Back in my "I can't watch horror" days, I knew The Evil Dead was something to avoid. Lots of gore, zombies, the occult - it was sure to give me nightmares. After sitting through the first two George Romero zombie films and the extreme gore of the Hatchet films, I thought I was prepared and this was going to be a walk in the park. Perhaps it was because I watched the film alone on a dreary night, but boy was I wrong.
This review will be full of spoilers. I think most of you who will read this already have seen the film or will never, ever see the film just because, but for the exceptions to the rule, here's your warning.
The film starts off innocently enough, shaping itself up to resemble the slasher films that were becoming so common around this time period. Two guys and three girls head up to a cabin for the weekend. I thought the mismatched number was a little odd at first, but we eventually find out the single girl, Cheryl, is Ash's sister. The beginning tries really hard to set Cheryl up as our final girl - she is uneasy about the isolated location, she has creepy visions while sketching in her notebook, and she is absolutely against them listening to the tape the former residents of the cabin left behind. Unfortunately it's almost impossible to go into this series blind by now, so even if you haven't seen the film you probably know as well as I do that Ash is the real survivor and champion of this film series.
The names of the other three characters are largely irrelevant. Basically you've got Cheryl, Ash and his girlfriend, and Ash's friend and his girlfriend. The tape they find in the cellar along with a really creepy looking book, which just happens to be The Book of the Dead. The tape contains a man discussing finding the book in the cabin, and then reading an incantation aloud from it. When it gets to that point on the tape, Cheryl freaks out and insists they turn it off. I don't blame her. I sympathized with Cheryl a lot because that's pretty much exactly how I would act in that situation. I can't listen to Coast to Coast AM when I'm driving in the middle of nowhere late at night because it creeps me out too much, so someone casting spells or speaking in creepy languages is an no no in a dark, secluded cabin.
Cheryl moves into one of the other rooms to be alone, but unfortunately for her it is too late, the demons have been set free. They call her out into the forest and use the trees to rape her. I had heard about this scene before, so the moment she stepped outside the cabin I knew it was coming. That doesn't mean I was prepared for it. The way it is shot keeps it tense and creepy and rather uncomfortable to watch. While the effects in the film as a whole are rather cheap, that doesn't mean they aren't effective. Since talk of a remake is under way, I severely hope they don't plan to do this part CGI, if they include it. I can't imagine that looking real enough to work.
Once Cheryl escapes from the trees, she once again does the sensible thing in insisting that Ash bring her home right away. Unfortunately the shaky bridge they used to arrive has been broken and it's too dark for them to find a new way. Of course it's probably for the best because Cheryl has already been infested by a demon. She turns into a zombie (Wikipedia calls them deadites, but that term is never used in this first film and to me they're just angry zombies) and promptly stabs Ash's girlfriend in the ankle with a pencil. She really digs it in there and blood gushes all over the place. Cut to me squirming in my seat and shouting while I pull my ankles under me. The group manages to trap Cheryl in the cellar where she will taunt them in a really creepy sounding voice for most of the rest of the film.
The other girl who isn't closely related to Ash gets possessed and also becomes a zombie, coming after Ash and her boyfriend. There's this really horrible moment where her boyfriend tries to cut her hand off (I think because she was wielding this rather creepy looking dagger - who knows where she got it from) and she responds by biting into her own wrist and eventually (and I do mean eventually, it's a really drawn out scene) pulling her hand clean off. She squirts milk as well as blood, because apparently these zombies are partially created by the Weyland-Yutani corporation. Her boyfriend has to hack her to pieces with an axe before she stays dead, and he decides to leave because he can't take it anymore.
Shortly afterward we find out Ash's girlfriend is also now possessed thanks to that stab to the ankle. She taunts him in a similarly creepy voice that Cheryl has been using. From here the movie became quite frantic as Ash, left alone with the zombies, struggles to kill them even though they are two women he loves. While I certainly can understand that problem, I couldn't help but think Ash got a little stupid at this point. It had already been established that you had to hack them apart to make them stop, and everyone else who had been attacked turned, so when Ash chooses to just bury his girlfriend and leave his horribly scarred by trees friend on the sofa, I couldn't help thinking he was acting a little stupid.
There's lots more gore as Ash beheads his girlfriend with a shovel, kills Cheryl with a shotgun and manages to poke his friend's eyes out. He finally thinks of throwing The Book of the Dead in the fire as an attempt to make it all stop. While some of the zombie make up was starting to look a little cheap by this point in the film, this ending sequence uses claymation and once again manages to creep me out to the extreme. I watched all that stuff ooze out of them and made a mental note to watch something fun and innocent before bed so it wouldn't become nightmare fuel for me. As if that wasn't enough they also made sure to have some roaches climb out of all of that to creep me out even further.
When all of that finally ends, Ash is safe... or is he? Horror movies ending on cliffhangers have sort of become cliche by now, but I like them for the same reason I like the way Stephen King stories don't always end happily. Ultimate evil can't be defeated that easily.
When I take my notes for my reviews, I sometimes have some that I can't incorporate into the review but I really like anyway. I thought it might be fun to make a list here for you to see my thoughts as I watched the film. This isn't all of them, just a sample.
I was not expecting Bruce Campbell to sound so nasal.
So gross!!!! Biting off her own hand? Hacking her to pieces with the axe? Eeeeewwwwwwwww
Can they please just kill Cheryl? She's scaring me.
Hello chainsaw. You'll be famous later.
Oh God, not the eyeballs!
So. Much. Gross.
So, am I being a total wuss? Or do most people find this film genuinely scary? I think the zooming camera angles through the forest and the close up shots of Ash scared and alone really help build tension throughout the film, and the gore and zombies are exactly the kinds of things that used to keep me awake at night as a kid. It's probably worth mentioning that I tend to get creeped out by mannequins, anatomically correct robots, dolls, zombies... basically anything in the Uncanny Valley department. Regardless, I can't help but respect a film that is as old as I am but still manages to give me all kinds of chills.