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Out Of The Ashes: The Evil Dead At 40
Samuel Sims , November 3rd, 2021 12:42

While Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead remains a cult classic, rewatching the film through the lens of a marginalised person reveals a complicated journey of power and humiliation, finds Samuel Sims

A handsome, middle-aged man grunts as he squeezes himself into a leather waist-cincher – the extra 30 pounds that plague him are gone in a magical instance. Bellowing happily to Deep Purple’s ‘Space Truckin’’, he attaches a prosthetic wooden hand, grabs a couple of condoms, throws on lashings of questionable yellow cologne and exits his trailer – his bachelor pad. He’s on the hunt for a lady.

The man believes himself to be a hero. He enters a bar, throws a dart, misses the board. He tries to score with the one woman there, only attracting her attention when he makes up a story about saving a child from an incoming train. We find them shortly after in the women’s toilet, fucking. Doggy style. He’s slapping her rear with his wooden hand. He’s the hero of his own story. A narcissist. Objectifier of women. He’s also one of horror’s most beloved characters.

When The Evil Dead premiered at Detroit’s Redford Theatre in 1981, nobody knew its enormous success would eventually spawn two sequels, a musical, a reboot, video games and its own TV series. First showing under its original title, The Book of the Dead, the film would gain traction when it hit the Cannes Film Festival the following year after a sterling review by Stephen King and become a word-of-mouth success, making almost $3 million on a $350,000 budget.

I managed to see The Evil Dead in 1996, aged 10, when my aunt brought it over for my parents to watch. The VHS case, which had an image of the demonically possessed Cheryl on, lay anonymously outside of my bedroom before I finally took the plunge. Once I did, it threw my otherwise sheltered existence into turmoil and prevented me from ever taking a midnight wee again. Despite this, the film launched a love affair with horror that has intensified as I’ve grown older.

Sam Raimi, barely in his twenties when he directed The Evil Dead, intended to push boundaries with his first feature film but he never meant to cause offense – laughable now considering the response. When the film was released on VHS, it was banned in Iceland, Sweden, Finland, Ireland and the UK. Newspapers branded it obscene, and it was declared “the number one video nasty” by moral crusader Mary Whitehouse.

In a way, the last few years – in the wake of significant and much needed cultural shifts for the way marginalised people have been treated – a new breed of moral crusader has emerged. Cancellation culture is rife, the ‘unwoke’ are damned, past mistakes are not allowed to remain in the past. The scene in which Cheryl – sister of The Evil Dead’s hero Ash – is raped by a tree, quite rightly caused upset when people first saw it. Raimi apologised for not removing it from the film completely, as far back as 1988, in an interview with Jonathan Ross for The Incredibly Strange Film Show. The director expressed regret for its “unnecessarily gratuitous” nature and his “judgement was wrong at the time”.

As a queer man, I’ve learnt to look at everything – but particularly art – with a critical eye. The more empowered I’ve become in my ‘marginalisation’, the more I empathise with and view through a feminist lens. For over 20 years, I regarded The Evil Dead highly – but watching it now, it would be easy to bash its heavy-handed misogyny and heteronormativity.

Cheryl is a third wheel to both her brother and his girlfriend Linda, and another couple, Scotty and Shelly. She is portrayed as hysterical (“It’s not going to let us leave!”), childlike (“She acts like she’s three years old or something") and virginal – ripe for possession, as she wanders out into the woods, dressed in white. The rape scene is truly abhorrent – something only a young, heterosexual man could have envisaged as a good idea (her ‘enjoyment’ at being violated is particularly challenging to watch).

This side of Cheryl’s character – and indeed Linda and Shelly, who are seen as maternal and passive – is difficult to digest through a feminist lens in 2021. Once the film completely goes off the rails, however, the confines of ‘traditional’ womanhood are shaken off and, dare I say it, The Evil Dead almost becomes an allegory for female empowerment.

Cheryl’s possession is most evident in her appearance. No trace of her human self remains, and she becomes a shrieking, plasticine-encased genderless warrior. It’s as though, as Cheryl terrorises the boys and drives the two couples apart – releasing her friends from a lifetime of condescension – she is telling the patriarchy to fuck off. Cheryl is the monster that laid in wait for me all those years ago, and she is the one that ultimately has control in The Evil Dead. Whilst not getting the ending she deserved, her place in the film’s legacy is a firm one.

In an interview with Collider in 2013, Fede Alvarez, director of Evil Dead, the remake/soft reboot is vocal about including the rape scene – or indeed ‘having to’. “It was again Rob [Tapert, producer] because in the beginning Sam didn't want it, didn't write it.” Raimi, Campbell and Tapert all served as producers here, and whilst the film is loyal to the original, its tongue is ripped completely from its cheek. Mia – who replaces Cheryl as the sister character – is suffering from a drug addiction and the relentless abuse she endures. Whereas in Raimi’s original Cheryl’s rape shows the viewers how she becomes possessed, it is clumsy and unnecessarily gratuitous. Alvarez, conversely, makes the viewers earn it. Now, we are Mia and we feel every prick of that thorny tree. It’s uncomfortable and horrific, but it’s all of the more impactful.

Alvarez’s Evil Dead is conspicuously less misogynist. Mia’s journey is a continuation of Cheryl’s – a ‘what if’ arc. What if Cheryl had continued on after Ash and conquered the demon within, just like Mia does? It now feels like this sister character has been redeemed by becoming something that was only reserved for a man in Raimi’s original: the ‘final girl’, or the hero. How easy it could have been for a remake of this cult classic – with men, again, so heavily involved in it – to create something that would not adapt with the times. Could Mia’s brother David have replicated Ash’s journey and be the proud bearer of that iconic chainsaw? Of course. Men are still the heroes of so many films like this.

Since his breakout, Raimi has gone on a similar path of redemption. As well as the 2002-2007 Spider-Man franchise, he has gone on to direct horror films including as Drag Me To Hell Centring on a female protagonist, Raimi finally depicts a woman as well-rounded whilst re-introducing the horror and tongue-in-cheek elements that thrive in The Evil Dead. Drag Me To Hell is particularly key in showing Raimi’s journey from a young, emerging filmmaker intent on creating a “gratuitous at all costs” piece of work, to someone who considers the many facets of what it means to be human – especially a human woman. This film’s protagonist, Christine, is not always likeable and she certainly isn’t used as a plot device or care-giver, which the women of The Evil Dead all are. She is complex and hard to relate to, but still the hero of her story.

It wasn’t until the 2015 TV series Ash vs Evil Dead (a follow-up to The Evil Dead and its subsequent sequels, The Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness) which Raimi executive produced, that this universe came full circle in confronting its past demons. Looked at with pity by his younger companions, Ash is a joke figure of toxic masculinity. He must now work for his hero status, rather than achieving it simply because of his male privilege, as he did 40 years ago. Now he exists in a world where women are no longer passive, and they can make him look weak and hysterical.

Another film in the franchise, Evil Dead Rise, starring Vikings star Alyssa Sutherland is set to be released next year and it’s looking likely that like Mia did before, the deadites will be taken on by a woman. Raimi is on board as an executive producer and has already been a prominent figure in the decision-making process, having handpicked the director in The Hole In The Ground’s Lee Cronin. My journey with the franchise has been a complicated one. An update to the series was desperately needed, which was so wonderfully received in 2013. Its decidedly sexist origins and inadvertent female empowerment should be considered, but slash through it with a chainsaw, we shouldn’t.