Something that connects a lot of 1980s movies, particularly ones that have developed cult followings, is that their audiences didn’t exactly know what they were in for. Although the decade is rightly thought of as weaker for movies (and music) than the ’70s, I found this possibly the hardest call to make because there is no shortage of good horrors from the ’80s. Of course, there’s no shortage of bad horrors either; it was the decade the slasher movie really got going, which has surely produced some of the worst horror movies of all time (ever seen Jason Takes Manhattan?). But it’s also a decade in which horror mutated and shifted focus, and many of its best horrors are linked by unpredictability, imaginative special effects and a revived sense of humour about the macabre.
Home video took off in the ’80s, and the face of cinema was once again changed. One of the results was the Video Nasties scare in the UK in which campaigns led by Mary Whitehouse – a name usually accompanied by an expletive – successfully got many horror movies of the ’70s and early ’80s banned on home video. Horror movies on video provided a wonderful scapegoat for moralists and politicians: virtually anything could be – and would be – blamed on them. A video that had not been passed by the BBFC (often after cuts) was treated like a Class A drug, and a list was circulated of the most obscene material: the Director of Public Prosecutions’ notorious list of movies which were so obscene that they could incur criminal charges if distributed. Of course, the youth of ’80s Britain simply used this as a shopping list. Many would be completely forgotten now (most of them, in truth, probably deserve to be forgotten) if it weren’t for these indignant busybodies.
One movie that made that list, absurdly, was Sam Raimi’s 1981 cheapo horror The Evil Dead. It’s a gory, highly entertaining movie about a group of young people in a cabin in the woods who are terrorised by an evil force that reanimates the dead. Watching it now, it’s worrying that people in positions of political power took it seriously enough to be offended by it. Among its cast was newcomer Bruce Campbell, who stood out; he had something that elevated him about the other actors. Maybe it was the chin. His part was expanded upon when, 6 years later, Raimi returned to film its sequel.
Evil Dead II is to The Evil Dead what The Bride of Frankenstein is to Frankenstein – a comedy-horror sequel that simply wants to show the audience a really good time. As Kim Newman says in his invaluable book “Nightmare Movies,” ‘If The Evil Dead shifted the horror film into overdrive, then Evil Dead II puts its foot through the floor and goes insane.’ It is partly a remake and reimagining of the first (although that point has been argued on endlessly by nerds for 20 years), and partly a continuation. It has more of everything – more gore, more technical proficiency, a bigger budget, and more wit. And more Campbell.
Bruce Campbell, particularly in this film, is like a parody of a movie star: not only his acting style, but his physical features. During moments when he has time to reflect (about the fact, for instance, that he has just decapitated his girl) it’s like he is raising a middle finger to ‘serious’ acting. Not that I’m suggesting it’s not a good performance: it’s brilliant. For much of the film he is in the cabin alone, or with only the company of the undead. He has to act scared, upset and manic a lot. He doesn’t get a chance to breathe; at the moments you think the movie is going to unwind for a bit, Raimi turns the screws again and (literally) hurls Campbell back into the action. The scene involving Campbell’s character Ash fighting his own severed hand, recalling Chaplin more than Romero, is as funny as anything I’ve ever seen in a horror movie. One of the biggest laughs in the film comes from the timing and delivery of the word ‘groovy.’
Raimi puts his audience on a rollercoaster: you get tossed about a lot, you might get a few shocks, but even if you do you will laugh at yourself for it. Despite the fact the movie reminds me of Bride of Frankenstein, it must have seemed refreshing in 1987 to see a movie that treated onscreen gore with the irreverence and energy of a Tom & Jerry cartoon. It achieves a breathless energy that very few movies come close to – most would seem as if they were trying too hard, or would quickly become exhausting. Raimi simultaneously gives you exactly what you want while wrong-footing you enough that you don’t know what’s coming next. Both the film and Campbell’s performance are stylised and self-knowing. We’re told that The Book of the Dead, which unleashes the horrors, was ‘Written long ago, when the seas ran red with blood.’ Ah yes, back then.
The mixture of comedy and horror isn’t unique to Evil Dead II, though I have never seen a horror movie that makes me laugh more. In 1985 Stuart Gordon released his gruesomely entertaining Re-Animator, a loose adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft and a modern variation on the Frankenstein story. It was produced by Brian Yuzna, who went on to direct what for me at least is a definitive ’80s horror: Society (1989). If you are a fan of ’80s horror, particularly body horror movies, and you haven’t seen it, I cannot recommend it enough. In some ways it’s dated; full of privileged, brat-packy ’80s kids. Its hero, Bill, is alienated, just as we expect such characters to be. Like other such young protagonists, he thinks he’s different. In Society, though, he really is. Because it’s a satire on ’80s self-absorption and greed the things that date the movie actually work in its favour. It’s funny and over-the-top, like Evil Dead II, but the difference is it really has the power to unsettle in a way that is almost unique.
Like Evil Dead II, Society has some ingenious special effects work; in the pre-CGI days the effort and imagination that went into some of the effects was quite staggering. The most famous examples may be the werewolf transformation scenes in Joe Dante’s The Howling and John Landis’s fantastic An American Werewolf in London (both 1981). Dante went on to make Gremlins (1984), another great comedy-horror. John Carpenter, who had already made his impression on the genre in the ’70s, outdid himself with The Thing (1982) while David Cronenberg, one of the true poets of horror cinema, made The Fly (1986). Both are remakes of ’50s movies brought up to date with gruesome special effects, the former intense and gripping and the latter surprisingly philosophical, even moving. Wes Craven breathed new life into the slasher genre with A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and James Cameron showed with Aliens (1986) that horror sequels don’t need to be awful (though try telling that to Jean-Pierre Jeunet).
As I type this there is a demon sitting on my shoulder shouting ‘The Shining‘ over and over in my ear. I do not think that Evil Dead II is a better movie than The Shining. The Shining is a masterpiece, and one of Stanley Kubrick’s best movies. So why did I choose not to focus on it? Maybe because it seems that there is little left to be said about it. Possibly because I think Evil Dead II is more indicative of the trends of the decade, while The Shining sits aloft, like the Overlook Hotel, in a world of its own (it was also primarily made in the ’70s, though released in 1980). Then there’s the fact I wanted to discuss at least one comedy-horror in this series. The Shining isn’t totally without humour, but Evil Dead II is about the best comedy-horror there is. Jack Torrance uses an axe; Ash replaces his hand with a chainsaw. I wonder who would win in a fight. I mean, Jack Nicholson is about as cool as it gets. But Bruce Campbell is groovy.