With Evil Dead hitting theaters this Friday it's been damned near impossible go anywhere on the 'net without coming across press for it (or being startled at 2 a.m. by it's brilliant "Don't Skip it" add on YouTube). The reaction to a remake of a franchise as venerated as this one began predictably enough, with explosive and virulent fury sounding from every message board and comments section. As far I'm concerned this week might as well be a national holiday, with our whole populace coming together to agree on one thing: practical gore effects are wonderful. You may not believe me, but Evil Dead may just be the best remake since John Carpenter's The Thing. We'll hold that argument for the weekend though (tweet me with your reaction once you see it). Today, let's dissect where the series all began.
Within the Woods is the prototype proof of concept created by Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, and Robert Tappert to raise funding for The Evil Dead. Shot on Super 8 for a budget of only $1,600, this thirty-two minute trip through the psyche of a group of young film friends should feel like déjà vu to any hardcore deadite fan. Many of the famous shots and camera techniques which are now so recognizable as part of Raimi's repertoire are on display here, and a good number of the exact shots or sequences were reincarnated in either The Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn. The sequence which sees Annie stab Jake in the stomach with a novelty dagger in a fit of panic, then slams the door into him over and over originated here. As did the concurrent sequence with a possessed Campbell smashing his way through wooden porch lattices to get at his prey. So did the trope of a character frantically trying to unlock the cabin door, the spirit of the woods on her heels but dejectedly backing off once she's inside the relative safety of the cabin. The list of shots and sequences which would go on to become scripture got their genesis in this ambitious short film!
Stitching this further into the flesh of the series are sounds effects which passionate fans have come to recognize as fondly as the Wilhelm scream. The distinct reverberated dirt bike groan of the evil spirit speeding between the trees, the hallowed echo most famous from when Cheryl recites the playing cards then transforms, even notes of scene shaking solitary piano existed first as part of Within the Woods.
I don't want you thinking that this is a shot for shot prototype on which the films you worship were built, but their magic DNA sauce simmered in the same pot. For all of the cataloged similarities this short lacks the famed Necronomicon ex Mortis, instead attributing the evil spirits to Native American folk lore. They're angry because Bruce (played by Campbell) disturbed their sacred ground while picnicking with his girlfriend Ellen (played by Ellen Sandweiss, who also played Cheryl in The Evil Dead and whose voice is used in the new Evil Dead). It's actually Campbell's character who is the primary Deadite, making Ellen our protagonist. Yes there's still a cabin, it still has a creepy cellar with bum stairs, and a guy named Scott dies horribly, but there's enough here demanding fans of the series seek it out (those that haven't already, mind you).
So, now that I've wet your whistles, knotted your shorts, and teased you bigger than Slippery When Wet era Jersey hair; where can you view this grand daddy of it all? I've linked the commonly available version below, which is the same version that's been available since file sharing still hung out with Limewire. The first thing you'll notice is that it's clearly an early VHS bootleg of a Super 8 showing (possibly from the only public showings at a Detroit theater proceeding midnight Rocky Horror Picture Shows- but unlikely since there's no accompanying audience noise). This is clearly a copy, of a copy, of a copy, of a copy times infinity, with massive tracking issues in a number of spots. There has to be a better, crisper version out there, right?
No. Or more accurately: not currently available to the public. The German market release (entitled Tanz Der Teufel - literally "Dance the Devil") includes the poor quality copy available around the web. The early reason it wasn't available is because Raimi used unlicensed music from On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Jaws, Sorcerer, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Deadly Mantis, and Deathwish. This is the most commonly believed rumor surrounding the last minute removal of a remastered version of Within the Woods from Anchor Bay's 2002 release of The Evil Dead (the one which came in a cuddly foam rubber book of the dead case). However that's simply not the reason. Anchor Bay had gotten around the licensing rights by replacing the score while remastering it. The truth emerged sometime later: Sam Raimi put the personal kibosh on it at the zero hour for currently unknown reasons.
So for those of you who want to see Within in the Woods in all of it's original splendor, you only have two choices: find one of the two remaining Super 8 prints (an appropriate projector can be easily had on eBay) or pull off an Ocean's 11 op at the Anchor Bay offices. If you choose the latter, please do the Internet a solid by releasing it into the ether before your inevitable arrest. For the rest of you I suggest watching it in the spirit of reverent 80's horror fans who may have gotten a hold of a rare overseas bootleg (copied from a friend of a friend of a friend). And hey: as a life long fan of the series (even built an Army of Darkness themed Quake II level), I highly recommend the new Evil Dead. Don't forget to tweet me with your reactions (good or bad), I want to know what you thought of them both.
Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Saturday's Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famousColonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA. You can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek or think him a fool of a Took on Twitter.