You can’t underestimate the influence of The Evil Dead, even if it hasn’t aged quite as well as some other films (and that’s through no fault of its own — it was quite simply so influential, and so widely imitated, it now looks dated).
The answer’s simple: it diverged wildly from its early 80s brethren, despite the same starting off point: college students in the woods.
From there, it went orthogonal, creating its own sub-genre by combining surrealism, the more weirdo elements of Italian gore with over-the-top blood and off-the-charts glee.
No strip teases, heavy breathing, red herrings, or dance routines. The Evil Dead is Bob Clark / John Carpenter POV pumped with amphetamines. It’s a kind of Italian futurism of horror, a visual representation of energy, glorifying speed. And speaking of Italians, the film has the spooky smoke and dry ice of super Mario Bava’s cemeteries. And of course, there’s an evil tome. It’s impossible not to smile when you hear how it was written in Ancient Sumeria, when the seas “ran red with blood.”
The Evil Dead wore its influences on its sleeve, but like the splatter + homage of Re-Animator, created a whole new shirt in the process.
And what would it be without its protagonist who was subtly above the material, a winking (though not condescending) character in the form of the incomparable Ash (Bruce Campbell). It’s that kind of character that’s the very hardest to pull off in horror and the template was laid here.
The resourceful jokester Scotty is much more pragmatic than the fat funnymen who came after.
When under attack by Candarian demons, he implores a sheepish axe-wielding Ash to “hit it,” only to snatch the weapon and do the deed himself. He subsequently says “she’s your girlfriend, I’m leaving,” as honest and businesslike an approach to self preservation as you’ll ever see.
But what was so cool about The Evil Dead was how it established the otherness of the woods. Other horror movie campers cheerfully chug beer in the blinding sun of the open road. The dark, multi-view perspective Sam Raimi shows us when the college crew is cabin-bound is much more visually arresting and ominous than coeds blissfully cranking up the stereo en route to the site of their demise.
And of course, the film was remade (please see our Evil Dead review) in a production which, while visually arresting and kinetic, was thoroughly devoid of fun.
And the first Evil Dead is all about fun.
**** (out of 5)