It still trips me out that there's a whole generation of film geeks (maybe two, by now?) for whom Sam Raimi - an "if you know, then you know" outsider Nerd God to my era - is known predominantly as the maker of mega budget mainstream blockbusters like Oz The Great & Powerful and the two (and a half) good Spider-Man movies. The cognitive dissonance, to be sure, is a sign of my own advancing years ... was this how my parents felt when The Stones and Beatles started turning up as the background tracks to sneaker commercials?
Raimi was the "one of us" wunderkind of Gen-X moviehounds, the first ascended-fanboy to make his mark without even a tangential connection to the New York or LA "new establishment." Hollywood in the early 1980s had been taken over by the Spielbergs and Lucases, guys who'd grown up on Famous Monsters, Silver Age comics and Creature Features. Raimi was of their stock, but rather than the fast-track of film school he made his mark as a self-taught, indie-horror director in his own Midwestern backyard.
This is part of why his breakout debut, Evil Dead (the spectacularly violent, Raimi-produced remake of which has now released to theaters), was so highly regarded by its fans. Small town indie horror productions were a dime a dozen in the aisles of content-starved early video stores, but we could sense that Raimi was "one of us" making the kinds of cheesy passion projects we would (or would want to) make.
The 80's kids who grew up with Evil Dead became the gatekeepers of the Film Geek Website Explosion of the 1990s, which is part of the reason why the selection of Raimi to helm Spider-Man - at the time a head-scratcher to Hollywood insiders - was received with such unprecedented enthusiam by movie gossip's New Media. Raimi and company getting the job was almost as unthinkably cool as having landed it yourself. This is also why the apparent disdain for the Spidey trilogy's more quixotic elements (Three Stooges slapstick, unironic 60's Marvel schmaltz, homages to drive-in monster movies) sometimes baffles my generation. For us, seeing those "Raimi-isms" blown up to blockbuster size was every bit as thrilling as seeing the big screen Spider-Man himself.
With a new generation Evil Dead relaunch now in theaters (short version: IT ROCKS!), let's take a look back at the one of a kind career of the unassuming visionary who started it all. If there's a movie on this list you've managed to miss, it might be time to fix that.
An enlargement of a 32 minute homemade short called Within The Woods, Evil Dead wasn't only the launch pad for the careers of Raimi and his childhood friend Bruce Campbell, it was the seminal independent horror film of the 80s - a scattershot fever dream of experimental camera techniques and dementedly ingenious violence that thematically bridges the thrift-store Satanism of 70's horror with the "Scooby-Doo-With-Blood" teens-in-peril slashers that were to come.
The plot: A group of college-aged friends vacation at a woodland cabin where, unknown to them, an archaeologist had unleashed a demonic force by reading from an ancient book of incantations called The Necronomicon. Subsequently (in what at the time mightve been called a fusion of Night of The Living Dead and The Exorcist), the unsuspecting young folks are possessed and transformed into mischievous ghouls who brutalize one another until only Campbell's Ash Williams (subversively, neither the cleverest or most likable of the crew) is the last one alive. To this day, many still consider Evil Dead to be the indie horror debut by which all others are judged.
After Evil Dead, Raimi attempted to avert being pigeonholed as a gorehound almost immediately (even acting as the lead villain in the notorious Nam Vets vs. Manson Family revenge fantasy Though Shalt Not Kill ... Except!), but this offbeat film noir oddity failed to catch at the box office. Written by Raimi's pals, the Coen Brothers (yes, those Coen Brothers), it's best described a colorized precursor to Sin City but without the squicky veins of bigotry and misogyny that Frank Miller inevitably brings to the table. It's an uneven film, but the then-novel mix of colorful retro-grit and ludicrous comic book physics (a burly thug turns an entire apartment to splinters by tugging on its carpet) handily predicted Darkman and Spider-Man's aesthetic.