The Unquiet Dead
The Evil Dead story is one of shotguns, cabins, and lots and lots of corn syrup…
Ryan Platt tells the tale of a movie without boundaries.
A rubber dinghy moves slowly across a swamp, the mists curling around it. Lilies bob gently along with the ripples, and mists whirl and A grizzled man sits inside the boat, with a camera firmly duct-taped to his hand. Another one wades behind, pushing the dinghy along. A lone man stands on the bank, watching the scene.
The year is 1979; the place is Brighton, Michigan. The actor pushing the dinghy is Bruce Campbell, the director in the boat is Sam Raimi, and the producer standing on the bank is Robert Tapert.
These three are all that is left of the production crew of the Evil Dead, which has taken two years already to make, and will take two years more before its release date of 1982. Over the course of shooting, Raimi’s cast and crew slowly left as the production ran out of money until only the director, producer and star were left. It seemed unlikely, at this point, that the Evil Dead was to be a cult hit and a classic of the genre. But it was, and the success story of the Evil Dead trilogy is one that should set an example for actors and filmmakers alike.
Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell had been making Super-8 movies throughout highschool in Michigan, with Raimi as director and Campbell as the star. This was because, as Raimi simply puts it, ‘Bruce was the one that the girls wanted to look at.’ The pair met in drama class in 1974 and instantly became friends.
However, the possibility of making a feature film was not discussed until Sam Raimi met Robert Tapert at college, who was to become their producer and driving force behind the film. The pair began making amateur movies on Super-8 cameras and persuaded the local movie theatre in Detroit to screen these on Saturday nights and charge money for tickets. It was the unprecedented success of one of these films, Clockwork, that prompted Tapert to suggest making a feature length movie to be screened worldwide.
But before they could make a feature length film, they had to secure funds. Since the trio didn’t have any major films to their name, they came up with a novel solution – scrounge from dentists. The trio recruited some high-school chums and made a film called Within the Woods, a short in which Campbell goes for a picnic in the woods and turns into a monster. They went for dinner parties to wealthy Michigan dentists’ houses and projected the film onto their walls after eating. They told them that they wished to secure funding for a bigger budget version of the film, tentatively titled ‘the Book of the Dead’. ‘I remember there was one guy who said he used to go to Las Vegas every year and blow a couple of grand.’ Tapert recalls. ‘He gave us $2500 and said, “Well, here’s my Vegas money.” He’s since made 17 times his money!’
With around $375,000 in funds secured by the three, they set about casting for the film. They held casting sessions in Detroit and as Tapert admits, ‘Nobody really trusted us: they thought we were either making snuff films or porno! So they’d show up with their boyfriends at the casting to look over us and make sure that we were somewhat legitimate. But, of course, we weren’t…’ Indeed, two of the actors in the film were so mistrustful of it that they decided to change their names in the credits to remain anonymous – ‘Hal Delrich’ and ‘Sarah York’ as they were called in the ending credits, were in fact two actors called Richard Demanicor and Theresa Tilly.
Shooting started around 1979 in an abandoned cabin in the backwoods of Morristown, Tennessee. When the crew first entered the cabin, the floors were covered in a thick coating of manure, and cows wandered freely throughout the rooms. What happened to this cabin is the source of some mystery – most agree that it burned down some time after shooting was finished, but the reports of how this happened differ – Sam Raimi says he burned it down himself in a bonfire that got out of control, but Campbell maintains that it was some ‘local yahoos’ who did the job. The exact location of the cabin also remains unclear, as Campbell found out that die-hard fans were stealing pieces of the chimney (the only intact part) and it was decided by all to not give out directions.
The shooting of the film was riddled with irresponsibilities. As Campbell remembers, ‘In those days, if you wanted someone getting killed with a shotgun, you just got a dummy and shot it with a shotgun! You’d just tell everyone where you estimated the shot would go and hoped that no-one got killed.’ None of the actors wore padding for the film and so most of the falls and fights were done in real-time. Many of the cuts and bruises seen on Campbell’s face during the finale of the film are real. He also walks with a limp throughout many of the scenes, caused by Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi poking a twisted ankle he received during the course of the shoot with a stick. The film is also famous for the use of the ‘Sam-cam’ – since they could not afford cameras on tracks, the 16mm camera was simply mounted on a 2X4 piece of plywood board, with Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell holding either end as they ran through the forest. In the sequence where the camera follows Ellen Sandweiss running through the forest, the board was often stained with blood ‘because of all the torment she endured’. Campbell also had to be returned in the back of a pickup truck every morning, due to the fact that he was usually covered in a thick coating of Karo corn syrup, a component in the fake blood used in the film.
Filming had started around November and was originally scheduled for 6 weeks, but ended up running over 12. The actors and crew working on the film were receiving a pittance – around $100 a week, and by Christmas most of them had left to return to their jobs in Michigan. This left Sam Raimi with a problem – how was he going to film the rest of the scenes without the actors? His solution was ‘fake shemps’ – Raimi’s friends and family stood in as feet and hand doubles for many of the characters. Sam’s brother Ivan makes his movie debut aged 14 here – his feet can be seen standing in for Richard Demanicor’s in a scene. The format of the film helped – many of the female zombies in the film are actually Tapert or Ivan Raimi heavily made up.
The climactic stop-motion effects sequence at the end of the film ate up a lot of the budget, and took a whole four months to complete. The limitations of the 1970s technology can be seen in the movie – look out for the monster’s eye moving independently of the film due to the matte shots, for example.
The final scene shot was the opening moving shot across the lake, filmed in Michigan. After this Raimi, Campbell and Tapert took the film to different distributors, only to be turned down by most of them who didn’t like the excessive gore in the movie.
Eventually they found a distributor in Roadshow Pictures. ‘They said that it might get an X rating, so we thought about it and eventually just decided to release it unrated’ explains Tapert. Campbell adds, ‘the unrated thing is a mixed blessing – theaters are wary of showing unrated films for fear of misrepresenting them and getting sued or something.’ The film, however, was shown in most movie theaters throughout the USA, and received a raucous reception with audiences. But not everyone was pleased with the film’s reception. ‘One of the guys who funded the film came up to me after one of the test screenings and said, “You said you were making a horror! I wanted a horror, not a comedy!”’ Raimi laughs. ‘I did try and make a horror! I don’t know if he had an artistic objection or something because the audience loved it.’
The film’s excessive gore, but more importantly, the infamous ‘tree-rape’ scene with Ellen Sandweiss, meant that the film was banned in many countries, including in the UK from 1984 to 2001. It could be argued that this actually helped the film gain cult status in these countries – copies of the film in its uncut state were wildly popular in the thriving German black market in the 1980’s. It has been an influence on many directors nowadays, including on Peter Jackson, whose 1991 movie Braindead was a homage to Raimi’s films.
The success of the film prompted two sequels – the infamous Evil Dead 2, which continued events where the first left off, and Army of Darkness (1991) which saw Ash traveling back into the 12th century to take on an undead skeleton army.
Will there be a fourth Evil Dead film? Campbell, Tapert and Raimi have certainly mentioned it as being a possibility, but until now Sam Raimi has had his hands full with the Spiderman trilogy. Now that he has some free time, keep your eyes peeled – Ash might just be donning the shotgun and chainsaw once more…