The Evil Dead - The Quintessential “Drive-In Movie?”
A hallmark of the ‘Drive-in Movie’, as championed by the Drive-In Movie Critic himself, the esteemed Joe Bob Briggs, was that production values and big budgets were unimportant in the overall scheme of things. It didn’t even need to be shot on 35mm film. All that was required to elevate a film to the status of a great Drive-In Movie was that it entertain its audience. In the 1980s, few movies did that as well as The Evil Dead. The warped, demented vision of three childhood friends from Detroit—Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert, and Bruce Campbell—The Evil Dead made one believe that, to paraphrase Briggs, the people that made the movie were as psychotic as the characters on-screen. In his review of the film, he writes, “This flick was made for about three dollars by a guy named Sam Raimi. Sam is probly [sic] a psychopath. Remember, when you see this one, that Sam is capable of anything.” The three friends had been making, and exhibiting, their own Super 8mm films to their fellow college students for some time when they decided to attempt a feature film, shot on 16mm.
The inspiration for The Evil Dead was a Super 8mm film that the trio had made during their college days entitled Within the Woods. The plot was vaguely similar to the latter film, and starred Ellen Sandweiss, a friend of the young men since high school. The filmmakers had made steady money exhibiting their Super 8mm movies (thanks in large part to the facilities available to them from Michigan State University, where they were students), and felt that the time was right to make the transition to feature-length projects.
A cross between Night of the Living Dead and The Exorcist, Sam Raimi’s breakthrough film crossed a line of good taste that few had dared approach before. It wasn’t just gory; it redefined what comprised a gore film. Blood quite literally ran down the screen, a woman was raped by a demon-possessed tree, the three female cast members became evil, demonic ‘harpies’, and Bruce Campbell’s chin became a star. Its creators envisioned it as the, “… quintessential Drive-In Movie,” and it is safe to say that they achieved their goal. It can also be stated with some confidence that this remained the ultimate gore movie until dethroned by Peter Jackson’s 1993 zombie classic Braindead – aka – Dead Alive, a movie unlikely to ever surrender the top spot. In his analysis of gore films, film critic Chas. Balun describes Raimi’s classic as an, “… outrageously graphic roller coaster ride through horror heaven …” a sentiment with which the author can heartily agree.
Five college friends—Scott, Ash, Ash’s sister Cheryl, Scott’s girlfriend Shelly, and Ash’s girlfriend Linda (Richard DeManincor (billed as Hal Delrich), Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Theresa Tilly, (as Sarah York), and Betsy Baker)—are heading into the deep woods of Tennessee to spend their vacation at an isolated cabin. As they drive along country roads in a 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 (a car which has appeared in virtually all of Raimi’s films), sipping moonshine and dodging lumber trucks, the sun is shining, the birds are singing … all seems right with the world. Only the ramshackle condition of the old bridge they must cross to reach the cabin gives the first hint that all might not be well.
As they drive up the shadowy path that leads up to the cabin, the feeling of isolation, of being cut off from the rest of the world, deepens. The cabin itself is dark and forbidding, and an ominous silence hangs in the air, broken only by the rhythmic sound of the porch swing beating against the wall of the cabin—a sound that ceases the second Scotty retrieves the key from its hiding place. The five friends settle into the cabin, and as night falls, Cheryl sits sketching an old clock in the main room. Suddenly, she seems to lose control of her hand, as it begins to draw the crude image of what appears to be a face on a box … or perhaps a book. With no warning the trapdoor leading to the cellar begins to shake and rattle, as though someone or something were trying to break out.
Later, they gather around the table for an enjoyable meal. As they laugh and relax, the trapdoor mysteriously springs open. After much discussion, Scott heads down to investigate the basement, as the others watch nervously from above. After several moments of silence, Ash ventures after his friend.
After Ash receives a nasty scare, courtesy of Scott (at this point in his young life, Ash is, to put it kindly, a bit of a wimp), the pair discover a tape recorder, an ancient book written in some manner of archaic script and illustrated with horrible, demonic imagery, and a shotgun. They take their haul back upstairs to the ladies, eventually playing the tape. The voice on the tape informs them that the book is the Necronomicon, the Naturan Demanto, the Sumerian book of the dead. The book is said to be able to summon demons to possess the bodies of the living. It goes on to say that the speaker, an unnamed archaeologist (voiced by John Dorian), was going to attempt to translate the text of the book. As his recorded voice reads the incantations, strange noises and lights fill the forest surrounding the cabin, as evil begins to awaken.
As they listen to the tape, Cheryl begins to grow more and more apprehensive, even frightened. As the voice from the recorder continues to chant the forbidden words, and the wind howls outside the cabin, she begins to scream, “turn it off, turn it off … Turn it off!” Suddenly, the window crashes inward, as a large tree limb smashes through. Cheryl screams and runs from the room, while Ash tells off Scott for mocking his sister.
Later, as the couples have gone off on their own, Cheryl readies herself for bed. She hears a noise outside her window and, in what just might be the most overused horror cliché of all , goes out to investigate. She chases after the ‘voice’, which draws her deeper into the woods. As her terror grows, the forest itself comes alive. Branches, vines, and limbs reach out for the terrified girl, ensnaring her arms, legs, and throat. She’s dragged to the ground, and, in what must be the film’s most controversial scene, is sexually molested by the limb of a tree.
Breaking free, Cheryl runs towards the cabin, staggering, tripping, falling along the way, as an unseen … force, pursues her. She reaches the cabin door, only to find it locked. As she scrambles to locate the key and open the door, the force grows nearer to the cabin, gaining speed as it closes the distance. As the terrified girl fumbles with the keys, the door jerks open, and a strong arm pulls her inside at the last second.
As Ash helps his sister to her feet, the others quickly gather around. Cheryl tries to explain what happened to her, but her friends don’t believe her. It’s obvious that something happened, but the idea of the woods coming to life and attacking a person is just too far-fetched. Cheryl demands to be taken back to the nearest town, refusing to spend any more time at the cabin. Ash reluctantly agrees to drive her into town and find her a place to stay the night. However, when he tries to start the car, it refuses to turn over. Finally, after several tries, the engine fires up, and they head up the long drive towards the bridge. But as they reach it, they’re shocked to discover that the bridge is gone. Not merely collapsed with age, or washed away by flood waters; the bridge has been destroyed, and the supporting beams have been bent upwards, twisted into the grotesque, misshapen image of a grasping hand. The message is clear: they will not be allowed to leave.
There was no reason for the filmmakers to expect this movie to succeed, and every reason to anticipate failure. Budgeted at roughly $350,000 (a miserly amount, even by Drive-In movie standards), Raimi and his cohorts used the Within the Woods short as a concept demonstrator, showing it to prospective investors as a prototype of their proposed feature. More than just the plot would carry over from this ‘pilot’. Ellen Sandweiss would appear in the full-length version, only as Campbell’s sister, rather than his girlfriend. Many of the plot points would be transferred to the feature, of course, and several scenes would be adapted to fit the expanded story. The most significant holdover, in terms of how successful the film would become, had to be Tom Sullivan, who would be the make-up artist, prop designer, set dresser, stop-motion animator, and general artistic guru. Sullivan’s artistry brought life to the demons, as well as created the Necronomicon and the Candarian dagger.
The fundraising was supposed to be completed by the summer of 1979, allowing the shooting to take place before the notoriously bad Michigan winter set in. However, the financing wasn’t in place until that fall, necessitating location shooting in what was anticipated to be the warmer climate of East Tennessee. In fact, Michigan had an unusually warm winter that year, while Tennessee had one of its coldest winters on record. Once it began, filming took place not over weeks or months, but over a two-year period. Principal photography began in Morristown, Tennessee in November 1979, and the movie was completed by late 1981. The delays were caused primarily by lack of funds; production would have to wait as more money was raised. The original six weeks scheduled for filming in Tennessee turned into twelve, and cast and crew who had prior commitments left before the work in Morristown was completed.
At the end, only Raimi, Tapert, Campbell, and one or two others were left, necessitating the use of assorted locals to double for the various possessed victims. Credited as “fake Shemps,” these included Raimi’s 13-year-old brother Ted, who came down to Tennessee for the weekend to visit the set. Sent south with $80 in his pocket, he had no sooner arrived than older brother Sam had confiscated the money and drafted Ted for the crew. He remained in Morristown until the location filming finished.
Even when the production was complete, the difficulties the filmmakers faced in getting it to theater screens weren’t over. Officially, the film had its premiere at the Redford theater in Detroit on 15 October 1981, and the response was enthusiastic; however, it wasn’t until 1983 that the film was in widespread release. After several ‘sneak previews’ (including a screening at the Cannes Film Festival) generated an increasing amount of buzz about the movie, and after a title change suggested by veteran distributor Irving Shapiro, from the original Book of the Dead, New Line Cinema bought the rights to distribute The Evil Dead. Their marketing strategy was aggressive, to say the least. Not only did they want to do a world-wide release, but they also planned to release it to theaters and on VHS simultaneously. Though initial box-office numbers were very weak, word of mouth kept building for the film, and by the end of the theatrical run it had earned nearly $600,000 domestically, and nearly $2 million overseas—an unqualified success.
Fans of this film, and its two sequels, are one of the most devoted segments of horror fandom that exist today. Calling themselves “Deadites,” they’re out in force at every horror convention that features an appearance by a member of the cast or crew. The level of fan support for a thirty-year-old film frankly took some of the cast by surprise several years ago when they discovered that they were in demand to appear at conventions. Nearly forty years ago, the Unimonster had the pleasure of watching this movie at a Drive-In in southeastern Tennessee, not far from where principal photography had taken place; more recently, he had the enjoyment of taking his nephew to see the 2013 remake, this time at the Tibbs Drive-In in Indianapolis. The nephew, already a fan of the original, loved the new version … while the author loved the bond created by the sharing of such similar experiences.
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Creature Feature © D. Dyszel 2021
Dick Dyszel - Voice Actor