woods at night. She actually lived close to the cabin in her old age. Raimi said that they learned of this story when the neighbor was out looking for the woman that had again wandered off. No one knows if she was ever found again.
Stephen King’s relationship with The Evil Dead
After viewing the film at the Cannes film festival in 1982, Stephen King declared The Evil Dead as one of his favorite horror films. A quote from his rave review is included in the film’s poster.
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