The Original Dead

Before this year’s Evil Dead, there was 1981’s The Evil Dead. Adam Clarke sings the song of Sam Raimi’s horror classic.

The plot was nonexistent, the budget was low, and the critics were less than kind. In spite of it all, though, Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead has become one of the most enduring horror films of all time.

Though the Evil Dead trilogy ended in 1992 with Army of Darkness, Evil Dead has never really disappeared. The 1981 horror film became a pop culture phenomenon resulting in two sequels, an upcoming remake, countless home video re-issues, a still-growing fanbase, a popular stage musical, video games, and comic books.

So how exactly did a film with creaky acting and ropey special effects earn such a firm place in the hearts so many filmgoers?

Rewatching it, the film is an incredible showcase for its star — and I don’t mean Bruce Campbell, who displays little of the charm or charisma that has since made him a b-movie icon — I’m talking about Sam Raimi’s camera.

Raimi’s camera zips, spins and crashes into everything. It switches from slanted 60s Batman angles to rampaging POV shots to quirky close-ups of eyes and feet. There’s even an upside-down shot that crawls up Bruce Campbell’s back and ends up as a right-side-up close-up of his face, all done in a single take. His groundbreaking camera techniques and inventive use of sound are the entire point of the film.

Contemporary reviews for the film were right that there’s little depth to The Evil Dead. But they were missing the point. The movie isn’t a story so much as an 85-minute audition tape for Raimi to command the kind of budgets he does today. His films aren’t steeped in subtext like John Carpenter’s or Wes Craven’s. Raimi specifically made this as a means of outdoing the competition. There’s a reason the heroes find an incongruously-placed, torn poster for Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes in the rustic cabin. This is Raimi’s visual equivalent of a diss track, daring all others to top the madness he put on screen.

The Evil Dead is sometimes remembered, incorrectly, as a comedy. While its two sequels were loaded with quips and slapstick, Evil Dead plays it straight. Aside from one scene where a demon apologizes to a victim before attacking him, this movie barely cracks a smile.

The Evil Dead has no more story than “five kids enter a cabin in the woods and are attacked by “Deadite” demons, but its parade of putrefying corpses is still remarkably fresh. That said, I don’t think it’s aged as well as other classic horror films from the 80s, partly because Raimi is now a widely-imitated director. There wouldn’t be a Peter Jackson or a Robert Rodriguez if they hadn’t rode his coattails by aping Raimi’s style, and the popular Raimi-produced Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys television series used his films as a visual blueprint.

Some of The Evil Dead’s appeal is lost because the remastered version on DVD isn’t the movie people remember. Unlike Suspiria, The Evil Dead’s strength wasn’t its vivid cinematography or special effects. This low-budget shocker looks best on a grimy VHS tape, a medium that obscures any special effects shortcomings. On DVD, the film is clearer than ever, and that actually makes it look worse. On VHS, no one noticed that the full moon was added to exterior shots in post-production. On DVD, though, it’s impossible not to notice the giant picture frame-like space that separates the moon in these shots. Tom Sullivan’s imaginative make-up shrivels up under the bright lights of digital remastering.

The Evil Dead still holds up as a showcase for its director’s visual quirks, while the sequels really show off star Bruce Campbell’s swaggering charm and Raimi’s external influences, including The Three Stooges and Ray Harryhausen, animator behind 1941’s Mighty Joe Young and 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts.

Raimi’s Evil Dead films conjure up a kind of rubberized reality where anything is possible, and the switch from horror to comedy after this first film was a perfect choice for Raimi to show off his skills. 1987’s Evil Dead II might be the most bonkers comedy ever filmed, and Army of Darkness was definitely the film with the most bootlegged alternate versions available on the VHS black market (Back in the 90s I had eight different copies of the film, including a version from Japan where it was retitled Captain Supermarket). With Army of Darkness’ one-liners, Evil Dead II’s Pee-wee’s Playhouse mentality and the first film’s feverish, exhuberant style, The Evil Dead series is going to be beckoning horror fans for decades to come.

Evil Dead, the 2013 remake, will hit Empire Theatres in early April.