The horror genre thrives on two things: simplicity and ambiguity. With that in mind, “The Evil Dead” is quintessential horror cinema, as it is the simple story of a group of college students who decide to vacation at a remote cabin in the woods, find a mysterious Book of the Dead and an audio recording in the cabin’s basement, play the tape, and unwittingly unleash demonic entities who, one by one, take over the group of five friends, torturing them through possession and bodily dismemberment the whole way.
That’s it! That’s the entire plot of “The Evil Dead,” and it was literally the design of filmmakers Sam Raimi (director), Rob Tapert (producer) and Bruce Campbell (star) to emulate the boom of transgressive horror films occurring in the late ’70s. Taking their cue largely from “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” and “The Hills Have Eyes” (the latter being referenced in the movie itself) while tapping into Lovecraftian body horror and “Exorcist”-style dread, the Michiganders concocted a film they cheekily referred to on-screen as “The Ultimate Experience in Grueling Terror,” and that label turns out not to be facetious.
To be fair, there is humor in the original “Evil Dead,” some of it intentional thanks to the fellas being big “Three Stooges” fans. Yet the many behind-the-scenes hardships and held-together-with-tape nature of the movie only makes it that much more charming while keeping it grounded enough to still be chillingly upsetting. Raimi’s film-drunk exuberance makes the film consistently thrilling with his inventive camera trickery, and Campbell’s hapless sap Ash is the perfect Final Boy. 40-odd years on, “The Evil Dead” is still so unrelenting and transgressive that the Dead’s mantra proves irresistible to this day: “Join us.” (Bill Bria)