How to Read Evil Dead and Why

How to Read Evil Dead and Why

Evil Dead 1: Comedy or Horror? And where does that tree rape scene fit in?

evildeadultimateFor those of you who are not aware, back in the 1980s, a man named Samuel Raimi made a series of films called The Evil Dead Trilogy.  These films, particularly the second and third of the trilogy, are beloved as cult classics from the horror-comedy genre.  Evil Dead 2, for example, has a scene where its protagonist (Bruce Campbell) gets in a slapstick duel to the death with his hand.  The third movie, Army of Darkness, involves Bruce Campbell’s character traveling back in time to train a medieval army to fight his evil clone and a legion of living skeletons.  These movies were made, shall we say, with a tongue firmly in cheek.

Ah, but what of The Evil Dead (a.k.a. Evil Dead 1), the first film of the series?  Although it is not nearly as amusing as its sequels, and though its violence is possibly more brutal than even Oscar-winner Peter Jackson’s classic Dead Alive, I would nevertheless characterize it as a horror-comedy, as well.

Here’s the difference, though.  Where Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness show a blend of horror and comedy, Evil Dead 1 seems to be two separate movies: one a horror movie and one a comedy.

The interesting part to me is the point at which the film switches from type A (B-movie horror) to type B (gross-out zombie comedy): the famous tree rape scene.  And thus, my question for today–which, incidentally is a question that many have asked before and that many will likely ask again–is:

WHY THE HELL WAS THERE A TREE RAPE SCENE IN THIS MOVIE?!

On second thought, let me whittle down my question to one that’s a little more specific.  What I want to know is, how are we meant to read the tree rape scene?  Is it meant to be the end point of Evil Dead’s B-horror movie, or is it the beginning point of the gross-out zombie comedy?  Or is it neither?  All this and more after the jump.

How to Read Evil Dead And Why

The Evil Dead starts as a typical “cabin in the woods” B-horror movie.  Five college students go off on a trip to a run-down, isolated cabin (“how did you get it so cheap, anyway?”), where they find a rather creepy book (“The Book of the Dead”) and a tape-recorder with some evil sounding words on it.

Other than the bad acting and a sign labeled “DANGEROUS BRIDGE,” there’s really no comedy to speak of in this portion of the film.  Rather, we, the audience, are meant to take in the most clichéd elements of the horror genre.  The main characters are young, attractive people in a scary-story situation.  Swings swing of their own volition; noises thump the floorboards from the cellar below.  Even the movie’s characters come out of the standard horror-movie playbook: the likeable but skeptical protagonist, the douchebag who thinks this is all a big joke, the scaredy-cat who will be among the first to die, the bland love-interest, and so on.

One can argue that the very use of these clichés shows us that Evil Dead is meant to be read as a parody.  For me, though, the first half of the film does not quite reach that level of satire.  Simple rehashing of old tropes does not a parody make; you need to exaggerate them enough to create a comic tone.

What the first half of Evil Dead does achieve, however, is a feeling of legitimate suspense.  While I personally didn’t find the first half particularly terrifying, I did find myself saying, “Don’t go into that room!” and “No, no, don’t split up!”  In other words, I did what I’d normally do when watching a horror movie—not a horror-movie parody.

It’s only in the second half of the film that things become exaggerated enough to qualify as funny.  An evil spirit takes over four of the five cabin-mates, making them into zombies from the Peter Jackson mold.  These undead people bleed—too much.  The amount of blood that comes out of them and the pressure that it comes out reaches a level of slapstick.  And they don’t only bleed blood, mind you.  They also shoot out this gross white milky stuff (maybe semen?  Who knows?) that is so disgusting the only correct reaction is laughter.

Perhaps Bruce Campbell's attempt to kill this young woman with a wooden plank that is obviously too big for him to carry is scary to some, but...

Perhaps Bruce Campbell's attempt to kill this young woman with a wooden plank that is obviously too big for him to carry is scary to some, but...

It’s not only the zombies that are funny, either.  Bruce Campbell’s protagonist, Ash, who was such a badass in the next two films that he literally has a chainsaw grafted to his arm, here is mostly a frightened on-looker.  When his friends start coming after him, he runs into a bookcase and has it fall on him not once, but twice.  He’s right on the cusp of being comically inept.

Beyond the slapstick, the second half of the film is also funny as a meta-comedy.  At a certain point, it becomes clear that this movie isn’t really about an evil spirit torturing five college students but about a director named Sam Raimi torturing his actors and, more importantly, his audience.  Luckily, Mr. Raimi tortures us with such unrestrained glee, that we, the audience, have to just laugh and join in on the fun.

For example, in the second half of the film, Ash goes back down to the spooky basement, only to find an olde-tyme movie projector, which begins to project plain white light on a screen.  For some reason that is never made clear (this is a horror-comedy, after all), enormous amounts of blood start sloshing in through the basement ceiling.  Not only does the blood cause a light bulb to burst open; it paints the movie screen red and ultimately makes the projector explode.  You can almost taste the joy of creation in this scene.  Well, not creation, really, but destruction.  It’s as if Mr. Raimi is saying, “Fuck you, Hollywood establishment!  I’m going to blow up your industry with my silly amounts of gore, and there’s nothing you can do about it!”  I don’t know about you, but when I saw this scene I laughed and laughed.

Another example of Evil Dead’s meta-humor occurs in the second half of the film when Ash, exhausted from his trials, starts sobbing, “You bastards, why are you torturing me like this? Why?”  Theoretically, you can come up with an in-film reason for him to say this line; he could be talking to the evil dead spirits or just the gods in general for screwing with him.  But, to me, it sounds like he’s talking to the people who made this crazy movie.  And why not?  The “evil spirit” who is tormenting these poor kids is never seen in the movie.  Instead, we see various scenes from “his” point of view.  In other words, the monster is the camera, itself—and whoever is behind it.  The evil spirit and Sam Raimi are one and the same.  No wonder Bruce Campbell suddenly became a good actor in this scene.  He was saying this line from the heart.

Poor guy. It must have taken hours to get all that corn syrup off.

Poor guy. It must have taken hours to get all that corn syrup off.

Tree Rape Is Not Love

Between these two movies—the clichéd B-movie horror flick and the over-the-top meta-horror-parody—is an interesting scene.  The Internet likes to call it “the tree rape” scene for one simple reason: it is a scene in which a female character goes out into the woods and is raped by a sentient tree.  If you want to see this—AND YOU DON’T WANT TO SEE THIS, TRUST ME—watch below:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aM77w44oOIY]

For the life of me, I cannot tell why this scene is here at all.  Even Sam Raimi couldn’t, which is why not much later in life he explained that he regretted making it at all.  Even if we try to ignore the obvious, awful, unnecessary misogynistic overtones of this bit—though, let me tell you, it is nearly impossible to do so—the scene is still out of place in this movie.

Why?  Well, the problem (aside from the awful, awful, awful misogyny) is that this scene neither fits in Evil Dead the horror flick nor Evil Dead the meta-literary comedy.  If this scene was meant to be the capper of the first half’s horror movie, you would expect it to be scary.  If it was meant to be the beginning of the second half’s postmodern parody, you’d expect it to be silly/funny.

However, the scene was not scary—at least, it wasn’t to me.  The best horror-movie thrills are those that relate back to our childhood fears.  Slasher flicks work because we’re scared of serial killers.  Movies like Paranormal Activity work because we’re scared of the dark.  It works because clowns live in the uncanny valley.  And so on.

Scary movies reach back to our primal fears, but who here—show of hands—was ever scared of a tree as a kid?  More specifically, how many of you were ever scared of being raped by a tree?

No one?

So this scene isn’t really scary for most people, I would bet.  But is it funny?  Does it belong in the gross-out humor part of the film?

I can certainly imagine some people laughing at this bit.  Teenage boys come to mind.  But it’s not really funny, is it?  It’s more… uncomfortable.  Even if you are a teenage boy who thinks rape is hilarious (PROTIP: it’s not), I think the idea of someone having a tree branch forcibly stuck up her vagina with that much force is going to make you squeamish.  Now, you might laugh to stave off your feelings of ickiness, but I doubt you’ll be finding the scene funny-funny.  Especially not if you’re watching this movie with a girlfriend.

If you want to view the tree rape as a comedy bit, then the way it is filmed is very problematic.  It is easy to argue that the zombie gross-out scenes from the end of the movie are meant to be parodic, because they are so extremely unrealistic that they couldn’t really be anything other than a parody.  The tree rape scene, however, is filmed fairly straight.  It is literally just a girl having a tree branch shoved up her vagina.  If there are any elements of parody in this scene, I cannot see them.

In short, Evil Dead’s tree rape is too ludicrous to be scary, but too realistically unpleasant to be funny.  As it neither fits in the first half of the film or the second, it should have been left on the cutting room floor.

12 Comments on “How to Read Evil Dead and Why”

  1. Jon Eric #

    Ah, but twenty years later, you’re still talking about that tree rape scene.

    Audiences were mystified by this movie – many people, as you imply in the introduction to the article, weren’t sure what to think. I remember the first time I saw Evil Dead – that tree rape scene was the only thing I remembered about it for weeks!

    Without its legacy of sequels and pop-culture phenomenon, what does this movie really have to stand out from the crowd? Some tired horror movie tropes (you mean it’s three girls and only two guys?! What a twist!), some over-the-top gore, and a tree rape scene.

    Therefore I ask: if that tree rape scene had been left on the cutting room floor, as you suggest it should have been, would we still be talking about this movie twenty years later? Would Raimi have gotten the funding for his next movie? Would the sequels have ever been made?

    Reply

  2. Kevin #

    While I don’t disagree that the scene is out of place… I DO disagree with you when you write:

    “Scary movies reach back to our primal fears, but who here—show of hands—was ever scared of a tree as a kid? More specifically, how many of you were ever scared of being raped by a tree?”

    You are correct with the latter point — no, I don’t know anyone scared of being raped by a tree — but incorrent as to the first.

    LOTS of kids are scared of trees. That’s why one of the major sequences of another movie that walks the line between horror and comedy (though in the reverse order of EVIL DEAD: comedy->horror rather than horror->comedy), POLTERGEIST, deals with the young Freeling boy being scared of… the tree outside his bedroom window.

    Think about it: while plenty of trees aren’t menacing… it’s also true that plenty ARE. Those that, like in POLTERGEIST, are just outside what’s supposed to be a “safe” place. Those that are old, wrinkled, and gnarled to the point that if you squint your eyes JUST RIGHT… you almost think you see human features (faces, but more relevantly arms and fingers with which to grab you). And the scene absolutely works in POLTERGEIST whereas it fails in EVIL DEAD… even after the tree has pulled the boy out of his room and is trying to swallow him.

    While “fear of trees” isn’t primal on the order of “fear of the dark”… if you broaden it to “fear of nature,” it absolutely *is* primal, almost as much as “fear of water” or “fear of snakes/sharks/spiders/etc.” is. For nature is unknowable when you’re a child — what happens with those things when you’re left defenseless, or when you fall asleep? THAT’S what kids are afraid of… and why it’s perfectly reasonable for children to be afraid of the big, old, misshapen tree outside of their bedroom window.

    (Also, I would argue that children aren’t afraid of clowns only because they “cross the Uncanny Valley” — in some cases, that’s true, as in POLTERGEIST — but more importantly, for the same reason they’re afraid of trees: they’re supposed to be “safe” and “happy” and “fun”, but ultimately are mysterious and potentially dangerous. Think about clowns: they’re usually adult/quite larger than kids; their faces are painted so their appearances are disguised — what’s really underneath that makeup?; and they talk in high/unnatural voices and tend to move in unnatural ways.)

    But let’s get away from talking about children’s fears… Alternately, for women, “fear of rape” is *absolutely* relevant in their adult years. But again, the scene in EVIL DEAD fails BECAUSE it combines what are essentially two very *different* fears: a child’s primal fear of nature, and an adult’s primal fear of being taken against their will sexually. THAT is why the scene as conceived by Raimi is wrong — the combination of those two fears very obviously doesn’t work. NOT because it has to do “with trees,” though that’s the most apparent reason — but because the child and adult fears aren’t juxtaposed in an entertaining, scary, or *relevant* way, as they are in one of your own examples, Stephen King’s IT.

    Reply

    • jimbob #

      Another person scarred by the tree in poltergeist.

      Reply

  3. Kevin #

    @Jon Eric: while it’s true all people may have remembered from EVIL DEAD upon their initial viewing was the “tree rape scene” — we can’t say that was a GOOD thing. Especially when Raimi himself realized it didn’t work after the movie was released. There are PLENTY of movies we remember for the laughable scenes that DIDN’T work — that doesn’t mean they were *intentionally* “memorable.”

    Indeed, if “tree rape” was supposed to be the shocking way to get people interested in this franchise… it’s important to note that not only was any kind of rape scene NOT included in the sequels… but *NO similar horror scenes* were included either. So while one can argue Raimi didn’t want to repeat himself with an even scarier/sillier “tree rape” scene… he didn’t try ANYTHING that was “scary” in that way in the sequels.

    I think more obviously, he and Campbell felt that what made EVIL DEAD unique was the slapstick comedy… which is why EVIL DEAD 2 is broader and sillier with less of an accent on the horror… and why ARMY OF DARKNESS pretty much throws the horror out the window entirely, and goes for laughs from start to finish.

    (I would also point out that typically when people talk about the franchise, they don’t have much to say about EVIL DEAD — it’s much more about EVIL DEAD 2, which is for all intents and purposes a *remake* of EVIL DEAD with a slightly better budget and the ideas that appealed to Raimi and Campbell… and the absurd comedy of ARMY.)

    Reply

  4. Poultry Man #

    “The Evil Dead” was definitely meant to be an over-the-top film- from the obscene amounts of gore, to the inexplicable ghostly mayhem, to the terrible special effects. The movie can still be boiled down to a group of young filmmakers trying to make a horror( a genre which strives to push their audience further than they’ve gone before) movie, and somewhere along the way deciding t concentrate on the outrageousness of it all.
    Now, as pertaining to “the tree rape scene” whether you want to say their making fun of horror standards, or rehashing old tropes- what you cannot forget is that this film is being made at the turn of the decade. Therefore “The Evil Dead” coming out of the seventies is prone to seventies horror conventions, and not those of the eighties- and in the seventies there were loads of horror movies where rape is a standard horror element.
    Keeping this in mind the scene can now be read as your transition point between film A and film B. This over-used horror trope is now blown to outlandish absurdity, thus technically making it parody. However, the brilliance in this parody is not that this scene is funny (rape can never be comedy), instead the fact that this scene is so uncomfortable drives home the atrocity that has been used as fodder in low budget exploitation flicks over the past decade.
    The very existence of this transition point, purposeful or not, elevates “The Evil Dead” from over-cliched B-movie, or over-the-top metacomedy, into the realm of satire.

    Reply

  5. lee OTI Staff #

    Apparently that tree rape scene is coming back to the big screen:

    http://www.slashfilm.com/2009/10/28/evil-dead-will-return-to-the-big-screen/

    Bruce Campbell’s quote:

    “Nothing can prepare an audience for what they are about to see, because nothing punishes an audience like EVIL DEAD – especially on the big screen… I’m really glad it’s back. People are gonna be hurt.”

    Reply

  6. Gab #

    ::is thoroughly grossed out::

    But I find my original experience of the movie itself quite funny-interesting now. I was twelve-ish, watching a marathon of the three with my dad, and he (I now realize quite conveniently) told me to go help my mom do something with my younger brother somewhere in the middle. It must have been during this scene- there is no way in HELL I’d forget something that unnerving. Clever man, clever man indeed. I never got around to watching the whole thing on my own because, well, it’s hardly ever on TV, while the other two are on every few months, it seems.

    Was there any backlash or condemnation of the tree-rape scene when the movie first came out? Did it cause any hurdles for Raimi when he was trying to put the second movie out?

    And if it’s going to be shown again and Raimi realized post-release the scene shouldn’t have been in at all, maybe he’ll have it taken out??? I mean, the article doesn’t give too many details, but while the quote suggests the scene may remain (since that is, by far, the scene that feels the most like “punishment” and gives the most “pain”) in, perhaps Raimi’s own discomfort with it will mean a change.

    Reply

  7. Genevieve #

    While my love for the franchise is such that I’d LIKE to agree with PoultryMan that the tree rape scene pushes the film across the line form parody to satire… my own reading of it has always been as the “Aw, fuck it” moment. That is, the moment where they realized that the film was not by any stretch of the imagination doing what they had intended it to do (i.e., be a successfully scary, if “B,” horror flick) so they might as well just have some fun. Not that *that scene* was fun, but that the rest of the movie *after it* was.

    To analyze it more deeply just for kicks, though, I think it’s worth noting that when looking at the “primal fear” of nature, as discussed above, Nature-with-a-capital-N is overwhelmingly a female force – the destructive flip-side of creation. The primal fear of Nature comes from the sense of something that holds us, nourishes us, and protects us is lashing out at us, making us feel like a child getting spanked by its mother. Even though individual sentient trees are typically characterized as male (Ents, for example) the fact that Nature itself, the fear of which this scene rides on, is female makes the rape disturbing in an entirely different way, and actually supports the notion of satire over parody.

    Speaking of the line between parody and satire, I would like to once again mention Evil Dead: the Musical, which I believe walks that line itself. Sadly, I can’t speak too eloquently on it, as I’ve not seen it performed… but based on the soundtrack alone, it seems to meld musical theater tropes seamlessly with the horror film cliches it already embodied, while simultaneously being an indictment of the fading art of musical theater almost as cleverly as, say, Urinetown.

    Reply

  8. Tom P #

    Scary movies reach back to our primal fears, but who here—show of hands—was ever scared of a tree as a kid? More specifically, how many of you were ever scared of being raped by a tree?

    Boiling it all the way down to “scared of trees” is disingenuous, I think. I think you’d find a lot of children scared of the forest or of monsters in the forest. I also think there are a decent number of people who, if dropped alone in the forest at night, would be absolutely terrified.

    It’s a silly scene, but how many times have tree branches been used in film to make a creepy tap on a window? Or had their branches described as “skeletal” in books? Or been seen as the bones of a skeleton by a terrified victim? In this case, the tree wasn’t distracting the victim from the danger. It actually WAS the danger.

    It would be like if the cliched cat that jumps out of the darkness to give the audience and the victim a false scare. Except if the cat actually then turned around and ripped the victim’s face off.

    Reply

  9. mlawski OTI Staff #

    Okay, okay, I give! Apparently people ARE scared of being raped by trees. Shows what I know.

    I still maintain, however, that the tree rape scene fails to reach a level of parody or of real terror. If it was meant to be a parody, the tree attack would have had to be far more exaggerated. For example, if the tree started whipping the young woman’s behind or if there were an “I got wood” pun, then we’d be aware that we were entering the realm of satire.

    To make the scene legitimately scary and about our primal fear of nature, it would have had to be filmed differently. Maybe the trees would be shot in such a way as to seem more grotesque, or maybe there would be a shot of a stop-motion fox chewing on his own entrails while saying “Chaos reigns!” in a creepy voice. In Evil Dead, though, the trees are just, well, trees. They weren’t scary to me in the least. Disgusting and misogynistic, yes, but not terrifying. Bear in mind, everyone, that I am about the biggest scaredy cat in the Universe. I had nightmares about Synecdoche, New York, for goodness’ sake. If the tree rape scene didn’t scare me, of all people, then my bet is it’s just not scary.

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  10. stokes OTI Staff #

    In addition to Mlawski’s general point — which I do agree with — I would add this: In a scary movie, the gory parts are not really the scary parts. They can be powerful certainly, setting off a kind of fight or flight (or laugh) response which at its best… well, if it ain’t catharsis, it’ll do till the catharsis gets here. But for actual fear, you want a situation where someone is about to get hurt. “Don’t go into the basement, you idiot! You’re going to get killed with an axe!” THAT’S fear.

    I can’t remember the setup to the scene in question, but in a way the sheer outlandishness of the concept works against it inspiring fear. I’ll bet you a coke that no one in the theater shouted “Don’t go into the woods you idiot! You’re going to get raped by a tree!”

    Well, at least not the first time they saw it. Although I agree with Mlawski (and Raimi) that this scene should honestly never have been filmed, it does pull off one sort of neat trick. If you are watching The Evil Dead for the second time, you know that the scene is coming. And you become afraid – afraid for the characters in the movie, but afraid of the movie itself. “Don’t go into the showing of Evil Dead! You’re going to have to watch the tree rape scene!”

    Reply

  11. Kevin #

    @mlawski: Sure, I was more responding to your overthinking with a little overthinking of my own.

    The biggest reason the scene doesn’t work… is because it’s silly. If Ed Wood was alive and making movies in the 70s, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between them. You can almost see the crew at the edge of frame, waving branches back and forth, all in the name of being “scary.” You can tell what shots were run in reverse to make it look like the branches were wrapping around her. It’s horrible filmmaking — we assign it more value because it’s Sam Raimi. But it’s Raimi *before* he knew what he was doing… and it shows. He even agreed with that.

    For me, it almost works on the level of Wood, SHOWGIRLS… you name it. It’s Grade-A cheese! Which is why it can never be scary, regardless of what people are or aren’t afraid of.

    Reply

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