I’m not usually an autobiography guy. I think that most autobiographies are pretty useless compared to objective biographies crafted by dispassionate third parties. In fact, I’ve only ever read one or two that I would vouch for – but I will recommend one exception strenuously to anyone who will listen. I speak, of course, of Bruce Campbell’s 2002 memoir If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor. In it, Campbell writes about his love of film, his early days with writer/director Sam Raimi, and – quite memorably – about the arduous process of making Campbell and Raimi’s best-known, best-loved films: the Evil Dead trilogy.
A lot of people can tell you about their first time watching Evil Dead (usually it’s Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn they’ve seen, if we’re getting technical, but we’ll get to that distinction in due time). Often, the first time takes place at a midnight screening – in my case, it was actually a well-worn, well-loved VHS copy viewed late at night in a basement, an environment also conducive to fully appreciating Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell’s work together. After all, as one learns in If Chins Could Kill, the Evil Dead franchise was a project born of love and offbeat obsession, a product of the same late night B-movie subculture that has kept it alive and thriving for 40 years.
For the uninitiated, the story of Evil Dead begins in 1978 with Within the Woods, a short film that Sam Raimi made as proof of concept to secure funding for a more extensive full-length version. $90,000 in hand, Raimi, Bruce Campbell, and company set out for the remote woods of Tennessee to film on location in a remote and decrepit cabin (the cabin, like Raimi’s 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88, became something of a mascot and character in the mythos). To describe conditions during filming as “uncomfortable” would be a bit of an understatement; as with Tobe Hooper’s 1974 Texas Chain Saw Massacre, actors in independent horror films in those days were subjected to treatment that would probably land a director in prison nowadays.
It was worth it, though; 1981’s original The Evil Dead eventually grossed $30 million worldwide, obtained distribution from New Line Cinema and a rave review from Stephen King, and secured a spot in history as one of the best-loved cult films of all time, one of the best-loved horror films of all time, and one of the most successful independent movies ever made. It has spawned films, the excellent 2015 – 2018 Starz series Ash vs. Evil Dead, comic books, and too many imitators to name. It made the careers of both Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi possible; without The Evil Dead, we’d have no 2002 Spider-Man film, no Bubba Ho-Tep, no Xena: Warrior Princess.
Third time’s the charm, and so it was (in my opinion) with Raimi’s original idea. The first version (Within the Woods) was refined into the second (The Evil Dead), which was in its turn refined into what is, in my opinion, Raimi’s masterpiece: Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn. Dead by Dawn reprises the same premise as the first Evil Dead for the most part, which could feel repetitive and wooden in the hands of less skilled filmmakers. Instead, Dead by Dawn builds on the gore and directorial trick-shots of the first film (the Dutch angles, the wide shots, intense close-ups, and rapid-fire edits), and then adds a generous helping of comedy. Indeed, it was Evil Dead 2 that revealed to the world how funny Bruce Campbell’s big, rubbery, handsome mug can be – a fact that in no small part has fueled his career. Evil Dead 2 was also a big step forward for comedy horror, a fact paid loving tribute to in 2012’s meta-spoof The Cabin in the Woods, which is a classic and a must-watch in and of itself.
The final film, Army of Darkness, adds more goofy comedy and subtracts some of the horror and gore. It’s a wonderful movie in its own right, one deeply beloved of its fans and more within the wheelhouse of über-dork comedies like Monty Python and the Holy Grail than low-budget splatter fare like Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Ash vs. Evil Dead, Starz’s 2015-2018 capstone to the franchise, was more of a return to form in its blend of genuinely frightening horror, geysers of gore, and slapstick comedy, and for fans of the series, it was a perfect way to say goodbye to Bruce Campbell’s Ash and his legion of hideous demonic adversaries. If Chins Could Kill tells the story of a bunch of goofy kids, horror dorks and Super 8 commandos who were lucky enough to fall ass-backwards into something they absolutely loved and were insanely good at. Forty years, millions of dollars, and ravening crowds of fans later, they closed that chapter out, by all appearances, the same way. We live in a world that is scarier, funnier, and has more heart as a result.
If you’ve never had the pleasure of experiencing the original Evil Dead or if you know someone who hasn’t – your niece, perhaps, or a buddy’s son – you owe it to yourself and/or them to check this film off of your “to watch” list. I recommend you do it right; a battered VHS copy is probably not your best bet at this point, but you can probably find a midnight screening near you without too much effort. Barring that, I’m sure there’s a claustrophobic basement room with an older TV you can commandeer for a late-night viewing. It’s the perfect environment in which to take a trip to a rotting cabin in the woods, a place where a forbidden text has unleashed something powerful and malevolent. It’s the environment, after all, in which that story was first conceived, then nurtured, and finally brought to fruition.