Combustible Celluloid
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With: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Richard DeManincor (credited as 'Hal Delrich'), Betsy Baker, Theresa Tilly (credited as 'Sarah York'), Ted Raimi
Written by: Sam Raimi
Directed by: Sam Raimi
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 85
Date: 10/14/1981

The Evil Dead (1983)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Ash Back

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Certain fans have always preferred this low-budget original to the much slicker and funnier sequel, Evil Dead II (1987), and looking at it again, I can finally understand why. It ranks more closely with the 1970s classics The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween than it does with the sillier strain of more modern horror films. It probably even played at grindhouses in the days just before home video.

Bruce Campbell stars as one of a carload of college students hoping to spend a fun time in a remote cabin. Ellen Sandweiss, Richard DeManincor, Betsy Baker and Theresa Tilly are his friends. They discover "the book of the dead" in the basement and inadvertently invoke an evil "force" that rips through the woods and turns the revelers into white-eyed zombies. Gallons of blood spill in all kinds of interesting ways.

This low-budget wonder shows a major director, Sam Raimi, emerging fully-formed, pouring imagination and energy into every frame of his feature debut. Raimi attacks the movie with a brutal kind of kinetic creativity, moving the camera in truly unique patterns. Yet the action always appears smooth and fast (no shaky-cam allowed). No other genre movie at the time moved quite as well as this one, with creepy, wide-angle shots, crazy movement within the frame, razor-precise editing, and an eerie, nightmare-inducing sound design. It also upped the ante on movie gore, cheerfully throwing in gallons of gushing, spewing blood, twitching, severed body parts, chainsaws, axes, shotguns; and he stopped the show with a truly horrifying sequence of a woman raped by a tree.

Aside from that sequence, the movie has a deadpan silliness that was new to the otherwise dark, foreboding horror genre. It's equal parts Three Stooges and Night of the Living Dead. It made a cult star out of Bruce Campbell, whose stoic, yet rubbery face and body seemed to move within the unique rhythms of the movie itself. It's streamlined, ageless and undiluted, unquestionably a drive-in masterpiece.

The film began shooting in 1979 and premiered in 1981, though its official theatrical release was in 1983 (thanks to an enthusiastic blurb from Stephen King). Some of the actors used fake names in the credits, and future director Joel Coen was an assistant editor. Sam's brother Ted Raimi, who has since become a great character actor, appears as a "Fake Shemp," or a double for actors who could not be present.

Anchor Bay had released at least two earlier editions of this film on DVD, but their 2007 release is the "Ultimate Edition," a must-have three-disc spectacular. Disc one presents the movie in widescreen, with a commentary track by Raimi and producer Robert Tapert. It also includes a new making-of featurette. Disc two presents the pan-and-scan version with a much funnier commentary track by Bruce Campbell, as well as a full hour of outtakes (most of which are incorporated into the featurette on disc one). Disc three includes a smattering of featurettes, the most interesting of which reunites the three actresses from the film, all of whom tried to put the whole affair behind them. Now they attend conventions and enjoy their cult following. More featurettes talk about conventions and other fan-based events. Then there are photo and poster galleries and trailers. Finally, the box comes with a fold-out, two-sided poster, roughly 14x18."

In 2010, Anchor Bay unleashed the Blu-Ray edition, with the widescreen and fullscreen versions remastered in high-def on one disc. For the first time I've been able to see that the widescreen version is merely cropped and that the "real" version is the full-screen version. This transfer comes with a brand-new commentary track with Raimi, Tapert and Campbell, and though it's less funny than their earlier tracks, it contains a lot of advice for young filmmakers. A second disc is actually a DVD and contains most of the extras from the "ultimate edition." However, two of the commentary tracks -- including Campbell's hilarious solo track -- are missing from this release.

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