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8 cult classic lessons on 'The Evil Dead'’s 40th anniversary

October 15, 2021
5 min read time

What makes a movie a cult classic? When writer-director Sam Raimi sought to create a supernatural horror film, it’s hard to imagine that he was doing anything more than trying to pool enough money together to make his first feature.

Whether it was word-of-mouth that sent teenagers rushing to the nearest Blockbuster Video to rent the VHS tape, or the subsequent sequels that were more accessible to audiences, there’s no denying The Evil Dead is a true cult classic.

What is it about The Evil Dead that spawned such fandom and the need to celebrate its 40th anniversary, though? There is no surefire way to create that cult classic status, after all, especially one that produced two sequels, a soft reboot, a TV series, comic books, video games, a Funko Pop! Figure, and more. But there are a few things that the movie does that show how to make a successful small indie film.

When you watch the movie today, there are familiar aspects that filmmakers are still using to create their masterpieces. Here are eight lessons in indie horror filmmaking from The Evil Dead:

1. Make it short.  The Evil Dead clocks in at a nice 85 minutes (down from a first cut of 117 minutes). This is the perfect length for a movie when friends want to gather and watch something fun and scary. It’s easy to turn on and watch in its entirety and doesn’t feel like it’s dragging at any time.

2. A lot happens in five minutes.  The first shots of the movie are the camera weaving through a swamp. It’s other-worldly and nefarious. We then meet the five young kids in a car cruising along without a care in the world while there are cuts back to the creeping camera. Then, something evil takes hold of the steering wheel and almost causes them to crash. As the audience, we know these kids are heading into something scary and few will make it out alive.

When they reach the isolated cabin, there are haunting elements with the actors foreshadowing problems ahead as one of the characters gives a chilling tour of the small cabin. All of this happens in the first five minutes, effectively setting up the tone, suspense and characters of the film. At this point, the audience is eager to see what happens to these poor souls.

3. Provide haunting exposition.  There’s nothing like an old, creepy recording to explain who resided in the cabin prior to the vacationers and what trouble lurks ahead. Raimi uses this device for exposition, which appropriately freaks out some in the group. It explains the history of the house, who previously lived there, and what the Book of the Dead is all about. But Raimi also uses this recording as a catalyst to open up the evil spirits that will take over the unsuspecting group. Not only does the viewer learn from the recording, but they can sense the fear and impending doom from it as well.

4. Add comedy.  The Evil Dead doesn’t have as much humor and sarcasm as its sequel, Army of Darkness, but it was present. Comedy can serve several purposes in a horror film. Viewers can’t handle a consistent onslaught of scary scenarios without something to take the edge off. Comedy is the perfect way to give the audience a breather and to bring them back to reality. Another purpose of comedy is to help turn a film into a classic. What lines will friends later repeat back and forth to one another? It’s the comedic ones.

5. Show, don’t tell.  Horror is very much a ‘show, don’t tell’ medium. The suspense lies in the silence and the anticipation. It’s the way the character moves slowly across a dimly lit room to get answers to a noise, or the trying to escape from something chasing them down. A Quiet Place is a prime example of this as the whole concept is that the characters can’t make any sound. For those wanting to write horror, it’s critical to put the images in the reader’s head and provide enough enticing material to keep the pages turning.

6. Do you need a character arc?  Does a character really need to go through a change in a horror? In some ways, they may not really need to. I mean, how does Ash really change from the beginning to end? It is rare, but it’s something a writer can get away with in a genre film.  Another example: Nicolas Cage’s character in Willy’s Wonderland doesn’t really change, either. While it’s advised to have your characters evolve throughout the film in some way, there are many examples that include little-to-no arc at all. It comes down to who the characters are and why we as the audience even care that they have been thrust into this situation.

7. Sometimes the evil spirit is just an evil spirit.  People who see The Birds and don’t like it often state that there was no purpose for the birds — they just show up and start attacking people. In the case of The Evil Dead, well, sometimes evil spirits just show up and want to claim a few people’s souls. Do fans of the movie have a favorite evil character? Probably not. Most don’t even care that the spirits are possessing these young vacationers, because the fun is in the five characters’ reactions and how they deal with it. When creating the horror villain, it’s advisable to have a reason for their nefarious manner, but sometimes a spirit is just evil.

8. Low-budget horror is always a good idea.  Trap a handful of people in a single location and start killing them off one by one — it’s a tale as old as time and works today just as well as it did 40 years ago. What made The Evil Dead a successful independent film was how it was designed. The filmmakers knew their budget and their resources were limited and that their prospects for an audience were dependent on publicity and movie theaters. Premium channels like HBO and video stores were still in their infancy (Blockbuster didn’t even open until 1985). While distribution channels are more prevalent today, the competition for eyeballs is considerably higher, especially when dozens of low-budget horror movies are produced each year. The Evil Dead cost $375,000 (approximately $1,000,000 today) to produce, a similar film today with the technology available could conceivably cost less.

Now that you know how to make a cult classic, it’s time to start writing one. Of course, there is one thing to consider when it comes to writing that cult classic: Timing. Unfortunately, a writer can have all the abilities to create what would be a cult favorite, but it must strike a chord at the right time with the right people.

The Evil Dead took time to reach its status. It had to play in multiple theaters and word-of-mouth had to build. It premiered at the Redford Theater in Detroit (near where the filmmakers grew up) and Sam Raimi had to screen it for multiple distribution companies before one bit. It opened in just 15 theaters and after a screening at Cannes and a positive review from horror writer Stephen King, it slowly built its following.

The Evil Dead is currently available on HBO Max.


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