The Evil Dead Series: A Case Study in Genre and Tone

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In the summer of 1979, a then-twenty-year-old Sam Raimi—along with friends Bruce Campbell and Robert Tapert—began production on the film intended to initiate his career which would later be titled The Evil Dead. Although having previously made short comedies, the filmmakers were inspired by the success of cheap horror movies found at the local drive-ins and endeavored to make a film found in the same genre. However, the filmmakers did not merely regurgitate the same clichés and tropes that often populated these predictable pictures; but instead, they amplified those conventions to new genre extremes and produced a remarkably distinguished first film as a result.

More surprising and noteworthy, however, lies in the gradual phenomena of this first The Evil Dead movie that would spawn a sequel, a trilogy, a remake, a musical, comic books, videogames, and an upcoming TV show—a truly bizarre franchise built from the foundations of its own bizarre style and tone. For although the first film remained rooted in the horror films from which it was inspired, the successive sequels would never return exactly to that same tone and style. Instead, each film moved just left of center—with each consecutive entry adopting different genre and tonal elements that would separate every film from its predecessor—while still managing to playfully expand upon those larger, recognizable icons of the series that attracted initial audiences.

maxresdefaultAs mentioned, the debut film sets itself squarely within the realm of the horror genre—only to magnify certain genre conventions to the extreme while also managing to establish some new ones. Having just arrived after the birth of the teen slasher, (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Friday the 13th), The Evil Dead isolates these college students in a remote cabin surrounded by woods, marshes, and a thick atmosphere of menace that seems to saturate every scene. More importantly, it is their exploration of the cabin’s subterranean cellar that the five find the taped recordings of the Naturom Demonto (Necronomicon Ex-Mortis in later films)—the Sumerian grimoire capable of unleashing supernatural entities that lie somewhere between the demonically possessed and a zombie—called Deadites.

From this point forward, the premise essentially serves as a vehicle for Raimi and his cohorts to employ every conceivable gag fueled by their imagination and able to be materialized by their shoestring budget. More impressively, and to similar effect as the nonfunctioning shark of Spielberg’s Jaws, these budgetary limitations were often responsible for some of the film’s most creative moments. For instance, the filmmakers conceived of a camera effect that simulates the effect of a rapidly “whooshing” spirit accelerating toward the cabin that still works to this day—and which would become a hallmark of the series.

And while these small hints of horror help raise tension, it does not take long for these supernatural spirits to turn truly mean and nasty. In the series’ most infamous moments, Cheryl chases a menacing spirit into the surrounding woods, where a tree paralyzes, attacks, then rapes her. As ridiculous as such an idea sounds in print, the execution of the scene leaves the audience in genuine discomfort—as the visualization of this metaphorical horror of rape situates the audience squarely within the position of being a woman under the control of a cruel and relentless entity beyond her power to overcome.

Although the rules remain a bit fuzzy throughout the series as to who becomes infected by the deadites, when, why, etc., the chaotic nature of not having a clearly defined mythology also allows for a unique sense of surprise to be a weapon always within the filmmakers’ grasp—one to be deployed quite often. For following Cheryl’s attack, she becomes the first full-fledged deadite to appear—revealing a gruesomely deformed face, eerie voice, and supernatural powers—though the group manages to lock and chain her in the cellar, where she serves as another element of suspense just outside the edge of frame.

For a film with this budget, the effects are beyond commendable. They offer not just a repeat of the Romero zombies, nor a cheap imitation of Reagan from The Exorcist, but a very peculiar visual presentation of these Evil Dead. Raimi’s decision to continually employ POV shots from beneath the cellar works as an especially creative effect—one that would become a favorite choice of the filmmaker throughout the rest of his career.

A number of other noteworthy moments occur within this first film. The possession of Ash’s girlfriend—Shelly—stand out as particular highlight, along with the many, many ways the filmmakers figure for buckets of blood, gore, and other gross-out moments to proliferate on-screen. But more than even these admirable moments of inventive craft put forth by the young filmmakers, it’s the specific tone of this first film that demands particular attention.

There’s a very fine line between horror and comic absurdity in which this film—and much of Raimi’s filmography—thrives. While the second veers more definitely toward a horror/comedy, and the third would inhabit a singular genre somewhere between fantasy, horror, and comedy—the first wears a very clear coat of horror, though elements of both the comedic and the absurd still find ways to sneak through the cracks.

Moreover, the first film can be classified most definitely within the horror genre for an atmosphere of dread that hangs over the majority of the running time. There are slow-building sequences meant to evoke a clear sense of terror and imminent doom that is absent from later sequels. In doing so, the film retains an inimitable tone that allows this distinct genre quality to remain evident to this day, despite the deluge of imitators that have followed in its wake. Moreover, this unique quality is mostly manifested through the series’ main character:

Ash.

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While instances like Cheryl’s rape and her subsequent imprisonment through the cellar (along with the famous “What’s wrong with her eyes” line) transmit the feeling of unnerving supernatural horror at the story’s premise, the filmmakers are also able to recognizable the similar, absurd nature of the supernatural. Bruce Campbell’s character of Ash serves as perhaps the best vehicle for this idea. While other characters (and any rational human being placed into these gruesome circumstances) would no doubt react with some form of shock or adrenaline-filled survival instincts, Ash reacts with an attitude of someone seemingly born with the destiny of killing Deadites (an idea that would be conceived literally in later sequels). Despite seeing his sister, his girlfriend, and his friend undergo these monstrous perversities from the dead, Ash appears to almost revel—and thrive—within these circumstances.

In doing so, he transfers some of this glee to the audience. What begins as the slow stalking of five friends within an isolated cabin transforms into something closer to a carnival show—though one that still retains an atmosphere of dread. While this veil of dread that hangs over much of the first film would be considerably reduced in the sequels, the original film remains so inimitable and relevant for being able to so expertly straddle within this distinct territory.

Still, this is not a criticism of the later films—just an observation of the stark differences that separate each entry. For when the filmmakers returned for the sequel in Evil Dead II, they opted not to return to that same realm which they had successfully conquered in the original. Instead, the filmmakers retained the most recognizable elements and moved in favor of focusing on an absurdist comedy with horror elements, rather than a horror with elements of absurd—as seen in the original.

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Again, Ash serves as perhaps the best embodiment of the film’s tone. From the start, the sequel abandons the atmosphere of dread that crept over the first film, and instead, it chooses to embrace a tone closer to the slapstick of The Three Stooges somehow mixed with those horror elements introduced in its predecessor. Ash’s initial fight with his Deadite-girlfriend, his battle against his own hand that results in his chopping off the appendage then replacing it with a chainsaw, the Looney Toones-like appearance of the bridge that cuts off the cabin from the mainland—all representative of the adoration for absurdist comedy roots that the sequel so warmly embraces.

In some ways, the film may represent an aspect of Raimi that the rest of his filmography has yet to find compare. A film that manages to merge all his genre obsessions: horror, slapstick, excellent sense of rapid-pace editing, and larger-than-life storytelling that are all so idealized within this sequel. Whether one prefers that atmosphere of dread in the original, or this gleeful amalgamation of comedy and horror that so defines the sequel, Raimi’s command of craft and clear ability to modulate both genre and tone in service of his vision remain without debate.

And yet, despite these successes in both genre arenas, the filmmakers shifted for another—much, much more radical shift in tone—with the series’ third entry: Army of Darkness. With the conclusion of Evil Dead II having exiled Ash through a time portal and into the medieval past, the film now adopts a tone that retains some of the tongue-in-cheek/slapstick comedy of the second, the recognizable horror elements of the first, and fully embraces an entirely new realm for these former hallmarks to play: Fantasy.

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Outside the most surface-level horror qualities (skeletons, gore, the Necronomicon, blood, etc.)—the atmospheric horror of dread that so saturated the first film and still seeped itself into the sequel—that horror has been overhauled in favor of a more fantastic arena for Ash’s continual battle with the Evil Dead. Again, this is not necessarily a criticism, as a point of comparison for the series’ continual genre expansion.

Instead, Army of Darkness maneuvers its comedic touchstones into some of the series’ most iconic one-liners, while also allowing the slowly evolving action hero of Ash to fulfill his status in the most literal way. Ash’s fights against his alter-ego—Evil Ash—with his shotgun and chainsaw as weapons against an army of skeletons—plays out with all the fun and adventure of a Frank Frazetta painting brought to life then filtered through Raimi’s imagination. Campbell, as well, has been afforded his first true vehicle to shine as a charismatic action star (even more so than II which still had bits of an ensemble) and both delivers beyond expectations while also helping carry some of the film’s weaker moments. His tongue-in-cheek confrontations with the medieval knights, his methods of crowd control through the demonstration of his boomstick, and his refusal to ever correctly recalls the right words to the Necronomicon all play to hilarious effect.

Finally, after more than a twenty-year-lapse, the franchise found itself resurrected in a remake that dropped the “the” and simply presented itself as Evil Dead. With Raimi on board as a producer rather than as a director for the first time in franchise history, the remake returns to the horror roots of the series’ past. However, the remake is a curious beast. On the one hand, it’s admirable that they committed to telling their own premise—of helping a young woman named Mia go cold turkey and isolating her in the cabin in the woods to do so. With the genre trope of teenagers merely retreating to an isolated cabin for a vacation being so worn out and spoofed in the decades since the original’s debut, this interesting spin works as an intriguing twist on a now-worn-out premise.

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Moreover, in terms of genre, newcomer Fede Alvarez refuses to hold back in delivering a brutal, explicitly gory version of the Evil Dead into this reinvention. The remake retains the series’ hallmarks—sometimes to clunky effect—such as the Necronomicon, the chainsaw, a possessed hand, trapping someone in the cellar—and though some of these franchise staples are able to be organically weaved into this new premise, there are some moments that feel like awkward fan-servicing.

Still, following the original and its sequel, this remake would probably rank just above Army of Darkness. The gory horror of this go-around can be effective at times—there are some truly squirm-inducing moments that viewers are unlike to forget. Although some ideas like the supernatural witch of the cold opening or merging the Mia character into both the Ash/Cheryl role are interesting, these updates never explore the full potential of their concepts or figure out a way to seamlessly merge their mythology with that of the original. Though the cold-turkey-drug-addiction idea is an intriguing one, this too feels like wasted potential in the race to service all the iconic scenes of the series’ past.

In terms of tone and genre, however, there are two absences that are most responsible for the biggest differences between the remake and its original. The first lies in the choice to pursue a type of horror more focused on the shock of gore than the atmospheric horror found in the first. Due to both the budget and the decision to pursue a mood of terror, The Evil Dead offers a type of horror than leans more toward one of disturbing the viewer than one of pure shock value. Both Cheryl’s rape and locking her in the cellar—continuing to taunt from beneath with her unnerving voice—serving as perhaps the best examples of this.

In the remake, the scares lean much heavier on the shock and vividness of the gore, rather than an imbuing a sense of atmosphere. Many of the sequences are executed without a sense of escalation; instead, the gore just tends to “happen” before the narrative transitions to the next sequence. This is not necessarily a criticism, as the filmmakers are committed to executing their gory take on the series and succeed in this effort—as the gore is truly commendable and capable of creating some of the best contributions in this specific regard to the horror genre for the post-2000 period.

The second most obvious and noteworthy differences lies in the absence of Ash. Knowing that the series’ icon only exists when embodied by Campbell, the filmmakers were wise to reroute the story in the form of a new character: Mia. Again, her twist on the tale as a drug addict attempting to go clean is interesting, and the decision to anchor her character at the forefront works for the most part—especially in regard to the ending. The cost of losing Campbell’s Ash, however, results in arguably the most crucial ingredient for translating the specific tone of the series to the audience.

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As mentioned, Ash’s reactions to the supernatural horrors around him are responsible for the blend of true horror and absurd comedy that is so emblematic of the series. With Mia’s possession, the tone turns into one of a more typical horror film. Again, though the remake works well for the most part—and has some spectacular gore effects that deserve praise—it’s the loss of this quality of tone that remains the most significant difference between the remake and the work of Raimi.

For although those aspects of terror found in most horror films are found within Evil Dead—e.g. teenagers in the woods picked off one-by-one, gross-out moments of gore—Bruce Campbell’s Ash character stands as the iconic element that delineates between the weird mix of horror and gleeful absurdity that separate The Evil Dead from more typical horror films. Indeed, Ash’s role in each film helps orient the viewer into the specific tone found in each: whether it’s the more atmospheric horror of the first, the mix of slapstick/absurdist comedy horror in the second, or the action-hero in a world of fantasy found in the third—Ash’s character has evolved into the ultimate icon for defining each entry.

While the remake works effectively, and serves as an interesting exercise in gaining insight into how the series functions, Ash’s involvement seems more integral to the series’ future than that of the Deadites or the other more recognizable horror elements that have been imitated by other films since the original’s debut. Still, besides it’s iconic character, what seems to separate this series and allowed its continued interest over the decades for fans both old and new, can be found in its choice of continued genre expansion.

Each entry refuses to retreat into delivering something that has been seen previously, and whether it succeeds as successfully or not, the decision to always push the series toward new genre territories should be celebrated and applauded. Additionally, with the series now having been translated into a variety of mediums—from a musical, to comic books, video games, and a new TV series on the way—audience interest in all-things Evil Dead remains as relevant as ever with no signs of decline. One hopes that those responsible will continue the legacy of delivering the most recognizable elements that audiences love while also honoring the tradition of pushing the series toward new genre grounds that has come to be the most defining features found in the bizarre series that is The Evil Dead.

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