Halloween Historical Review: The Evil Dead (1981) – (★★★)

EvilDeadHISTORICAL HALLOWEEN: When I started scouting for Halloween themes I was given the suggestion of doing “video nasties.” I had little concept of what this was other than a time British censorship against horror films and decided to go for it. Between now and October 31st I’ll be review fourteen films that ended up on the infamous “video nasty list,” and discussing their merits as a film as well as the reasons they were placed on the list in the first place. Not all of these are iconic nor are all of them seminal films in the debate at the time. I tried to find films that had name recognition both here and across the pond, as well as films that just sounded good or had interesting actors/directors associated with them. As we get closer to Halloween the more memorable titles will become prevalent.

The first film to kick us off is probably the most identifiable title, appealing to both horror and genre fans: Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead. It’s not hard to see why this ended up on a list of banned films for its gore, but that ignores the humor of the movie and the strong acting from the cast assembled. So, let’s get nasty with The Evil Dead!

I should go back a tick and explain what the term “video nasty” actually means to us non-Brits. In the early 1980s an organization called the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association came out against overly violent films, specifically in the horror genre. Due to a loophole, films released to videocassette weren’t subject to viewing by the British Board of Film Censors who could have banned or censored the movies in question, leading the NVLA to campaign against the threat of these grotesque movies being readily available to children. After a vigorous campaign a list of 72 titles – our eponymous “video nasties” – were brought to the BBFC’s attention as being in violation of the Obscene Publications Act of 1959. (Yes, because 1959 and 1980 had a lot in common.) Because of the list, Parliament passed the Video Recordings Act of 1984, forcing all home video releases to pass before the BBFC for certification; this, in turn, put stricter censorship laws on cinematic releases, as well. Several of these titles have obtained certification over the decades with minimal edits or uncut. However, despite the Video Recordings Act of 1984 being repealed in 2009, it was re-enacted without any changes and became the Video Recordings Act of 2010.

The Evil Dead was considered the most violent film of the time period and the “number one nasty,” both due to its gruesome nature and its status as the best-selling home video release of the year. Hard to believe considering its story, which follows the time tested “cabin in the woods” formula. The film follows Ash (Bruce Campbell) and four friends as they visit a remote cabin. The group discovers a mysterious book with audio accompaniment which the group reads. Unknowingly, they unleash the flesh-eating demons from The Book of the Dead, which starts turning all the members of the group, one by one.

Sam Raimi crafted a very low-budget debut that ended up yielding huge dividends after release to the point that Raimi went back with Evil Dead evildeadlindaII and remade this with better effects. As someone who saw The Evil Dead as an adult, the movie is a great mix of genuine scares and laughs. The basic set-up doesn’t deviate  from tradition as we meet our group who end up being stuck in a cabin they can’t get out of. However, Raimi actually keeps the tropes to a minimum; there’s no bikini clad sexpots or douchey jock. Instead, he crafts a group of relatable college students who aren’t overly horny or drunk. Bruce Campbell became the horror movie everyman as Ash, just struggling to understand what the hell is going on. He’s also got a very loving chemistry with Betsy Baker who plays his girlfriend Linda. Baker, Theresa Tilly as Shelly, and Ellen Sandweiss as Cheryl are all fleshed-out in as much as you can in a horror movie without it coming off as outright exposition, and none of them are easily categorized into female horror victim roles. You could make the argument that Linda is the pure one of the group, all blonde hair and swathed in white, making her demonic possession bittersweet. On the flipside, Baker can be utterly disturbing in the makeup and little girl voice once Linda is possessed. Her sing-songy “We’re gonna get you” always gives me chills.

Where The Evil Dead got slapped with the “video nasty” moniker was its gore, and boy is there a lot and violence, although the violence is naturalistic and comical at various points. The “tree rape” sequence, one of many rape scenes I’ll have to watch during this series, is certainly disturbing, but not as graphic or exaggerated as it could be. Outside of the single penetrative sequence, the camera doesn’t linger or revel in showcasing it. The rest of the gore is standard grue coming out of orifices, none of which looks particularly real.  The amazing work is done with the makeup of the possessed, right down to having the eyes rolled into the back of the head coupled with the weird movements of the actors. Raimi knows the intensity he’s creating and thus uses levity every chance he gets. When Linda’s being slapped around by Ash during her possession, she starts giggling causing Ash to keep hitting her, the humor stemming from how ineffective the violence is. Ash shyly saying “We can’t bury Shelly. She’s a friend of ours” is met with utter indifference by Scott (Richard DeManicor).

For all the “video nasties” list does in its attempt to censor, they ignore context and The Evil Dead is a prime example. Yes, it’s gruesome, but the gore is so over-the-top that, coupled with the humor, it becomes silly. I’m expecting to see some very difficult movies whose subject matter warrants oversight, but The Evil Dead is the more populist one in the bunch.