Starring: Bruce Campbell
Music: Joe LoDuca
Director: Sam Raimi
Screenplay: Sam Raimi
Director of Photography: Tim Philo
Coming to this film of course aware of its inflated reputation (though not that the reputation was actually inflated), I was somewhat peeved when it turned out to be neither scary nor particularly funny (each ‘shock’ is signposted a mile off, lack of plot and incident made up for with endless P.O.V. and tracking shots). OK, Sam Raimi (this is very much a director’s film) is playing with the formulae of the horror genre – the sense of something stalking its victims, the zombie-movie gore, the cheesy ‘ancient curse’ scenario that gets all the mayhem rolling, and the stock characters so barely sketched that they only just register as stock characters, let alone human beings whose fate is of much interest beyond visceral identification at the most basic level (i.e. you don’t really care that a particular character is about to get their leg ripped off, but you do care/wince that someone is about to get their leg ripped off).
Sounds pretty good, no? And every time I criticise the film I realise that what I’m saying will probably be precisely what it gets praised for by others; horror reduced to such bare bones (yes, pun intended, ha ha) that it becomes nearly pure image and sound, without the need for the justification of ‘plot’, ‘continuity’, or ‘realism’ (compare this with Fulci’s supposedly Artaudian approach in films such as ‘The Beyond’), and/ or done with such zest that it’s a thrill and a pleasure to watch such obvious manipulation, even while one is aware that it is manipulation and that it is obvious. The enjoyment, then, unfolds in much the same way that we enjoy the cinematic virtuosity of a Dario Argento flick while realising that it is completely artificial – the red-herring shot swooping, down from a height, accompanied by the sound of fluttering wings, in ‘Suspiria’, throwing us off the scent of the attack from below; the endless baths of red light and red blood (maybe something that Raimi parodies in the scene where blood runs down the walls in front of a projector?), the close-ups of eyes and faces, the intrusive and absurd yet intimidating and insinuatingly disturbing prog-rock scores by Goblin.
OK, but actually try watching the cartoonish gore-for-gore’s sake (ketchup-spurt and various foodstuffs and milky liquids spilling around all over the place, with a few maggots thrown for good measure; amusing enough, I guess, in a Peter Jackson ‘Braindead’ kind of way, thought neither as extreme nor even as tongue-in-cheek as in Jackson’s film). Try the uneasy balance between laughter and the sort of lurid love of extreme violence (HIT that zombie with a wooden pole…CHOP that zombie’s limbs off) that characterises recent Hollywood actioners like ‘300’ or ‘Watchmen’ – a balance that, as in those films, isn’t made to feel uneasy and thus loses the impact it might have had (maybe ‘Evil Dead 2’ brings out that awkwardness out more; I haven’t seen it, so couldn’t comment).
And try enduring the film’s continuing misogyny. Consider this: all the demon-possessed characters who become zombies are women (apart from ‘Scotty’ towards the end, when the farrago of female evil has been going on for so long that it far outweighs the impact of this male transformation). Now that they’re zombies they can suffer violence at the hands of men – beating, slapping, and dismemberment. (Though the film’s hero does stop short of chainsawing his zombified girlfriend, said girlfriend is depicted (when in zombie form) as a laughing idiot, a kind of caricature of the ditzy, air-headed female, made sinister.) My problem isn’t so much with violence being shown to be done to women: ‘Witchfinder General’, for example, explores the persecution of women in a way that would lose much of its moral force if such violence was not shown, even if Jess Franco then exploited this in his rip-off ‘The Bloody Judge’, merging titillation and violence through the distasteful spectacle of torture scenes filled with writhing, bloodied nudes or near-nudes. What I object to is the gleeful relish with which it’s shown, the way it’s treated as a joke or gimmick (the ‘tree rape scene’, which is the film’s first full-blown horror set-piece), the lack of moral consideration to it, for which Raimi’s juvenile approach to horror has no place.
Beyond a series of endless trick effects and knowing or unknowing comedic moments, then, there’s basically nothing here – and the implicit values, or assumptions, that are there, are deeply questionable. Dead loss.