80s Movie Challenge Week 41: The Evil Dead (1981)

Welcome back 80s and Horror Fans! We have a treat for you this week as our brilliant guest CJ Dee, who looked at Beetlejuice for us a month or so back, returns! When we called her up to invite her to talk about this week’s film, she… well, first she said “Why have you disturbed our sleep; awakened us from our ancient slumber?” because we forgot that it was the middle of the night in Australia, but then once we’d had a chuckle about the time difference, she leapt at the chance to revisit one of her favourite scary films.

Don’t read from the book… read from CJ’s look back at 1981’s The Evil Dead! Groovy!

Warning: The Evil Dead features a notorious scene of sexual assault and it is briefly discussed here. Not in any graphic detail, but if you’d rather skip over it, we’ve highlighted the relevant sections in this red type.

As someone who loves horror so much, I have far too many stories from when I knew I loved horror but hadn’t built up a tolerance. It’s like I was already playing violin in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra without building up a few calluses. The Evil Dead is another great example of something that terrified me when I first watched it and is now one of my favourite franchises.

When I first watched The Evil Dead, I was already about 20 years late to the party and around 16 or 17 years old. I feel I should also make a point of saying I first watched The Evil Dead late at night … no, really — like, 2am-no-one-else-is-awake late at night. I was fascinated by the initial slow burn, the sketchy indie vibes and the dashing hero. Then there was the graphic tree incident, which was horrific on a completely different level. But I made it past the infamous scene, only to get to the scene where Cheryl the tree’s victim is floating in front of a window doomsaying in a deep, guttural voice. I lunged for my remote control and turned the DVD off, thoroughly freaked out and not willing to continue. A pox on The Evil Dead said I. Then I went to bed and slept … badly.

Enter a new dawn and, in the bright light of day, I was a braver girl. I decided I would not let a movie older than I was best me. I finished The Evil Dead and the person who recommended it followed up with the two sequels. Neither sequel had quite the same profoundly terrifying effect on me — although just between you and me, Army of Darkness is now my favourite from the series.

Several years and many more miles as a horror fiend later, I bought my own copy of The Evil Dead and revisited Ash Williams, his ill-fated friends and one of the world’s worst holiday destinations. I managed to sit all the way through and loved it — albeit I still was and still am uncomfortable with the tree scene. To be fair though, even Sam Raimi admits he regrets the scene.

One of the things I love about The Evil Dead is that it combines slapstick and horror so well. It is a theme that is further perfected in the sequels, but you see the beginnings of something really great in the debut. It is unapologetically low budget and makes up for that with the hammy acting, the OTT special effects, the slapstick and the “Fake Shemps” or actors filling in for other actors by using copious amounts of makeup. (See if you can spot Ted Raimi filling in as needed!)

Given that The Evil Dead was the first film effort for many of the now hugely famous stars involved, it is really quite well put together. I’m not saying that you watch The Evil Dead and can’t believe it was made by beginners, just that it is a really good example of why the people involved are now so well respected and the series so appreciated.

I’ve mentioned it a couple of times now, but I want to take a minute to go through why I feel like the tree scene is the only blemish on this classic horror. The scene is brutal and gratuitous but the same can be said for much of the film, so why is this different? Aside from the graphic sexual assault by tree aspect of it, the scene just doesn’t fit. It’s a clear case of “how can we make this as shocking and brutal as possible?” without any thought to how the scene flows with the rest of the film’s logic.

Demonic tree impropriety aside, The Evil Dead is, in my humble opinion, one of the best horror movies of the 80s. From the moment the camera sweeps across the misty swamp until Ash stumbles through the woods covered in blood and pursued by evil, The Evil Dead delivers entertainment, interesting cinematography and special effect choices, humour and horror.

If you enjoy The Evil Dead and are interested in behind the scenes stories, I highly recommend reading Bruce Campbell’s If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor. It has given me a greater understanding of the real horrors the cast and crew experienced, which in turn has provided a deeper appreciation of The Evil Dead clawing its way to classic cult movie status. Plus there’s a really cool recipe for fake blood!

CJ Dee is a pop culture devotee who is happiest watching any incarnation of Star Trek, reading Stephen King or Joe Hill novels, viewing great (and terrible) horror movies, obsessing over Disney or flipping through a DC comic. The rest of CJ’s pop culture adventures can be viewed at Gotham City Times. You can find her on Twitter under the handle @Kinestra.

If this week’s film has made you afraid of demon summoning books and cabins in woods, then we’ll warn you in advance to hide away any loose saucepans or small furry creatures you might have knocking about the place by next week as Jane Roberts is back to look at a film which frightened a whole generation of married men into keeping their Y-fronts on and their kids’ pets locked up. That’s right! It’s 1987’s Fatal Attraction!

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