The Evil Dead At 40: Movies Retrospective

The Evil Dead, one of the first horror films I ever saw as a kid and one that left a lasting impression on me. Seeing as the original film turns 40-years-old this October (15th)… and October being Halloween, I thought I would do a fitting movie retrospective. Pre-warning, this is going to be a big one.

Within the Woods

WITHIN THE WOODS TITLE

So, not technically an official Evil Dead film but Within the Woods could be seen more as a prototype to The Evil Dead. Released in 1978, this was written and directed by Sam Raimi, produced by Robert Tapert and starred Bruce Campbell. A trio of friends that would go on to create the entire Evil Dead franchise.

Within the Woods is a short 30-minute movie that tells the story of four teenagers spending the weekend in a cabin in the woods. An unseen evil force begins to stalk the teens as they settle into the cabin. Bruce (that’s his character’s name) tells his girlfriend that they’re actually staying on an ancient Indian burial ground, but assures her that things will be fine as long as they don’t disrespect the dead. Bruce then goes for a little exploration and finds a dagger that once belonged to the Indians. He decides to take the dagger, so completely ignoring his own advice about not disrespecting the dead.

Unsurprisingly, Bruce is later found dead when the others begin to worry that he has not returned and go looking for him. Of course, he returns from the dead, only now possessed. While hiding out in the cabin, the now possessed Bruce begins to terrorise his friends. He has his hand cut off, his body dismembered and possessed Bruce is finally stopped… but there’s a twist ending to show that it’s not quite over yet.

WITHIN THE WOODS SCREEN 1

When you watch Within the Woods, you can really see the origins of what would become The Evil Dead. The staples are there and quite a few of the early ideas from this film eventually ended up finding their way into the later movies (demonic possession, ancient dagger, Bruce having his hand cut off, etc). You’ll also definitely spot Sam Raimi’s direction style, even this early on. Bruce is the bad guy here and the film features some very basic but effective effects work. You can find the film fairly easily online with a quick interwebs search. But be warned, it is of very low quality. I don’t mean in terms of acting, etc (though that is true) more that the film quality itself is very poor. Honestly, it is barely watchable but still worth a look at just to see the origins of The Evil Dead.

WITHIN THE WOODS SCREEN 2

Within the Woods was actually shown in the cinema too. It was screened alongside The Rocky Horror Picture Show in a local theatre in Detroit, Michigan. Raimi persuaded the cinema owner to screen the film to show people what he could do and try to raise some funds to make a bigger and better film. It worked. The film created a small buzz locally and Raimi managed to raise some capital from local business owners to ‘remake’ Within the Woods with a lot of the same cast and crew. That ‘remake’ became The Evil Dead.

The Evil Dead

TRHE EVIL DEAD

I really don’t think that this film needs an introduction or any kind of a plot synopsis. The Evil Dead is one of the most (in)famous and important horror films ever made. I’m still going to do one though. Once more, the trio of Sam Raimi, Robert Tapert and Bruce Campbell team up to (basically) remake their earlier film, Within the Woods.

University students Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell), his girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker), Ash’s sister Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), friend Scott (Hal Delrich/Richard DeManincor) and Scott’s girlfriend, Shelly (Sarah York/Theresa Tilly) all head to a very remote cabin in the woods for a bit of fun. In the cabin, a cellar door is discovered and in that cellar, Ash and Scott find an ancient dagger, a tape recorder and a book… the Necronomicon, AKA the Book of the Dead. The tape recorder is played and on it is an incantation that calls forth a demonic entity.

TRHE EVIL DEAD SCREEN 1

The entity begins to possess the youngsters one by one, except for Ash. Ash soon finds himself fighting for his life (and his sanity) as he has to kill his possessed friends to stay alive, doing anything he can to survive the night. Dawn comes and Ash is the only one of the five left alive. Relieved, he leaves the cabin beaten, bruised and tired but alive… for a while.

I really don’t think I can say anything about The Evil Dead that hasn’t already been said a thousand times over the last four decades. It’s a classic, one of the finest horror films made, not just of the late seventies (when this was actually made, not released until 1981) but ever. Even today, it still has an impact and a unique style to the filmmaking that has never been matched… not even by the sequels.

I was a young kid in the early eighties the first time I saw The Evil Dead. My dad used to have an old reel-to-reel film projector (before VHS became commonplace) and he’d hang a white bedsheet to the wall to watch films. What was amazing about seeing The Evil Dead back then was the fact that it was pretty much impossible to do so here in England. The film was massively controversial and even declared as being ‘obscene’ here in the UK, largely thanks to Mary Whitehouse (look her up) and the whole ‘video nasty’ movement (look it up). Anyway, if anyone was caught selling or renting The Evil Dead, they could be prosecuted. As explained by the BBFC themselves:

“Although the cinema version had been approved by the BBFC, there were concerns that the lack of an effective age rating system on video – and the easy availability of videos once they entered the home – would inevitably lead to underage viewing. The video version was therefore seized from a large number of shops around the UK and, in many cases, the shop owners simply pleaded guilty to supplying an obscene article rather than incur the added expenses of trying to defend the film.”

THE EVIL DEAD SCREEN 2

Basically, the film was never banned here in the UK (as many people claim), but it was made illegal to sell and rent the film for the home market. So how my dad got hold of a copy, I have no idea. I was once told that Sam Raimi himself ‘accidentally’ leaked the film when he was over here in the UK having to defend the film in court and that was how my dad got a copy. I don’t know how true that story is though.

Anyway, from the first time I saw The Evil Dead to now, I have always loved it. It’s my favourite in the franchise. I love its rawness, its roughness, its bleakness. As Raimi himself said of the film… everything dies in it, even the music during the end credits. There never was supposed to be any sequels, everybody died at the end. Still, a sequel did happen and a franchise was born.

Evil Dead II

EVIL DEAD II TITLE

Sam Raimi, Robert Tapert and Bruce Campbell are back again for the sequel to a film that was never meant to have a sequel. Evil Dead II… or to give it its publicity title, Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn. Released in 1987, this one picks up right from where the last film ended. Now, there has often been debate over this sequel actually being a remake, it’s not. The debate is due to the fact that some events of the first film were retconned for the recap of this one.

I don’t want to get into it all right now, as I have a lot to get through. But the basic story is that, when it came to making this sequel, Sam Raimi wanted to recap the first film as it was very underground and not a huge hit (at the time). However, due to how the first film was financed, with Raimi raising funds from local businesses from his Within the Woods film, multiple people owned the rights to The Evil Dead. Those people all wanted money (lots of it) from Raimi to use footage from the film he made. Anyway, the budget for Evil Dead II was tight and Raimi couldn’t afford to pay to use footage from his own film (that legally was owned by others), so he just reshot a recap instead.

EVIL DEAD II SCREEN 1

If you listen to the commentary for this film, it is even said that they originally reshot the recap with all of the original characters. However, that proved to be too long for a recap, so it was condensed down to just Ash and Linda in the cabin, a few details were changed to keep the recap flowing and what we got was the 7-odd minute opening of The Evil Dead II to serve as a recap of The Evil Dead. Long story short, Evil Dead II isn’t a remake. I mean, one of the taglines for the film is: ‘The Sequel To The Ultimate Experience In Grueling Terror’… SEQUEL. Plus, you can (and fans have) edit the two films together by simply removing the recap of Evil Dead II and it flows as one long film, which would not be possible if it was a remake would it? This whole sequel vs remake debate has been going on for decades and still, some people refuse to accept Evil Dead II as a sequel… cos they’re fucking stupid.

Anyway, back to the film. So Ash didn’t die at the end (as originally planned). Instead, he was possessed by the evil force that smacked him in his chin at the end of the last film. The daybreak saves him from the possession taking him over fully. Back in the cabin and Ash’s hand is bitten by the head of his possessed girlfriend, Linda. Ash’s hand goes bad… so he lops it off with a chainsaw. Elsewhere, Annie, the daughter of the owner of the cabin, professor Knowby, returns from an expedition to find missing pages from the Necronomicon. Annie is with Ed and the two of them met you local yokels, Jake and Bobby Joe, who lead them to the cabin.

There, they find Ash and think he killed the professor and his wife, so they lock him in the cellar. Of course, everything goes wrong, the evil starts possessing people again. Ash has his own literal demons to deal with in terms of his own half-possession/Evil Ash, while also trying to clear out the cabin of Deadities again. Annie reads out an incantation from the missing Necronomicon pages and Ash is sent back in time (and space) to medieval England, along with his car.

EVIL DEAD II SCREEN 2

This seems to really be the fan favourite of the franchise. I can see why too. The quality is far superior all round. The acting is better, Sam Raimi has definitely grown as a director, the effects work is amazing, the story has a lot more meat on the bones and more. It is arguably a ‘better’ film than the first… not an argument I agree with though. I love Evil Dead II but I also strongly feel that The Evil Dead was just a much more effective as a movie.

Evil Dead II is ‘tamer’ as a horror film. It uses a much more comedic slant, which for me, lessens the impact. I think that Evil Dead II is a perfect blending of the horror and comedy genres though and as I said, I do love the film too. I just love the first one much more.

Army of Darkness

ARMY OF DARKNESS TITLE

The holy trinity of Raimi, Tapert and Campbell returned to the world of the Deadites for the third (fourth, if you want to count Within The Woods) time. Released in 1992 and it continues with Ash being sent to medieval England. As with Evil Dead II, this one retcons the recap… yet no one calls this a remake do they?

Ash is captured by Lord (pre-King) Arthur’s men and taken to his castle. Ash is suspected of being one of Duke Henry’s men, of whom, Arthur is at war with. Poor Ash gets thrown into a death-pit and is attacked by a Deadite, which he kills. Now seen as a hero, Ash sees Duke Henry freed, while the attractive maiden, Sheila catches his eye. Arthur’s wise man tells our hero that the only way he can get back home to his own time is to obtain the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis. After some very memorable one-liners, Ash sets out to retrieve the book.

There’s a haunted forest, a windmill, a broken mirror, Ash ‘grows’ an Evil Ash, kills and buries him. Soon, Ash finds the Necronomicon… well three of them actually. After some high jinx, Ash gets the right book… but flubs the magic words he was supposed to say that would allow him to remove the book safely. Hurrying back to the castle with his prize, unbeknownst that his shenanigans have unleashed the evil and raised the dead… including the evil version of himself. Back at the castle, Ash wants to get sent back to his own time ASAFP. Sheila gets abducted by a flying Deadite and Ash decides to stick around for a while to save Sheila and help Arthur and his men defeat the Deadite army. The Necronomicon is placed in a  secure tower… where professor Knowby will find it a great many years later and take it back to his cabin in the woods. Yes, it was Ash who helped get the book to Knowby that would then create all the shit that led to Ash being sent back in time.

ARMY OF DARKNESS SCREEN 1

Anyway, Ash gets help from Duke Henry and his men, as well as his old university books that were in the back of his car. Doing an A-Team, Ash kits out his car to make it a death-machine to help kick some Deadite bum-cheeks. Evil Ash and the newly Deaditie-ed Sheila attack the castle with an Army of Darkness. Of course Ash wins, saves Sheila and (depending on which cut you watch) gets sent back home.

Truth be told, I’ve always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with this film. I’ll be the first in line to admit that it is pretty damn awesome… but it’s also so far removed from what I love that it never sits right with me. Much like Rocky IV, it’s great but pretty stupid. I’m honestly not a fan of Ash here, he’s a complete prick and just not the character I adore so much.

The horror elements are all but gone and replaced with full-on comedy, often very Three Stooges-like (Sam Raimi is a huge fan). Plus, I feel the studio interference really stopped Raimi from making the film he really wanted to make. Originally titled The Medieval Dead (a brilliant title) and supposed to be much more in line with the perfect blending of the horror and comedy genres that was Evil Dead II. The suits decided that they wanted to move away from the Evil Dead franchise (hence the name change) and make a film that would be more marketable, Evil Dead wasn’t even mentioned in the marketing for this film anywhere despite that fact this is a sequel. So the horror elements were dialled back on and the suits even told Raimi to change the original ending.

ARMY OF DARKNESS SCREEN 2

See, originally, Army of Darkness ended with Ash being sent to a post-apocalyptic future (possibly) overrun with Deadites. As I said, this is the original ending and the one you’ll find on the director’s cut, etc. However, the studio felt it is too downbeat and got Sam Raimi to change it to the more often seen S-Mart ending with Ash going back to his own time killing Deadites and getting the girl. For me, the S-Mart ending just didn’t work. But the original post-apocalyptic really opened the doors to great potential. Just imagine Ash Williams as a Mad Max type in a desolate world taking out Deadites in his souped-up Oldsmobile Delta 88.

As entertaining as Army of Darkness is, I just can’t help but feel more than a little disappointed with it. Of the trilogy, I’ll always favour watching the original over any of the others, it’s one of the most ‘perfect’ horror films ever made. Evil Dead II is (as I have said) the perfect blending of the horror and comedy genres. It’s a fantastic watch and one of the most fun films you could ever see. As for Army of Darkness, it is great… just not great enough.

Evil Dead

EVIL DEAD TITLE

I guess it had to happen eventually… the dreaded horror remake. While Sam Raimi, Robert Tapert and Bruce Campbell were on board as producers, that was it. A whole host of new blood was brought in for the remake with Fede Álvarez taking the reigns as director and Evil Dead was released in 2013.

Plot-wise, this pretty much follows the original film. You’ve got five young adults meeting up at a cabin in the woods. An evil is released and one by one, they become possessed. One survivor, Mia, has to fight for her life. There’s really not much point in my dwelling on the plot as aside from some small changes, it is basically The Evil Dead.

I recall when I first heard tell of this remake. I’m not necessarily someone who gets upset over a beloved film being remade, but I really couldn’t muster any interest in seeing The Evil Dead updated for a modern audience. I didn’t so much go out of my way to avoid anything to do with the film, but more so that I just didn’t bother seeking it out. I didn’t watch the trailer and I didn’t read any articles covering the film. There was just no interest for me, even with Raimi, Tapert and Campbell as producers.

Then, one rainy April evening in 2013, the girlfriend said she wanted to go and watch a film. There really wasn’t much that took my fancy and of the slim pickings on offer, Evil Dead was the only thing that I was possibly even very slightly interested in seeing…so we did. Anyway, I came out of the cinema with a huge smile on my face. I mean, it was no The Evil Dead but Evil Dead was still pretty damn great. It was raw, bloody and (mostly) practical effects-driven. It wasn’t a good horror film for a remake, it was just a good horror film in its own right.

EVIL DEAD TITLE SCREEN 1

There were a lot of rumours of a sequel and even the idea of connecting the Ash and Mia universes. Thankfully that never happened as it was a shit idea and Evil Dead is (as of writing) a standalone film…as it should be. Truth be told, aside from seeing the film back in 2013, I’ve never re-watched it, until doing this retrospective. I still think it holds up well too. My heart will always be with the original, but this is a fine take on the classic and well worth watching. A film that mixes the old with the new, pays respects to its roots and creates a pretty effective horror film.


That was pretty much it for the Evil Dead franchise, though the evil did possess into other forms of media. I’ve already taken a look at the video games. But there was a series of comics that were quite popular too. Perhaps the most ‘interesting’ thing to spawn from The Evil Dead was the musical… oh yeah, there was a musical.

Evil Dead

EVIL DEAD MUSICAL TITLE

Originally performed in 2003 in Toronto, Ontario. Given full approval by both Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, Evil Dead (musical) was a huge success and has often been compared to The Rocky Horror Show. Which is wonderfully fitting seeing as that small film that started the franchise, Within the Woods, was shown with screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The plot of the stage show is an amalgamation of all three films, but mostly taking place during the events of the first two films. After its initial run, Evil Dead became an off-Broadway production in 2006. Over the years, it has seen many different versions played all over the world. One of the most notable was the ‘ultimate 4D experience’ version that introduced the ‘splatter zone’. Here, audience members were put in direct line of fire of the blood and gore of the performance.

EVIL DEAD MUSICAL SCREEN 1

During the final performance of the shows run in Pensacola, Florida, the leading ladies from the original film (Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker and Theresa Tilly) all appeared in cameo roles. Bruce Campbell has seen the show and loved it and even done a Q&A session after one show. The musical has really evolved over the years too. From a very low-budget and small production, to a much more lavish and grandiose stage show. Even more so… it’s still going today too with performances up to January 2022 (covid permitting). If it makes it to 2023 (and I hope it does), it’ll be running for two decades. That’s pretty damn impressive.

Now, I’ve never seen the show live myself, I’d love to. But I have seen recordings of it, you can find various ones pretty easily on the interwebs and honestly, it’s stupidly good fun. There’s also an interesting documentary looking at how the whole thing came about right here. Evil Dead as a musical shouldn’t work… but it really does in all honesty. It is campy, funny, bloody and really well performed.

Ash vs Evil Dead

ASH VS EVIL DEAD

For many years, there were rumours of a sequel film in the franchise for Ash Williams to return, even before the 2013 remake. An Army of Darkness 2 was eventually confirmed to be happening back in 2013 (by Bruce Campbell) after the success of the remake. But the film never saw the light of day. Instead, it evolved into Ash vs Evil Dead, a TV show that works as a direct sequel to the original films. With Sam Raimi, Robert Tapert and Bruce Campbell back as producers. Raimi even writing and directing the first episode too.

While the rights for Army of Darkness were (still are) tied up in all sorts of red tape, nothing from that film could be used directly, even though this show clearly takes place (many years) after the S-Mart ending of the film. Still, the rights for the first two films were much easier to clear, so there are more direct references and even footage from those films used in Ash vs Evil Dead. Running for three seasons from 2015 to 2018 with ten episodes per season. There was a lot more here than the proposed Army of Darkness 2 film that was never made. As there is so much to cover, I’m not going to go through every episode, but the basic plot has the evil return (due to Ash being an idiot… again) and Ash teaming up with some younger and new blood to save the day… again.

ASH VS EVIL DEAD SCREEN 1

While I did start watching Ash vs Evil Dead, I never made it through the entire show. There are several reasons why. First, as I said when talking about Army of Darkness, it’s my least favourite of the films. As this is a continuation of that style and premise, it just didn’t work for me. I like my Evil Dead to be raw. That’s why I adore the first film and most probably why I enjoyed the remake far more than I thought I would. Ash vs Evil Dead lacks what I love about the franchise. Second, there are just too many writers and directors. I know TV shows often use multiple writers and directors, but some of the better TV shows stick with a much smaller team. Often great TV shows stick with one or a very small team of writers and directors. With Ash vs Evil Dead every episode is a different writer and director from the last and there’s very little consistency. The first episode is great, co-written by Sam Raimi and his brother Ivan, directed by Sam Raimi too… then it all just goes off the boil after that and the show feels very uneven.

ASH VS EVIL DEAD SCREEN 2

Third, I really don’t like Ash as a character from Army of Darkness. Yeah, I know as an Evil Dead fan that saying you don’t like Ash is sacrilege, but I really don’t like him. Loved the character in the first film, very much enjoyed him in Evil Dead II. But in Army of Darkness, he’s just a prick and that ‘prickness’ is massively overdone here. I get that he’s supposed to be an outdated dinosaur in the show, but I still don’t like it and putting up with him for thirty episodes of a TV show was just too much for me.

Now, that is not to say I hate the show because I don’t. I just feel it was a little too much. Evil Dead is not a long and complicated plot, you really don’t need three seasons of ten episodes each to tell the story and in all honesty, I just got bored. Admittedly, the show has some great moments including going back to the cabin from the first film and meeting Ash’s dad. The show is crammed full of references and in-jokes that I did get a kick out of. But still, this was just too much to swallow. Ironically, I probably would’ve much preferred the Army of Darkness 2 film that the show derived from more than the TV show the film became, especially if Sam Raimi had been in full writing and directing control.

Ash vs Evil Dead is a perfectly fine show. I know that Army of Darkness fans love it but it just wasn’t my cup of tea. While I didn’t watch every episode to make it through to the finale, I did watch the final episode. It’s an ending that borrows quite heavily from the original ending to Army of Darkness and that just pissed me off even more because that’s the film I want to see. I want to see Ash being all Mad Max in a post-apocalyptic future, killing Deadites in his modified Delta 88. Twice this franchise has teased me and not followed through… twice!

ASH VS EVIL DEAD SCREEN 3

And well, that was it for Evil Dead as a franchise. Bruce Campbell announced he was retiring the Ash Williams character. Ash vs Evil Dead was cancelled, so I never did get to see the post-apocalyptic Deadite film I’ve always wanted. Of course, true evil can never end and there was the announcement of Evil Dead: The Game with Campbell back as Ash..the character he said he’s not going to play again. But there was more…

Evil Dead Rise

EVIL DEAD RISE TITLE

Sorry, no trailer for this one as it has not yet been released (as of writing). But yeah, there’s another film is coming next year. Sam Raimi, Robert Tapert and Bruce Campbell are back as producers once more and Campbell has said that he is not in the film, so no Ash Williams then. Details on Evil Dead Rise are very hard to find right now. Is it a film that takes place in the Ash Williams universe, a follow up to the 2013 remake or an all-new restart to the franchise? I did find a brief synopsis for the film:

“In Evil Dead Rise, a road-weary Beth pays an overdue visit to her older sister Ellie, who is raising three kids on her own in a cramped L.A apartment. The sisters’ reunion is cut short by the discovery of a mysterious book deep in the bowels of Ellie’s building, giving rise to flesh-possessing demons, and thrusting Beth into a primal battle for survival as she is faced with the most nightmarish version of motherhood imaginable.”

For starters, that’s a very different setting from the previous films in the franchise. An apartment in Los Angeles is a far cry from a remote cabin in the woods. This is a huge change that could either really work or fall flat on its face. The isolation of the original films is what made them worth watching and added a layer of desperation to the characters. If they are now in downtown LA… just get the police involved. Also, while Sam Raimi is producing, he’s not writing or directing. Lee Cronin is taking over both writing and directing duties. Cronin wrote and directed the 2019 film, The Hole in the Ground. I’ve not seen it (yet) so I have no idea of his style. Still, with such a drastic change of setting and a new writer/director at the helm, just how Evil Dead is this new film going to be?

Lee Cronin has been sharing a few details on the film over on his Twitter. I think principal photography on the film is done. Cronin did share this Tweet:
https://twitter.com/curleecronin/status/1424524511416930304

So if it was only ‘3 weeks to go’ in August when that was posted… it’s got to be finished now in October. I’m actually going to stay open-minded about this one. I originally didn’t think I was going to enjoy the 2013 remake, but I did. So yeah, I’m pretty optimistic for Evil Dead Rise. I’m interested to see how this fits in with all that has come before it, or even if it does fit in anywhere at all. If this film is going to tie in with the original trilogy and TV show, or the remake, or even be its own separate universe. Evil Dead Rise is a film that has definitely piqued my interest as a fan of the franchise and I’m looking forward to what Lee Cronin has in store for us. Now I’m off to check out his debut film, The Hole in the Ground, to get a feel for what kind of writer and director he is.

This is the second of my The Evil Dead At 40 article celebrations to mark four decades of one of my favourite horror films. I have one more coming up at the end of the month for Halloween.

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