In a 2006 interview, Ray Harryhausen, the stop-motion animation wizard and one of Sam Raimi’s personal heroes, said, “If you make things too real, sometimes you bring it down to the mundane.” Approaching my latest re-watch of The Evil Dead, I was thinking primarily about my affection for its wily and inventive practical effects, all of which contribute to its nightmarish feeling of unreality. While special effects have evolved to become exponentially more realistic since 1981, few modern sights appeal to the imagination like The Evil Dead’s supernatural terrors. It’s tempting, therefore, to join the legions of online horror and science fiction fans who insist upon the absolute superiority of models, puppets, wires, and makeup over CG graphics. But The Evil Dead’s enduring visual appeal is not a result so much of any particular set of techniques, but rather because it fits so well with the playfully demented version of reality that Raimi has created within the film.
For the most part, the special effects techniques in The Evil Dead were well-established tricks of the trade. Raimi used pounds of makeup to transform his stars into demonic creatures, he employed wires to animate household objects and disembodied limbs, a certain botanical assault was brought to terrifying life by filming in reverse. With a small crew and a smaller budget, patience and hard work were the greatest assets Raimi and his team had on the set. For one sequence, an actress had to hold perfectly still for an hour while a crew member hand-animated an expanding bruise directly on her leg.
But the demented power of the film’s visuals is best seen in the climactic sequence. Flames begin to devour the Book of the Dead. In its last violent breath, it uncoils a monstrous writhing tongue while the nearby bodies of two demons dissolve into festering heaps of gore. In the spirit of Harryhausen, it’s rendered in loving stop motion by Tom Sullivan. To modern viewers, it’s not remotely realistic, but within the universe of The Evil Dead, it is believable. Visual effects are meant to keep us gripped in the moment, and every moment of The Evil Dead is unreal. All 85 minutes have the surreal feeling of a bad dream.
Some of the film’s most characteristically unreal images resulted not from Raimi’s artistic vision, but instead from constraints imposed upon the production of the film. The most significant of these constraints was budget, but one of the The Evil Dead series’ visual trademarks, blood that surreally spews in shades of white, green, and black, was a concession to the ratings board in Raimi’s unsuccessful attempt to procure an R rating.
However, The Evil Dead’s sequels confirm that Raimi truly rejected a realistic look and feel. Given the chance to essentially remake the original film with a larger budget in Evil Dead II, he doubled down on the bizarre visuals, dramatically increasing his use of stop motion. And Army of Darkness, with its legions of jerkily animated skeletons, is a direct tribute to Harryhausen.
Raimi creates an ideal home for his special effects by creating an atmosphere of dementia. Once things start heading south for Ash and his friends, the director’s dramatic camerawork begins to create a sense that the rational world has melted away. For one shot, he strapped himself to the ceiling of the set to rotate between Bruce Campbell’s back and front, creating a sense of disorientation and a loss of rational perspective. In a truly surreal touch, when Ash reaches into a mirror, it ripples like a pool of water. And Campbell’s performance contributes to the sense of unreality just as much as Raimi’s direction. Through his exaggerated movement and facial contortions, he establishes a world in which the expected rules of reality no longer apply.
It may seem silly to talk about The Evil Dead’s special effects in terms of how realistic they are. After all, most, if not all of us, have never seen one of our friends transformed into a demonic creature, so we have no basis for comparing Raimi’s special effects to the real thing. But fantasy can be realistic---Jabba the Hutt, for example, doesn’t exist, and yet he looks utterly real in The Return of the Jedi. And science fiction and horror fans have waged war on each other on countless message boards over whether Jabba looks most realistic rendered via practical or CG effects. Later in his career, Raimi himself said that he set out to make his story of aerial acrobat Spider-Man “as real as possible.” In writing this essay, I set out to consider why The Evil Dead’s visual effects endure in an era in which more realistic effects can be accomplished with so much greater ease and convenience. And because they endure, why don’t we see more sequences like Raimi’s stop-motion finale?
Occasionally we do. The Life Aquatic and The Science of Sleep are live action movies with stop-motion sequences, and the heavily stop-motion work of Jan Svankmejer is still a recent memory. But all of these films aspire to a dreamlike sense of reality, in which stop motion is appropriate. Perhaps the ultimate question is, in an era of blockbuster escapism, why don’t we see more films that seek to escape rationality itself? The Evil Dead’s unique, enduring appeal as a sensory experience lies in its lack of concern for the mundane logic of the everyday world. It is an inspiring nightmare, setting our imaginations amok.