Evil Dead

Stephen King calls it "the most ferociously original movie of 1982."

By Bob Martin



 he first inkling we had that Evil Dead might be an exception to the usual run of low-budget horror films came from Claude Scasso and Caroline Vie, two correspondents for Cine-Zine-Zone, a French horror film journal.  They visited America not long after attending this year's Cannes Film Festival, and were bubbling with enthusiasm for the picture.  In fact, Caroline had been sitting next to Stephen King during the screening... and King, Ashwe're told, was petrified, spending much of the film's screen-time cowering behind the seat before him.

     A few days later, we read Stephen King's rave review of Evil Dead in the November issue of Twilight Zone magazine, in which he declares the film a work of genius, "the most ferociously original horror film of 1982... beyond doubt."  Now, we're talking about a year that includes Basket Case, Poltergeist, The Thing, even Creepshow, King's own collaboration with George Romero -- the man must have been impressed!

    King seems to be mainly impressed with Sam Raimi, a young filmmaker based in (get ready) Ferndale, Michigan, just outside Detroit.  Whipping into action (and with the help of TZ editor T.E.D. Klein), we were able to track down Raimi, and by plying him with free copies of FANGORIA's early issues (he already had the later ones), got him to sit down for an interview, along with his producer, Robert Tapert, and his associate producer (who also stars in Evil Dead), Bruce Campbell.


    aimi recalls the first time he was profoundly moved by a film; "It was Fantastic Voyage," Raimi recalls.  "My parents took me.  I must have been really young, because I remember a warning that appeared at the beginning of the film, that my father read to me because I was too young to read it myself.  It was this incredible rap about how intense and new and exciting this was going to be, moving through the human body... and because my father was reading it to me, it made it all true and real.  My father told me we were about to journey through the human body, and then I saw it happening."

    It was only a few years later that Raimi was putting his own images on screen.  "It started when I was 12 or 13, and a friend of mine got a videotape machine and a camera," Raimi continues.  "We were always making jokes, so it became another way to make jokes -- little skits imitating war movies 'Westerns, whatever.   That worked out so well that, shortly after, I got a super8 camera and started making little clips with that."

    Like such other "ferociously original" filmmakers as Romero, Cronenberg and Hooper, Raimi learned his craft without the benefit of film school training.  He learned film by starting young, by making films and more films (30 by his own count); from experience and from his co-workers.

  One of the co-workers who shared in Raimi's education was Bruce Campbell, one of the ringleaders of a filmmaking gang that Raimi joined in high school ("My favorite was a comedy we made, titled Six Months to Live," Raimi recalls).  When we asked the inevitable question, "Why Detroit?", it is Campbell that offers an answer. "We found that we were able to do it here.  Talent does tend to run away from Detroit; once someone has made progress here, they feel it's time to go to New York, or to L.A.and do it for real. We did take Evil Dead to New York for postproduction, because there are certain facilities that just aren't available.  For instance we couldn't do sound here." In New York, the group was not only able to find excellent sound facilities; they were also able to recruit recording engineer Mel Zelniker, whose past credits include Blow Out, Raging Bull, and Reds.

  Another early Raimi ally was Robert Tapert, whom Raimi met in a Shakespeare course at college.  Together, Raimi, Campbell, TapertRaimi and Tapert formed the Michigan State University Society of Creative Filmmaking, which became a commercial outlet for several films they made together, and for several of Raimi's high school films. "We were able to rent auditorium space, run newspaper ads and sell tickets; we acted as our own projectionists," says Raimi. "That was really a great learning experience -- we were able to sit among the audience as they screamed, 'This sucks!" After awhile, out of self-defense, we started making better films." An early success by the filmmaking team was the story of a college student abused by his professors and dumped by his girlfriend who cracks up during the week before finals -- The Happy Valley Kid: The Story of a Student Driven Mad was the evocative title.

   A later addition to MSUSCF was Tom Sullivan, a young effects whiz who was previously associated with the ill-fated Lovecraftian horror project, Cry of Cthulhu. Sullivan's artistic talent was immediately put to use designing the ads for the film group's showings, but it was his hands-on experience in makeup effects and stop motion that made him invaluable when the project began.


While there were no film courses of interest to Raimi at MSU, he does credit his study of literature and the humanities with making him a better storyteller. The script of Evil Dead, which was completed in first draft during his college years, owes some of its thematic structure to Raimi's borrowings from English Lit. "I don't want to get too artistic," Raimi says, "but I think the picture was strengthened by the notion of time, as in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. There, time moves in an orderly , progressive fashion, and then, at a certain point, time stops. Then, when evil is in control, time moves backwards; that's what I used in Evil Dead. There's a clock in the film that serves as a focal point; a gauge to the evil."

   However elegantly structured, the story of Evil Dead is a simple one. Five college students -- Ash (Bruce Campbell), Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), Linda (Betsy Baker), Scott (Hal Delrich), and Shelly (Sarah York) -- venture into the wooded mountains of Tennessee to spend a weekend of fun in an isolated country cabin. There they encounter an Evil Presence -- and, worse, discover a demonic relic, the ancient BruceBook of the Dead. The Book, bound in human flesh and written in blood, contains the resurrection formulas that will cause the spirits of the evil dead to rise and take control, one by one, of the students. As the survivors see their friends and lovers turn into hideous, murdering demons, they learn that the only way to kill the Possessed is to dismember them. "You can shoot 'em, or stab 'em," says Raimi, "but the spirits just lift the body up again, and they come right at you. You really have to cut 'em up."

  So Raimi had a story. He also had a producer, a special effects man, and a lead actor. With all of the MSUSCF members out of school and now a part of Renaissance Pictures, Inc., he even had a production company. What was missing? Money!

   Even a low-budget, 16mm horror film requires a reasonable amount of the green stuff to launch, and so Raimi and crew hatched a plan to lure investors. With much of the same cast and crew that would later tackle the feature, Raimi shot Within the Woods, a 30-minute adaptation of the same story, in super 8 format. "That was our main tool for financing," says Raimi. "Part of it was for the investors to believe in that picture, and to perceive it as scary. The other part was for them to believe us; that we were hard-working young men trying to get started, that we wouldn't be taking salaries and intended to bring it in as cheaply as possible, to safeguard that investment. So it was a combination of all those things."

   One incident that occurred in the making of the "short version" is worth recounting here, though the tale does reveal one of the film's niftier shocks (NOTE: Skip to the next paragraph if you wish to preserve the surprise.). "In the short, Bruce Campbell played a monster, and Ellen Sandweiss played the hero -- the opposite from the feature. There was a scene where Ellen is battling with him, and slices into his arm with a knife, which is left dangling. The script called for Bruce to take hold of the arm and rip it off, to show that these monster mean business. But then the arm wouldn't come off -- so Bruce bit it off. It looked so great, we kept it in the short, and wrote it into the picture."

   As the financing came together, the next steps were casting and the selection of locations. Producer Tapert recalls, "We had already cast Ellen Sandweiss, who had also been in the 8mm version. She plays the 'outsider' of the group; there's two guys and three girls, and she's the third girl. She's a little more in tune with the fact that something's wrong -- and she's the first one to go, when she walks out into the woods."

   More fun than a double barrel full of monkeysBruce Campbell was already cast, as far as Tapert and Raimi were concerned. Still, Campbell insisted that a screen test be made to insure that he was "right" for the role, a very exacting one. In addition to the physical exertion of battling the monsters with tooth, claw and chainsaw, much of his screen time is spent half-covered in Karo corn syrup-based blood. "I kept a bottle of it with me at all times," says Campbell, "with a feed-brush attached, and re-applied it between each take, to my face and hair. Sticky at first, but it gets to be fun... My character is a fellow who goes from being a useless idiot to a useful one; he has to decide whether he has to be a man or a mouse, and he stops licking the cheese after a while."

   "Filling out the rest of the cast was much more difficult than we had thought," says Tapert. "Everyone in Detroit works on car commercials and the actresses in Detroit who call themselves actresses, really want to work the auto shows and get paid $700 a week. So when we said we were going down to Tennessee to shoot a feature, and asked if they'd like to audition, the answer was often 'not really,' or 'I'm going to be working the auto show then.' So we went through a hundred or so people before we cast the last three roles, one guy and two women."

   The last role was cast almost by accident. Hal Delrich, who plays Scott, never intended to audition; he had come in with a friend of his who had almost clinched the role. At the final reading, however, it was clear to all that it was Delrich, and not his friend, who was perfectly suited to the role. "That caused a little hard feelings between he and his friend," says Tapert, "but that really wasn't our problem." And, in Stephen King's review, Delrich is singled out for special praise, for bringing "the happy, beer-swilling fraternity scuzzo to gruesome life."

   The Tennessee location schedule was planned for seven weeks, which grew to 11 in the course of filming. The script called for only a few locations, including an isolated cabin in the Tennessee woods within range of more civilized accommodations for cast and crew, and two nearly-identical bridges -- one that would be crossed by the cast as the college students head toward the cabin, and another that was sufficiently broken down that authorities would allow the crew to destroy it in a later scene. We were rather surprised to hear that the Tennessee State Film Commission was of major help to the young filmmakers; in many states low-budget filmmakers, especially those dealing in grue and gore, have found little help available from such governmental commissions. "I'm not entirely sure they knew how low-budget we were," says Raimi. "We told them we were making a picture, they said great, and put us in touch with a gentleman named George Holt, who was very helpful in finding those locations. About a month into the picture, some members of the commission came down to the location and, to say the least, they were shocked. We had a road leading to the location that you couldn't drive down, because it had been raining steadily; they came in suits and dresses and high heels and had to walk down a half-mile of mud. Then when they saw the place, it looked like a neutron bomb had gone off in there -- karo syrup blood covering every inch of the floor, everything destroyed, a shotgun lying around... I think they thought we were part of the Manson family."

Tapert inspects Sandweiss while Raimi mans the camera
 Rob gets a closer look

   Location shooting had a number of real-life scary moments; northern city dwellers seldom feel at home in he hills of Tennessee, especially since Deliverance. "The fact that the cabin was located in a small valley, about a half-mile from public dirt road, added something to the atmosphere and to the physical nightmare of making a movie in a cabin in the woods," says Tapert. "People would stand up on the ridge over the cabin and watch what we were doing. Once, we were away from the cabin for about 10 minutes -- when we came back, all the power tools were gone. That was a little unsettling. But just about everybody we had personal contact with down there was very nice to us; we were down there for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and a family prepared us these tremendous Southern meals that we'd never seen the likes of."

   With Evil Dead closing in on a distribution deal that should bring it to theaters by this January, all three men are looking forward to their next project, now well into preproduction. Producer Tapert tells us that it's still not determined whether this film will be another locally-financed, Detroit-based production -- too many variables remain on the eve of Evil Dead's release. Campbell tells us that his character in this new film will be similar to his last -- "another do-gooder, battling evil only less of a wimp."

   Sam Raimi, the writer-director of Evil Dead, promises that the next one will stick to the letter of the law. "There are three laws," he says. "Law number one is The Innocent Must Suffer. Law number two is The Guilty Must Be Punished And the third law is You Must Taste Blood To Be A Man. We're working now on a fourth law, The Dead Shall Walk; but we're not sure yet whether or not it's universal. We're still checking to see if it applies in every case."

This article comes from FANGORIA Issue #3, volume 3; 1982 -- Pictures from various other magazines. --Written by Bob Martin
Transcribed here without the expressed permisson of the magazine or author