Thursday, March 4, 2010

My Date with Ash

The Evil Dead - 1981 - Dir. Sam Raimi
Location: Inwood Theater
Midnight Madness

On my birthday I watched one of my favorite horror films, and favorite zombie flick of all time, Dawn of the Dead. Not only did I love this movie but it was one of the first in the horror genre I saw. Around the same time my dad and I watched another VHS, The Evil Dead, but I'm not sure which was first. I was somewhere around four or five and while I don't remember every detail of the movie I still have memories of bits and pieces. My eyes were opened to the spooky and gorey side of life and I would never turn back.

The film sees a group of five head to a remote cabin for the weekend. Things are certainly going to be fun until they find the odd recording and book in the cellar. Then the forest rapes one of the girls and the possession begins leaving our hero, Ash (Bruce Campbell), to fight off his friends and girlfriend. The forest, or spirits within, won't let them leave so he tries to hang on until morning or until the madness stops. There are scares, gore, a chainsaw and even a pencil in the ankle!

When I revisit films I loved as a kid sometimes I find the magic lies in nostalgia and not in the film itself. Could it be that I hold this among my top horror (and non-horror) films because it was one of my earliest introductions to the genre? Well, I've watched it many times over the last twenty-five or so years and I can safely say that it holds up and validates its place on my list. When I was a kid this was one of the few films that managed to actually scare me to some degree, most of the time I was happily watching others scream and salivating over the gore. At the time I couldn't explain to you what was different about this movie, just that it left a weird feeling in its wake. Now I understand it was the inventive "handheld" camera work and insane sound design which turned this low budget flick into a terrifying classic.

To tackle the point of view of the evil spirit roaming through the woods and in the cabin the camera was evidently bolted to a board and two guys would walk it around where they filmed. The result is a low traveling shaky glimpse into the demonic world. This uneasy technique is enhanced by the brilliance of the sound design. Each little movement is treated with a sound not too overpowering but just right to add to the sense of fear. The moving spirit has it's own sound that you can only hear outside in its point of view, but inside things are symphonic as well. My favorite sequence involves young Ash moving through the house carefully at first and each creaky stair from the cellar builds the tension, until he's running through the cabin to shut doors so the spirit can't get back inside. As the scene progresses the sounds elevate the sense of fear. One of the best is a simple warbled tone as the camera passes by beams while looking down on Ash walking from the ceiling. Such a simple technique adds so much.

Most people know I'm not a huge fan of CG FX in horror films. They rarely look realistic enough to not be laughable, unless you're James Cameron or have WETA on your side. Luckily this was not really done in the early 80s and especially not on a low budget. Here everything is a practical effect, with some terrific make-up on the lovely ladies possessed in the cabin with creepy laughs and oozing wounds all over. More than once stop-motion is used for things they cannot do in real time. They don't look very real but there is something gritty and charming about them. At one point during one of the claymation sequences a girl behind me in the theater let out an "ewww" and it made me smile. Even though it's an old technique that most would scoff at today it still holds the same effect that it did almost thirty years ago.

After the movie ended I was just sitting in my seat and overheard a guy in the theater talking with his friends. He said something like, "this was pretty good but the second one is way funnier." I rolled my eyes, but bit my tongue. People seem to forget that the first in the trilogy is not comedy and more straight horror. Nothing against the other two adventures of Ash but this is by far the best of the three films. I do love Evil Dead 2 for the comedic aspect and ridiculous amounts Kool-Aid looking blood, but the more serious nature of the first film will win out anytime in my mind. There are a few laughable moments in the film, but it should, in no way, be compared to the splatstick style of the others. I was a bit annoyed at some of the laughter, especially during the tree rape scene, but what can you do?

I have a ton of horror shirts, and buy more all the time, but my first horror film t-shirt I bought was from The Evil Dead. Long before I found the many web outlets who carry film shirts I was at a local comic/sci-fi convention with a friend and came across a shirt showing a blood covered Ash wielding a chainsaw high above his head. This was about ten years ago and I still wear it from time to time, though it's quite faded and the image is pretty cracked now. There are many other Evil Dead and/or Ash related pieces of apparel on the market now. Rotten Cotton has a pretty cool design coming out soon in support of the current tour of the uncut print in theaters and it even has the dates on the back (check out the shirt here)! But, by far, my favorite is the super cool special edition from Fright Rags featuring the Ladies of The Evil Dead. As you can see from the design on the right this artwork is insanely cool. The colors jump off the shirt and it brings me joy each time I look at it. Too bad that it's sold out, but hopefully you were one of the lucky ones to get it before they were gone.

There has not been another film to come out on DVD in so many different versions and special editions as The Evil Dead. I've bought a couple of them but have yet to pick up the latest. I really wish they would just pick an ultimate edition and stick with it instead of trying to outdo themselves every couple of years. If you're going to buy it, which you should if you don't already have it, go with either the newest
Ultimate Edition here or you can buy the super cool
Book of the Dead edition here along with the sequels BotD Ed.

I cannot really describe how awesome it was to finally see this film on the big screen in 35mm. I was giddy the entire time and felt like I was glowing when the movie was over. If Grindhouse Releasing's tour of the print comes near your town see it for sure! Find the dates here. Now if someone would only screen Romero's Dawn of the Dead.


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