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.
Evil Dead (1981)
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.
Crimewave aka THE X,Y,Z Murders (1985)
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.
Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987)
Less a sequel than a remake/parody of the original (where the humor was at first the unintentional result of Raimi etc.’s on-set learning curve), Campbell’s Ash is once again stuck in a cabin with the Deadites (though they wouldn’t be called that for another film) and soon joined by a troop of young friends who don’t know whether to trust him any more than they’d trust the ghouls.
This is where what’s thought of as Raimi, Campbell and the Evil Dead‘s franchise’s “signature” styles all came into their own. It’s a funhouse ride of innovative gore and funny/scary slapstick, anchored by the comically unwitting charisma of Ash – the “hero” who looks like an Old Hollywood stud, quips like an 80’s brawler and (poorly) schemes like Moe Howard. This was the one that told Hollywood that Sam Raimi was no fluke – he was the real deal, and they had to start paying attention.
When he couldn’t secure the rights to make The Shadow in the post-Batman pulp hero boom (it would ultimately become an underrated Alec Baldwin vehicle), Raimi invented a superhero of his own, one that owes as much to the Universal Monsters as it does comics and detective yarns.
Liam Neeson (speaking of unpredictable careers) has the title role as a plastic surgeon who takes revenge on the mobsters who turned him into a hideously burned, bandage-faced freak using experimental face-mimicking masks and accident-triggered superhuman endurance. A decent success in its day (it’s easily the best of the Bat-bandwagon), it led to two direct-to-HBO sequels with Arnold The Mummy Vosloo in the title role.
Army of Darkness (1992)
Originally titled Medieval Dead, the second sequel picks up where Dead By Dawn left off. Ash, now sporting a stump-mounted chainsaw in place of his demon-infected right hand, has been zapped back in time to battle The Deadites in medieval Europe.
A box office flop in theaters but a massive cult hit on video, this is probably where a lot of Evil Dead‘s younger fans first encountered the series (though most won’t cop to that). It’s often called the lesser sequel compared to Dawn, mostly because it largely abandons shock-horror for fantasy action by the end, but it’s still a blast to watch today (on top of being one of the most quotable action films ever), and an obvious first spark for the mega-popular Hercules and Xena TV series Raimi and friends would produce in the 90’s. A fourth installment has been teased for years, and is apparently once again on Raimi and Campbell’s mind.
The Quick & The Dead (1995)
This was meant to be Raimi’s big foray into the Hollywood mainstream, with a big-time cast (then-popular Sharon Stone, legendary Gene Hackman, rising stars Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio), a setting in the briefly resurgent Old West genre and a killer premise: Mortal Kombat (or Kickboxer, or Street Fighter, or Master of The Flying Guillotine – you get the idea) but for quickdraw gunfighting. The plot centers around a motley crew of colorful gunslingers converge at a pistol dueling competition, each with their own motives and backstories to work out amid the organized carnage.
It’s probably still Raimi’s most stylistically overloaded film, but also his least engaging. It has a parade of stylish compositions, cool shots, iconic poses and slick one-liners, but lacks even Darkman‘s veneer of earnest sincerity. Either way it made little box office impact, signaling the early downswing of Stone’s time as an A-list star.
The box office and critical “meh” that greeted Quick & The Dead is reputed to have led Raimi to some artistic soul-searching, segueing into a surprisingly mega-successful secondary career as a television producer while actively seeking out film projects outside of his familiar style-heavy genre fare. The results would bring him critical praise and fresh opportunities – ultimately leading to a fanboy-flick dream gig that would change the course of his career and the Hollywood blockbuster scene forever. And next week, we’ll cover how it all went down.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.