We’ve all heard of The Evil Dead. The series. The remake. I will try not to rehash. But why The Evil Dead is and shall always be number one on my list is because the story of its inception is one of the most inspiring instances in cinema that I have ever heard.
Sure, the movie is terrible. Oatmeal is used as bodily fluid at one point. And there is of course the infamous tree scene. How could a film like this one be something that has inspired me time and again to continue along with countless others? Read If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor by Bruce Campbell. Campbell’s autobiography chronicles his acting career, with a very in-depth look into then trilogy that started it all: Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2, and Army of Darkness. Starring as Ash Williams, Campbell hacks, slashes, blasts and otherwise decimates the legion of demons brought on by the Necronomicon with a pithy one-liner and a madcap reaction or physical stunt every step of the way.
The movie is of course iconic to many horror fans – it is for many the original cabin-in-the-woods story, using the vehicle of an ancient book bringing about its cataclysmic consequences. The budget was a handful of change in the producer’s pockets (Sam Raimi, who also doubled as director, Robert Tappert and Campbell himself,) and was made over the course of several years. But what makes this movie stand out, and what has made it an worldwide phenomenon really has nothing to do with how terrible the movie is, or how gross it is, or even how unintentionally funny it is. It is the perseverance of its creators that has made it endure and put it in the minds and hearts of generations.
I don’t know how many movies I have heard of made by young upstarts with a story and a dream who are instantly forgotten, if they are noticed at all. Some are truly talented, others not, but all of them break my heart. They had a dream, a story to tell, that either never saw the light of day, didn’t get the attention it deserved, the helping hand it needed or in many cases didn’t even get finished. But what Raimi’s Evil Dead hit was a perfect storm of time frame along with understanding its audience, and the genuine desire to simply tell a story to as many people who were willing to hear. The drive and passion behind this project is what not only kept it alive, but made it flourish.
Passing the film from campus to campus, The Evil Dead began building a cult audience long before Irvin Shapiro discovered it and took it under his wing. And as its popularity grew and word of mouth spread, soon this ridiculous and scary movie began picking up speed to the point that it garnered two more films, and even a remake in 2013. But what makes it so beloved? Why does Ash’s chainsaw arm stand out among the rest of B-Grade movies out there?
The answer is anyone’s guess, but I can make my one hypotheses. Personally, this is what spoke to me about the movie long before I read If Chins Could Kill. The obvious love and care that went into the creation of it is apparent even before you know the whole story. Yes, it was an overall miserable experience with freezing weather, grueling shooting schedules by an amateur director and uncomfortable makeup and effects. But everyone stuck it out, and no one bailed. Being an actress myself, I have been involved in more creative endeavors that fell to pieces before its completion to know that this is a feat. The fact that Raimi and Co. got this group to hang together for the primary shooting of this film is an achievement within itself.
What struck me second was the cheesiness. The movie was never destined to win an Oscar, let’s be real. But, even with its awkward writing and equally awkward performances, it brought a charm to the characters. You found yourself rooting for them because you liked them. You found yourself yelling or begging for someone to get killed because they annoyed you. Simply put, you cared about the kids in this cabin. You had opinions. Usually, in a cheap horror film you could give two bits what happened to anyone onscreen. The cardboard performances or clunky writing overshadow any sort of interest you may have in them. But with The Evil Dead you get a clumsy sort of charm that keeps you invested.
Finally, the biggest thing for most people, myself included, are the deaths and horror aspects of it all. The crazy demons. The eventual disintegration of the zombie teens, depicted by oatmeal, milk and rainbow-colored liquid oozing from every possible orifice. And then there is the tree scene.
The tree scene deserves its own paragraph. The tree scene is something that reshaped my mind. I rented this movie for my birthday party. None of us had seen it. And when the tree scene happened, we all jumped from our seats in shock, began running it off in circles around the room, and didn’t hear what happened for at least the next two minutes of the movie.
To indoctrinate those who are unaware, quiet artist Cheryl (played by Ellen Sandweiss,) goes out into the woods in the middle of the night to inspect a noise, because that’s what you do. Staying inside where it’s safe is for fascists. Once deep into the woods in the middle of nowhere, since the Necronomicon has been read and therefore has unleashed its demons, Cheryl is captured and raped by a tree. Yes. A tree. A tree goes up her hoo-ha. It’s something that once seen, cannot be unseen, nor can your mind truly comprehend it. It is far too disturbing and ridiculous to believe. But it is safe to say when you are a teenager, seeing this for the first time, unprepared and in a period long before torture porn or seeing things like Last House On The Left, seeing this means all bets are officially off. You need to hold onto your butt and knuckle down. Because if tree molestation can happen, anything can happen.
But above all this, before anything and everything involving this movie, there is Bruce Campbell. Without Bruce Campbell, this movie would have easily disappeared into the annals of history, lost with thousands of other movies made by burgeoning filmmakers with a story they wanted to tell. But Bruce has something charismatic and quirky to him that brings a smile to your face. And with him and Sam being massive Three Stooges fans, The Evil Dead brings the laughs with the screams in the most graceful of ways. The camp of it all steadily ramps itself up as the movies progress, examples being the laughing room and fight with the hand in Evil Dead 2, or the entirety of Army of Darkness.
With his massive eyebrows, goofy grin and impressive pratfalls Campbell can’t help but give comical reactions to every last thing he comes across in this movie. It also isn’t very common to get all these things in such a handsome package, as well. Sure, his mouth is big enough to jam a softball in and a chin that could pop a hole in an oil tanker. But when he turns on the moves, however awkward and adorable it is, you can’t help but know you wouldn’t kick him out of bed for eating crackers. And I say this as a universal truth, whether you are man, woman, gay, straight and everything in between. Ask a guy if he’d spend the night with Bruce Campbell. They will all say yes. Bruce Campbell is the Chuck Norris of horror movies.
Something else that is impressive about Campbell is he has always been a generous man with his audience. He’s always known on which side his bread was buttered. And sure, he’s had to find his path in Hollywood along with his own life in general, but he has always been there for his fans. Without those people, without those kids telling their friends about some crazy movie they saw on campuses and midnight movie theaters, he never would be where he is today. He is beloved in the Horror, Sci-fi and the general TV and film community thanks to Evil Dead, Xena: Warrior Princess, Burn Notice, even off-kilter cult favorites like Bubba Ho-Tep would never have happened without our favorite smartass, time-traveling demon slayer. He’s a character actor with a long reach and a long career, and it’s only getting better.
The trifecta of Campbell, Raimi and Tappert really made a deep mark on horror movie history. They proved that you could balance comedy and terror. You didn’t need millions of dollars to make an enjoyable movie. They surprised us, both in good ways and bad ways. Some very bad ways, that make us wary of nighttime strolls in the woods. They taught us that all things are possible. They showed us that as long as you focus on the story you want to tell, you never fail. You can never know what the future holds for yourself, you just have to trust and hold on when it comes to the things you believe in. Follow your passion.
Above all, they taught us how to not be afraid to fall on your face. If it’s worth a damn, someone will reach out a hand to help you up. And if you truly trust in your goal, you will find your way to success. Sure, it might be back-breaking work. It may take longer than you like. It may be overwhelming. But if you stick with it, anything can come about that you set your mind to.
Hail To The King, Baby.