When Sam Raimi directed his 1978 short film Within the Woods, it would’ve been quite a leap to imagine where it would take him. From accusations that he’d made a video nasty with 1981’s The Evil Dead, to a battle over access to his own footage with Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn in 1987, by the time he’d take the trilogy to medieval times with Army of Darkness in 1992 he was already onto cult classic status. The Evil Dead had gained some traction in the early years of the home video revolution after failing to garner much box office success, and the behind-the-scenes stories about the chaos pre and post-production are just as intriguing as the film itself.
Sam Raimi and the star of the trilogy, Bruce Campbell, had grown up together as friends. They had already made a series of amateur films together by the time The Evil Dead was a twinkle in Raimi’s eye. It was during shooting for one of these, It’s Murder!, that inspiration struck. During a particularly tense day of shooting which included a scene that was entirely tended towards suspense, the two had so much fun that they began to wonder whether a career in horror was their calling. After visiting several drive-in cinemas to research the genre, Within the Woods was made with the help of producer Robert G. Tapert (who would go on to co-write and direct Xena: Warrior Princess) on a modest budget of $1,600 as a way for Raimi to showcase his skills as a filmmaker. Knowing that converting his idea to a full-length feature would take a lot more money, he consulted a lawyer who he knew through a friend, Phil Gillis, for advice.
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Raimi showed Gillis Within the Woods to little applause. Gillis didn’t quite get it, but he was happy to lend his assistance in the form of legal advice either way. What would now probably be something like a Kickstarter campaign wasn’t quite as accessible in the 80s, so Raimi had to literally beg for donations to get his idea off the ground. Bruce Campbell even secured some money from family members who believed in the project.
With a cast and crew made up almost entirely of friends and family, Tapert would reprise his role as a producer and Raimi placed an ad in a local Detroit newspaper to find the few actors he was missing. With Bruce Campbell already on board as a producer, he got the role of Ash Williams, the film’s protagonist, just on the convenience of him already having made the commitment to stick around for the entirety of the project. Ellen Sandweiss, who appeared in Within the Woods, came on board as Ash’s sister, Cheryl, and Betsy Baker was cast as Ash’s girlfriend, Linda, having responded to the ad.
Described by Campbell as “Three schmoes in search of a clue“, he, Raimi and Tapert were originally planning to shoot the whole film in Raimi’s hometown of Royal Oak, Michigan. When it became clear that production would be easier in Tennesee for the sake of the state’s support, resources dictated that shooting moved to the woods of Morristown instead. Without any money to pay a location scout, the crew went in search of something suitable themselves instead. Eventually, they happened upon an old abandoned log cabin with a few working amenities where most of the shooting took place. The only scenes that weren’t shot there were the basement sequences, which either took place in Tapert’s farmhouse or Raimi’s garage.
Being in the middle of nowhere and at the mercy of a small budget, the cabin also served as the living quarters for all thirteen members of the cast and crew. The plumbing in the building was so bad that bathing was near on impossible, as was any form of heating. Towards the end of the shoot, they even had to resort to burning furniture to keep warm. With everything that Raimi came up against in willing The Evil Dead into existence, the resilience is only matched by his protagonist, Ash.
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As one of a group of five travelling into the woods for a vacation, there isn’t anything that particularly stands out about Ash. He’s very much just one of the group. When they arrive at the cabin, it isn’t long before things get spooky. A lone swing bench is a couple of steps away from the front door, and as they approach it’s swinging in a fairly lively manner. When Scotty, played by Raimi’s friend Richard Demanincor, touches the door handle for the first time, the swing bench suddenly and decisively stops still. Once they’re inside, Cheryl becomes the easy target.
As she’s drawing a picture of the clock in her room, the clock stops. A faint voice whispers “join us” and she loses control of her hand, furiously drawing an image of a demon’s face, applying so much pressure as to press through several pages of her sketchbook. She keeps it a secret, but whatever evil entity that’s in this cabin in one form or another doesn’t stop there. The cellar door blows open and prompts Ash and Scotty to investigate, and that’s where they find the Book of the Dead, along with a tape recorder hosting a recording of the incantation that releases the demonic entity onto the cabin in full force.
Throughout the events of the film, Ash has to see his sister and his best friends become possessed deadites. In surviving, he has to make the ultimate sacrifice a number of times, and it’s only through sheer willpower that he’s able to make it to the morning. He hasn’t yet become the wisecracking character that we all know from the sequels and the TV spin-off, so he acts more of a conduit for us to project ourselves onto. By the end of its short run-time, a certain empathy through exhaustion gives us an idea of how much it must have taken to make the film in the first place.
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There are two scenes which come early on that are up there with some of the most iconic images in the history of horror. The tamer of the two, if such a word can be appropriate, actually comes a bit later in the film. A fully possessed Cheryl has been locked in the cellar with some chains above the hatch to keep her in there. When Linda gets within arm’s reach, Cheryl stabs her in the ankle with a pencil. Although the whole production was confined to such tight budgetary limits, the practical effects on show for it are so realistic that it’s impossible not to wince. The sequence to get us there is perhaps the one that crosses the line, though.
Cheryl is possessed when the events of the cabin get too much for her. The group are listening to the tape recording of the words that are in this creepy, flesh-bound book that they’ve just found in the cellar. She screams at them to turn it off and they don’t, right at the moment when a tree branch smashes through a window. She has to get away from it, so she exits to have some alone time in the woods. There’s no easy way to say that she’s then raped by a tree.
It’s this kind of content, or at least the talk about this kind of content, that landed The Evil Dead with the reputation of being a video nasty, particularly in the UK. Mary Whitehouse was a prominent campaigner against the rise in popularity of these kinds of films, and she had ranked The Evil Dead as “the number one video nasty”, despite admitting to having never seen it, along with many other titles she was campaigning against. In a bid to gain support, she screened excerpts from the film at the House of Commons to an audience of sitting MPs which included then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Under the terms of the Obscene Publications Act, police were able to seize any material which they believed was in breach, and the Director of Public Prosecutions encouraged them to act on that with any copies of The Evil Dead. The police then began raiding video shops across the UK with little guidance regarding what they were looking for. The maximum sentence for possession of a videotape that was considered obscene was 2 years in prison and a £20,000 fine. Famously, the Scala Cinema in Kings Cross, London, was tipped off before the police were about to arrive and hid all copies of The Evil Dead that were on the premises. The scale of the attack on the industry threatened the livelihoods of many independent retailers across the country.
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This led to Sam Raimi, with support from its distributor at the time, Palace Pictures, standing trial at Leeds Crown Court to defend the film from twelve alleged breaches of the act. After a short trial, The Evil Dead was found not guilty of any infringement of the Obscene Publications Act, and a letter was written to the Director of Public Prosecutions asking for any remaining charges involving The Evil Dead to be dropped immediately. In defending their own film, they gave something back to the industry that found it an audience.
It’s amazing to think that with all the hurdles that it faced both pre-production and post-release, The Evil Dead has since gone on to be such an influential film in world cinema. With a list that includes films like Gremlins, Beetlejuice, and, of course, Peter Jackson’s Braindead, we’ve all come into contact with something that wouldn’t quite be the same without it. If there’s one film that acts as evidence for why so many of the aspects of cinema history that it represents are so important – indy filmmaking, the horror genre, the home video revolution – then it’s The Evil Dead.
The Evil Dead was released in the UK on 16th January 1983.