Stumbling upon a Book of the Dead that zombifies folks might have in the previous decade pointed toward unearthing the characters' own political unrest; here, it's a green-light for unspooling rivers of gore, oozy but giddily unthreatening. Armed with zero budget and tons of film-school antsyness, Sam Raimi and pals hit the woods for the quintessential shoestring horror hit, mining the ol' chestnut about spelunking youngsters stranded in a log cabin fending off demonic forces till dawn arrives. Bruce Campbell, Dudley Do-Right jaw continually moist with splattered viscera, plays Ash, the kind-of leader, in the sequels upgraded into chainsaw-toting Curly and surly knight, but mostly the pantsy here. The opening session is all ominously scuttling cameras, breaking through windows and darting past trees when not hiding behind a swinging pendulum; once the demons are loose, it's full-on slaughterhouse slapstick. Ellen Sandweiss gets raped by malevolent weeds before picking up where Linda Blair left off in The Exorcist, Betsy Baker morphs into a gurgling, white-eyed bobble-head doll while Hal Delrich hacks possessed girlfriend Sarah York with an ax until blood literally douses the lenses. Limbs are rudely separated from their owners, goo squirts from orifices, and the zombies melt until their creamed-corn guts spill all over Ash's hilariously disbelieving mug. For all the bug-eyed panache, the gremlins-at-the-wheel pyrotechnics get wearying, all the more so for trading the radicalized tropes of '70s horror films for jokey film-class flailing. Still, what sets Raimi apart from the condescending emptiness of his buddies the Coens (Joel, incidentally, is credited as assistant editor here) is his lack of snarky distancing -- power outlets start bleeding, but Raimi is always alongside his characters, preferably as a disembodied track zooming into a screaming mouth.
--- Fernando F. Croce