Originally released in 1981, “The Evil Dead” has gained a reputation as one of the greatest horror films ever, one of the greatest cult films ever and as one of the most successful independently produced films ever. The movie’s staggering success and legacy is well deserving of analysis, especially now that it has turned 40 years old this October.

“The Evil Dead” was written and directed by Sam Raimi and stars Bruce Campbell in the lead role as the iconic Ash Williams. It also features Ellen Sandweiss, Richard DeManincor, Betsy Baker and Theresa Tilly as supporting characters. The film follows five college students on vacation to Tennessee to rent a cabin hidden deep in the wilderness. There, they find an audio tape, which when played, unleashes a horde of demonic spirits (later dubbed Deadites in “Evil Dead II”) upon the five.

This leaves me with the question: Why is “The Evil Dead” so celebrated and revered to this day? That question is tougher to answer than one might expect, because “The Evil Dead” is not an effective horror movie. The characters are flimsy at best, the dialogue is ridiculous, the acting is hokey and “the cabin in the woods” is a tired horror troupe at this point. The cinematography is incompetent to the point where producer Robert Tapert ends up in the background of one of the shots. The special effects are unrealistic; the tubes that the fake blood is spurted out of are visible during at least one point in the film. 

One scene involving a tree has aged particularly poorly because of some rather dated sensibilities about the role of women in horror films. During the nighttime scenes, the moon is obviously a matte cut out superimposed onto the frame. On top of all of that, the film is just not terribly scary. However, despite all of this, I would still call “The Evil Dead” a great movie.

Up to this point, I have intentionally buried the lead in regards to what “The Evil Dead'' is actually about. While yes, “The Evil Dead'' is in fact a horror movie about a group of college students falling victim to demonic possession, to describe “The Evil Dead” as such is to examine it only on a surface level. In truth, “The Evil Dead” is a film about making a movie with your friends and pouring your heart and soul into it. 

The film’s production was a nightmare by every account: Multiple members of the crew getting injured, cast members not being available resulting in them having to be replaced with “fake shemps” and all while staying in a cold cabin in the middle of nowhere. Every seam and crease is visible to the naked eye, but never are you as an audience member confused by what Raimi and the gang are trying to accomplish. 

The vision of the film is stunningly lucid, most notably in sequences like the claymation disintegration toward the end of the film. You can tell the sequence is fake and looks out of place in the moment, but as a viewer you simply fail to care because the heart put into each frame of that animation radiates from the screen. It doesn’t matter that the dialogue and acting are silly because of the sheer joy the cast and crew emanate. All of this, despite the terrible filming conditions and relatively low budget, is precisely what makes “The Evil Dead” a cut above your standard bad and forgettable B list movie or ‘so bad, it’s good’ vanity project. The love for the art and craft of filmmaking came first, and the critical acclaim and money came about as a result of the recognition for that passion. 

The mise-en-scène of the film even reflects this, with Tim Philo, the cinematographer, getting bold and even psychedelic with some of his camera angles and effects. Particular examples that come to mind are the numerous Dutch angles scattered throughout and distorted deer mantle shots. “The Evil Dead” is emblematic not of the ability to shock and terrify audience members, but rather the collective love for nerdy fun and creativity. There are even efforts made to subvert the horror formula. Our main character is a man for one, and rather than the film focusing on slowly picking off characters, it is centered on violently tormenting a single character. In a sense, that makes “The Evil Dead” the perfect movie for Halloween. 

Let’s be honest, Halloween has been long since divorced from the pagan roots and superstition that once surrounded the day and is now a representation of the collaborative fun people have dressing up and having a good time.

Unfortunately, the story of “The Evil Dead” does not have an entirely happy ending. Some time in the 2000s, “The Evil Dead” was re-edited to have all of the readily apparent technical goofs removed from the film. The unedited version of “The Evil Dead” is still easy enough to find, but takes some extra digging to unearth. To me, the edits made to “The Evil Dead” are offensive because they actively strip the film of what makes it special. 

However, on that note it should be said that if you manage to track down the original version of “The Evil Dead,” it is well worth your time, whether you are a casual horror fan or a hardcore cinema snob. In conclusion, I give “The Evil Dead” an 8/10. It is an absolutely essential film for the season, for both hardcore and casual horror fans.