This year marks the 30th anniversary of the summer of 1983, and while it can’t help to match the summer of ’82 for the sheer staggering number of classics… well, you guys really dug our film-by-film coverage last year, and we’d love to follow it up with a milder but equally enjoyable trip down memory lane. We’ll start with a controversial classic that recently popped up again in reboot form.
We seriously debated whether or not Sam Raimi’s original The Evil Dead belonged here, not because it isn’t fantastic, but because it was “officially” released in 1981. It stands as one of the greatest indie success stories of all time, created by a gang of knuckleheads from Michigan State with whatever loose change that they could convince the local dentists to loan them. Accordingly, it took some time to find its audience. The 1981 release date refers to its premiere at Detroit’s Redford Theater, a favorite childhood haunt of star Bruce Campbell. They had no distribution, so it was basically a one-shot: after that, they basically showed it to whoever they could, a lengthy campaign culminating in its out-of-competition screening at the Cannes Film Festival in 1982. Along the way, it gained some big supporters, including Fangoria magazine and horror icon Stephen King (who convinced Dino Di Laurentiis to pony up the dough for the sequel). New Line – then solely a distribution company – finally picked it up based on the positive buzz, and opened it at the Filmex Festival thirty years ago today, April 15, 1983 (with a national rollout nine days later). It ultimately recouped eight times its production budget in theaters; Great Britain’s censorship bureau subsequently condemned it as a “video nasty…” which of course turned it into a home video sensation and cemented its status as a cult classic.
While its lengthy battle to find its audience speaks to the filmmakers’ tenacity, the film itself speaks to a much different fact: that they were born to make movies. With a twelve-person crew crammed into a teeny cabin in the woods, Raimi delivered a seemingly endless array of practical camera tricks to give his schlock some pep. POV shots, wide-angle lenses, the occasional clever framing device… all of it delivered not only an unusual sense of imagination but also the credible impression of a monstrous evil in the woods without spending a dime of the film’s nonexistent budget. The plot itself didn’t have much going for it – another simplistic tale of dippy teens in a remote locale who unleash an evil that devours them all one by one – but Raimi’s innovative ways to frame his action gave it a sense of identity that helped it stand out from the pack.
The sense of humor helped too. While not as satirical as its (equally brilliant) sequel, The Evil Dead found the right tongue-in-cheek tone to mix with its copious bloodshed. It’s hard to refer to anything in a movie this balls-out as “subtle,” but Raimi knew how far to push the humor without overwhelming the horror. He didn’t want to mock his own low-budget tackiness, merely infuse it with the right sense of fun. Had he tried what he did with Evil Dead 2 this time around, he might have botched the whole thing. Here, the horror remains the primary purpose of the exercise, goosed forward with some self-aware gags that fill it with energy rather than serving as an apology for the production.
In fact, like many other beloved films of its ilk, the shoddy effects and questionable acting become part of the charm rather than a reason to dismiss it. The Evil Dead wouldn’t feel the same without those stop-motion infections spreading along the actor’s feet, or the superimposed moon vanishing beneath an obviously artificial inky cloud. They become part of the film’s shared universe, which would have been destroyed by a higher-end production. (It’s worth noting that the recent remake – with plenty of cash to play with – still needed some chicken-wire-and-string embellishments to retain any street cred.)
Raimi’s inventiveness ultimately served as a calling card for later films, though he needed a couple of sequels and a few badly mangled misfires to reach that point. But the most telling thing about The Evil Dead is how much of that potential appeared onscreen: that the guy who helmed three enormous Spider-Man films and the highest grossing movie so far this year started out with nothing but a little sleight of hand and a burning desire to make the best movie he could. They’ve served him well over the years. More importantly, they do justice to the film he directed: one of the shining lights of the horror genre and the reason why many of us keep sifting through the genre’s endless array of bargain-basement refuse. The Evil Dead came out of that heap, after all. Something equally awesome could be there right now, just waiting to be discovered.