Sam Raimi was only nineteen years old when he wrote the script for Evil Dead (1981), his first feature film that would be made a couple years later and star high school chum Bruce Campbell. Throughout the next ten years Raimi would go on to write and direct Evil Dead II (1987) and Army of Darkness, also with Campbell, each movie evolving slightly in sophistication along with the filmmaker. Beginning with a charming immaturity, Raimi has grown to develop his signature style as a director – those tracking shots, usage of vibrating sound, special effects, and implementation of humor – into his increasingly high-budget films. He has achieved hero status to many because of his devoted consideration of the audience. Raimi is a movie lover and a horror fan, just like us.
Not everyone has been enamored with Raimi. In a slightly ironic statement in the March 1983 issue of “Exploitation Cancer” fellow comedy/horror director John Landis, in his usual candid and overly exaggerated manner, had this to say of Raimi’s Evil Dead:
"Just the latest model in the invasion of exploitation by a nerd brained, stamp collector mentality which has particularly involved itself in gore. Obsession with special effects, blockheadedly judging laughability without comprehending its aesthetic basis, and praising gore for gore’s sake are all examples of this. It’s just these type of fan [that] are now picking up cameras."i
Regardless of Landis’s opinion (who is always at the ready to lend his two cents on everything), watching Raimi’s Evil Dead series and the talk show clips featured here on Network Awesome, it’s clear he has made good use out of his excellent sense of humor. Anyone who shoots a scene of a severed hand trapped under a pile of books including Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms must be a clever fellow in touch with his comedic side. Raimi’s interest in humor stems from an obsession with The Three Stooges and is explicit in his early Super 8 films. This style of physical comedy is manifested in Bruce Campbell’s amazing performance as “Ash” in the Evil Dead trilogy and it adds a surprising complexity to the continuous gruesomeness he is enduring and that we are subject to witness. Laughter is a subjective response, and Raimi constructs comedy as a story-telling device; his form of humor does not nullify the horror onscreen. In fact, those in favor of banning films like Evil Dead for video release (i.e. home viewing) during the heyday of the “video nasties” in mid-1980s Britain proclaimed that the usage of humor in these horror films was trickery on the part of the filmmaker to numb the audience to violence. Surely forms of humor can be cathartic but responsive laughter is more of a reasonable reaction to visualizing the absurd. It’s this special combination of horror and humor that makes a Sam Raimi film a “Sam Raimi” film…and we love him for that.
Raimi is also invested in horror cinema. In one of the featured interviews he details the “horror rules” he and other filmmakers established (surely something Wes Craven used to develop Scream, the most meta of horror movie cycles). These rules are: 1) the innocent must suffer 2) the guilty must be punished and 3) you must taste blood to be a man. In practice, the “laws” of horror are neither that simple nor static but contextualizing the commonalities (and subsequent differences) of representing horror is crucial to producing a thoughtful body of work within the genre. However, where Raimi truly shines is an extension of this reflexive mode of thinking in which he considers the audience. At a turning point for visual effects in the early 1980s, his interest is in constructing horror through a combination of implications and gory reveals. His purpose is to entertain you. Boredom is death!
Underground horror audiences have had to share Raimi with popular culture masses in recent years because of his directorial involvement with big Hollywood movies like Spiderman and Spiderman 2 (we’ll just ignore Spiderman 3). In 2009 he re-visited his horror/comedy roots with Drag Me to Hell, a frightening depiction of a young woman struggling with the inevitability of her curse complete with comedic moments to throw the audience off track. Currently he is filming Oz: the Great and Powerful, the prequel to L. Frank Baum’s book The Wonderful World of Oz (1900), which is sure to be magically creepy.
However, with all the diverse productions he has been involved with (including contributions to television such as Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules), it seems that Raimi simply can’t shake the urge to conjure up the evil dead once again. The re-make of The Evil Dead (2013) was announced this summer. Such re-appropriations are commonplace in the regenerative cycle of the horror genre – think of the many adaptations of Frankenstein or Dracula. Raimi is unique in that even as only a producer, he appears to be unable to resist re-processing his own story.
Only last week the plot for the remake was released and, similar to its predecessors and like most American horror movies of the past decade, it includes an unnecessarily complicated back-story that includes a drug intervention. ii So, as Evil Dead is once again raised from the dead, we should wonder what’s new to be told within what has already been successfully established and how does Evil Dead’s narrative relate to the audience now, thirty years after its original release and in our post-torture porn era? And most importantly, will this film work without the charisma of Bruce Campbell as “Ash” and Sam Raimi at the helm? If there is any comfort to be had it won’t be a total disaster, it lies with Raimi’s track record of the very thing Landis criticized him for – the “nerd” with the devotion to his audience and belief in the next generation of filmmakers.
i Sanjek, David. “Fans’ Notes: The Horror Film Fanzine”. The Horror Reader. Ed. Ken Gelder. New York: Routledge, 2000.