“I fear that the only way to stop those possessed by the spirits of the book is through the act of… bodily dismemberment.”
In the fall of 1979 a group of young people went into the cold, dark woods of rural Tennessee. They underwent a brutal, horrifying and grueling experience that left them changed forever. This is their story.
Rob Tapert, Bruce Campbell, Sam Raimi and their cast and crew had nominally driven from urban Michigan to make a movie, but none of them could have imagined either the difficulties they would face or the way their little monster movie would go on to dominate horror filmmaking in the 1980’s and beyond. How a group of friends with only a bunch of Super 8 short films for experience made one of the most iconic horror films of all time is, like their film, a comedy AND a horror show. That it got made at all is a fantastic achievement. That they survived is something of a miracle.
What The Evil Dead Means to Us
The original Evil Dead is a standout horror film because of what it was able to accomplish on a shoestring budget, launching Raimi’s career and establishing Campbell’s horror status as a cult icon while also being one of the goriest films ever made at that time. Raimi’s unique signature style combined with a genuinely creepy film that Stephen King dubbed it as “the most ferociously original horror movie of the year,” (a quote The Evil Dead‘s poster proudly wore as a badge of honor) helps make this one of the greatest of all time.
This is one of the first “cabin in the woods” films I remember seeing and being instantly drawn in the premise because I was so used to just seeing a guy in a mask run around and kill the fornicating teenagers. The Evil Dead stood out to me as something unpolished and grimey but somehow just sucked me into this messed little world. It would go on to be one of my favorite horror franchises and is one of the few without a bad entry from its sequels, remake and tv series.
Before he became the chainsaw wielding, wise cracking bad ass we all know and love, Ash Williams was arguably cinema’s first scream queen. The way Bruce Campbell plays him in this is a million miles away from what the character would become. Seeing him evolve from a bitch to a badass is reason alone to see this movie and if setting the table for the best sequel in horror history was all this film brought to the table, it would be enough but that’s far from the only thing this movie has going for it. It may seem horribly dated by today’s standards but there was a time when this was the ultimate dare. Along with films like Faces of Death, Antropophagus and Cannibal Holocaust, The Evil Dead was so infamous amongst early 80s horror fans, that you weren’t cool unless you’d seen it. You couldn’t call yourself a true diehard if you couldn’t find a copy. Since it was on the video nasty list in England and because most Blockbusters wouldn’t carry it, you needed to know a kid who had a really cool cousin to see it. Every neighborhood has this kid. The one with the porn mags, ninja stars and boxes of fireworks. He’s like the most important NPC in a fantasy game — he’s the last step on the journey to seeing the forbidden and like all epic quests, it’s worth it. There are few horror films that look and feel like this movie. It’s a non-stop assault on the senses. One second, you’re getting whiplash from Raimi’s insane camera moves, the next you feel icky from the notorious tree rape and then the next, you’re laughing at the demonic monster in the cellar. It hits you in the face over and over again. There’s nothing else quite like it. The second is probably more entertaining and is definitely better made but this one is scarier.
Making Something from (Almost) Nothing
I feel like I know more about the making of The Evil Dead than I do about the making of any other film, and that’s directly due to the filmmaker’s willingness to talk about their process. Between interviews, biographies and multiple commentary tracks on the movies themselves Sam, Bruce and Rob and others have delved into the nitty-gritty process of making an independent film, from concept to marketing to distribution.
After years of making micro-budget Super-8 movies, high-school friends Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell got together with college buddy Rob Tapert decided to throw caution to the wind and try and make “a real film for the real world.” Sam in particular thought this was a fool’s errand, but was willing to go as far as he could. People with more experience (and sense) would probably have talked themselves out of taking the leap, but lucky for horror fans everywhere the trio didn’t know what they didn’t know.
“I just thought I would run from reality as long as possible until they dragged me back to my dad’s store.”
A brief review of the types of films that did well at local drive-ins revealed that horror was probably the way to go – a bit of a jump from the slapstick comedies the filmmakers had been doing. With the genre decided, they moved to make a “prototype” short film. A way to prove to themselves – and potential investors – that they actually could make an effective horror film. This was Within the Woods – a 32 minute, 8mm film that contains quite a few elements that would find their way into The Evil Dead, including the basic conceit of a group of young people at a remote cabin in the woods being menaced by demonic forces. In addition, the film features Ellen Sandweiss – who would play Cheryl in The Evil Dead and introduced the filmmakers to Tom Sullivan, the special effects artist who would create most of the effects for the feature film.
Armed with this “proof” the filmmakers were able to cajole friends, family and other local investors into giving them roughly $85,000 towards a planned $150,000 budget. While many sources list the final budget for the film at around $300,000-$375,000 the vast bulk of the film was actually made on a fraction of that amount. Editing, sound, music, post-production, pickups, promotion and more ballooned the costs, but it’s always astonishing to me how much was accomplished with so little.
With such a minuscule shooting budget, the filmmakers cut corners wherever they could. They borrowed cameras and equipment, innovated filmmaking techniques like the “shaky cam” – a camera nailed to a board that was then carried through the woods while tilting it back and forth, they used food items for gore and employed “fake Shemps” (stand-ins) when the shoot dragged on into the winter and the main actors left. Some props, like the “Kundarian dagger” were created out of old chicken bones, leaving a horrible stench in the back room of the house where the cast and crew were living.
Somehow, despite setbacks like the theft of a bunch of power tools and even the loss of much of their main cast Sam, Bruce and Rob managed to persevere through the cold and dark to finish the location shooting. It was a moment to be celebrated, but they weren’t done yet.
(If you’re interested in more (gory) details about the shooting of The Evil Dead I highly recommend Bruce Campbell’s autobiography If Chins Could Kill. It’s an extremely fun and readable book, and goes into a decent amount of detail about the making of the film.)
“It ain’t Gone With the Wind,
but I think we can make some money with it.”
For much of 1981 the filmmakers were trying to finish their project. When investment money ran out they turned to bank loans (at 20% interest rate – yikes!) and, finally, to putting up Campbell family property as collateral. To finalize the film they had to shoot pickups (extra scenes and elements to bridge gaps in the story), finalize the ending special effects with Bart Pierce and Tom Sullivan mixing stop-motion with practical effects and matte shots, doing all the sound effects and looping as well as editing all the disparate pieces together. This last essential part was handled by a woman named Edna Paul and her assistant, Joel Coen. If that name sounds familiar, it should as he and his brother Ethan would go on to be award-winning filmmakers in their own right. And when THAT was done they needed to blow the whole thing up from 16mm to 35mm so it could be shown in theaters.
It was an ugly and excruciating (and expensive) process to finish the film – though perhaps not so physically taxing as the original filming – but finish they did. They even had a premiere at The Redford Theater in Detroit. They’d actually done it – they’d made a “real film for the real world.” Now they just needed to get people to see it…
Enter Irvin Shapiro, (whose quote starts this section). Sam, Rob and Bruce had met with several distributors and promoters while trying to get The Book of the Dead (as the film was originally titled) a distribution deal, but with Irvin Shapiro they lucked into one of the true gentlemen of the film distribution business. He had been involved with importing foreign films since the 1920’s and had famously introduced American audiences to movies like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Battleship Potemkin and, most importantly to the Evil Dead crew, early films from George Romero. His vast experience helped shepherd the fledgling filmmakers through the byzantine process of getting their movie seen and picked up – first by foreign distributors and then in the US. Stephen King saw the film at Cannes and provided a blurb that was plastered on every piece of advertising for the movie. Honestly, it’s probably King’s name that first got me to notice the film. I wasn’t alone – in a few short years The Evil Dead became a cultural landmark of horror cinema and launched the film careers of all three primary filmmakers.
The Evil Dead was always going to be an incredibly innovative film, but without Irvin Shapiro it might never have been seen by a wider audience. The 2013 remake includes a Special Thanks to “Irvin Shapiro, to whom we will always be indebted.”
“The most ferociously original film of the year…”
But Bob, you say, what about the MOVIE? What is it that made the film so special? It’s hard for me to be objective about it, because it’s been a part of my moviegoing experience for so long. As I mentioned in my review of The Evil Dead it was the first film I ever rented and probably the first film I ever bought a copy of.
It’s hard to explain now, almost 40 years after the film’s release, how absolutely different The Evil Dead was. There were plenty of gory films in the late 1970’s early 1980’s, plenty of transgressive films in the same time, and plenty of funny horror films as well. What The Evil Dead did was take those three elements, cant them at a crazy Dutch angle and run straight out for pretty much the entire length of the film. The innovative use of camera angles, sound, editing and special effects were like nothing I had ever seen before.
And it was scary. Hard to believe now, but it the humor really did not jump out at me and my friends when we first saw it. No, it was just grimy and threadbare enough to feel like we were watching some kind of snuff film. The makeup job may look rough and ready to modern eyes, but in the 1980’s things like Cheryl’s makeup while she’s in the basement looked real, like Raimi and co. had actually managed to trap some demon in the basement and filmed it. I mean, that was crazy, and nobody real believed that, but there was just enough of an edge to the film to make it seem like something really bad had gone down. A lot of that is down to Sam Raimi and his ability to treat the camera like a hat in a magician’s act – there was never any time to try and figure out how they made the body parts flop around or how giant demon hands could explode out of a person’s torso. I sometimes think of a quote supposedly from Raimi’s film professor after seeing the movie for the first time.
“You can’t have crazy shot after crazy shot like that. I thought I was losing my mind in there.”
Though Bruce Campbell’s Ashley Williams was merely a shadow of the Chin he would become, he was still a charismatic actor and manages to hold up the last third of the film almost entirely on his own – no mean feat while being strangled, stabbed and clawed at by various demon-infested monsters. (Not to mention having dog food and worse flung in your face.)
While Evil Dead II has supplanted the original film as my favorite of the series – serving as both a remake and expansion on the original that manages to one-up the same at almost everything – I still have a soft spot for the original. There’s a certain rawness and energy to The Evil Dead that no film since has quite matched, and it’s still an effective and enjoyable horror film now.
“Join Us” – the Legacy of The Evil Dead
This is the film that pretty much created the Splatstick genre and the “cabin in the woods” trope. It also inspired a generation of filmmakers with more talent and ambition than sense to dive in and try to make films on their own terms. Most directly, Joel and Ethan Coen were inspired by their interactions with Sam, Rob and Bruce to make their own film. The result was Blood Simple, launching a film career that includes over 20 films and multiple Oscars. Other filmmakers like Edgar Wright and Peter Jackson also credit The Evil Dead and its sequels with inspiring their early work.
In 1986, after their second film – the comedy/heist film Crimewave – had crashed and burned, Sam and crew returned to the cabin that had made them famous. The result was Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn, and that film was even more popular than the first, really allowing the careers of Raimi, Tapert and Campbell to take off. Two more films were to follow, with Army of Darkness in 1992 and the remake/reboot Evil Dead (directed by Fede Álvarez) in 2013. A TV series, Ash vs the Evil Dead reunited the trio in 2015 and a new film, Evil Dead Rise has recently been announced.
In addition to the on-screen incarnations the series has spread to other media – there have been video games, comics, books and a stage musical. (I even have a copy of an Army of Darkness role playing game.) For a gory cult film made, as the saying goes, on a shoestring, it’s amazing how The Evil Dead has seemingly infiltrated every corner of popular culture. With a new film and a new video game on the horizon I don’t see that changing anytime soon. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
And just for giggles, here are a few Evil Dead related illustrations I’ve been inspired to do over the last couple of years.
Quotes in the article are from the film, commentary tracks on various releases of the film and If Chins Could Kill by Bruce Campbell.