"The Evil Dead" as experimental film

The thing in the cellar: Ellen Sandweiss as the possessed Cheryl in The Evil Dead.

Ah, The Evil Dead (1983, dir. Sam Raimi)—the movie that asks the question, “what would you and your buddy do if your girlfriends were suddenly transformed into murderous demons?”  I’ve loved The Evil Dead ever since I first saw it on late-night cable TV as a kid.  I was fascinated by just how extreme its use of gore was, and even at that relatively young age I somehow understood that it was also hysterically funny, to the point that I was moved to giggle along with the possessed Linda (Betsy Baker) when she begins to taunt her boyfriend Ash (Bruce Campbell) in a sing-song voice (“we’re gonna get you…”). 

I’ve previously written about Evil Dead II as a physical comedy that draws on the conventions of slapstick and Looney Tunes.  The comedy of the first Evil Dead film is less balletic, and has more to do with the pleasures of the “gross-out.”  In his book Laughing Screaming William Paul puts the horror films of the 1970s and 80s into conversation with the raunchy teen comedies  from the same era (Animal House, Porky’s, Revenge of the Nerds) in order to argue for a sense of continuity between the two genres.  Curiously, Beard doesn’t discuss the Evil Dead films, even though they would seem to be ripe for interpretation along these lines.  The funniest moments in The Evil Dead are also the grossest, and they tend to involve Ash taking shots of blood, pus, or demon bile, including some sort of bluish substance, to the face.  It’s possible to interpret these scenes as examples of the horror genre’s disgusted fascination with bodily fluids—and the female body in particular—but they also derive from a long-standing comic tradition in which the defilement of Our Hero’s face via whipped-cream pie, urinating baby, or fake-flower-that-sprays-water is a source of juvenile amusement.  (As a running gag, this culminates in the brilliant final shot in which Ash appears to get slugged in the face with the camera itself.)    

Facial shots: Ash (Bruce Campbell) splattered with the blood of the decapitated Linda.

But I also love The Evil Dead for being borderline experimental in its rejection of narrative logic altogether.  There’s a point around the three-quarter mark when the film becomes so digressive that it achieves a state of delirium, one that I suppose is meant to mimic that of Ash himself.  Having ventured down to the cellar in search of shotgun shells, Ash comes upon what looks like a leaking sack of blood suspended from the ceiling by a rusty pipe. What it is or why it’s there doesn’t seem to matter; it exists solely as yet another opportunity to watch him get drenched.  Raimi follows this up with close-ups of blood pouring from electrical outlets and seeping into a light bulb; an old Victrola winds itself up on its own accord and starts playing a Charleston; Ash finds himself caught in the beam of a haunted film projector, and as blood streams across the lens it casts its silhouette upon the screen.  An earlier scene approaches the same level of abstraction when, as Ash’s buddy Scott proceeds to dismember the undead body of his girlfriend Shelly, Raimi uses a red gel to make it seem as if the entire camera is awash with blood.  At these moments the narrative thread of the film becomes thrillingly, nauseatingly lost.  We’re no longer preoccupied with a narrative situation (what would you and your buddy do if your girlfriends were suddenly transformed into murderous demons?); we’re adrift in the blood-soaked world of Raimi’s unconscious.

Pure abstraction.

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