The Evil Dead: Low Budget Legends

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In 1979 Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, and Rob Tapert were just a group of hopeful filmmakers about to take the first step into cinematic history. They set out with the goal of creating “the ultimate experience in grueling terror” and produced a film that Stephen King called “the most ferociously original horror film of the year” in a review after seeing the film in Cannes. The trio created a delightfully gory film that fans still love. The road to becoming legends wasn’t easy; there were funding issues, location problems, reshoots, a rotating cast of stand-ins, and distribution problems that kept the film from being seen in theaters for years.

Disclaimer: Concerning commentaries, it’s best to take the information with a grain of salt, especially in this case. On the director’s commentary with Raimi and Tapert, they poke fun at Campbell saying that he wanted to do more romantic scenes and would whine. On Campbell’s commentary, he pokes fun at the other two and it’s not entirely out of character for these three to crack jokes or start rumors about each other.

Origins

Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell were friends from a young age and caught the movie bug when Raimi’s father brought home a Super 8 camera.  The pair made several movies on the 8mm camera and used a Panasonic reel-to-reel recorder owned by Campbell’s father for the audio. They focused on making comedies, such as Clockwork and It’s Murder! It’s no surprise that Raimi often emulated some of his comedy idols, like the Three Stooges.

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In 1976, while putting the finishing touches on It’s Murder, Rob Tapert (a college friend) suggested making a feature-length film. At the time, the young men were facing other realities if they couldn’t kick start their film career. Raimi was studying literature at Michigan State University where Tapert was finishing up an economics degree; Campbell had dropped out of college and had recently quit his job as a taxi driver. Raimi was faced with working at his father’s home furnishings store, Tapert didn’t want to get trapped in a fisheries and wildlife career, and Campbell could have moved back home with his parents. So, facing mundane lives, the trio pushed ahead to making a short film. Naturally, Raimi wanted to make a comedy, but Tapert assured him that no one would want to see a comedy made for $100,000. All the movies with that budget were horror movies. In an interview for IGN.com, Raimi said he was against the idea from the start. Horror movies scared him and he didn’t think he could ever pull one off. After researching horror cinema at drive-in theaters and their key demographic of teens and college students, Raimi came to the conclusion that audiences wanted a movie that didn’t let up once the action started; “the gorier the merrier” became the goal for their initial horror movie.

   From left to right: Rob Tapert, Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell

From left to right: Rob Tapert, Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell

Satisfied that their films could go in a new direction, the trio set to work on creating a short film that would become the basis for The Evil Dead. With a budget of just $1,600 and a 3-day weekend to shoot, they produced a 32-minute film called Within the Woods about four friends who accidentally dig up an Indian burial ground, unleashing a slew of unseen demons that want them dead. Raimi says he was inspired by movies like George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre when trying to create a specific type of horror.

Within the Woods, starring Bruce Campbell and another of their high school friends, Ellen Sandweiss, served as a prototype to prove to potential investors (and themselves) that they could make a good horror movie. Impressed with themselves, they held a screening at their former high school as part of a marketing strategy. Raimi later convinced a local movie theater manager to run his movie with The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Within the Woods was a gory stepping stone for Raimi, Tapert, and Campbell which garnered some minor success with positive responses from the audience.

Within the Woods was clearly amateur and small in scope, but you can see the beginnings of what would become The Evil Dead. In fact, many scenes from Within the Woods were lifted for The Evil Dead, such as the forest chase scene with Sandweiss and the unseen force. They improvised many of the special effects on-set and created the prototypes of the camera rigs used later. This is an independent first effort of fledgling filmmakers so the film quality and audio aren’t that great. However, you can easily see why investors thought they could pull off a bigger production.


Financing

Using their short film as part of their marketing strategy, the three hopefuls went out to woo potential investors. For some reason, they thought they needed to go buy suits and briefcases to project a “we know exactly what we’re doing and can handle anything” attitude. Before filming started, Raimi estimated the original budget was in the realm of $100,000 to $150,000. Raimi consulted Phil Gillis, the lawyer of one of his friends, who offered legal advice on how to produce movies (as well as many guides on how to produce independent films) before setting out to find investors. Raimi asked for donations from anyone he thought might be interested, begging some in the end while Campbell asked many family members for help. Campbell claims that many of their investors were dentists from the greater Detroit area. They eventually raised enough money to get the ball rolling, though it was only $90,000, which is often cited as the total budget. They went on to need between $350,000 and $400,000, which explains why production was frequently stopped to raise more funds.

Pre-production and Casting

The Evil Dead, originally titled Book of the Dead, was intended to be a higher budget remake of Within the Woods with higher production value, better effects, and higher quality. The team agreed that they needed to use 16mm film that would be blown up to 35mm (as used by theaters) to give it that slightly grainy quality, to mimic other low budget horror films of the time.

Raimi enlisted the help of anyone he could to create The Evil Dead. The crew was made up almost entirely of friends and family of Raimi and Campbell. Tom Sullivan, who had done the special effects for Within the Woods, was brought on to fill the same role in The Evil Dead. Raimi, Tapert, and Campbell all claim that Sullivan was at his wits end by the end of the shoot because he ended up not only creating the effects, but doing set dressing and make-up effects during production. One particular scene, at the destroyed bridge, made Sullivan very angry. Sullivan had to get up on a ladder and “dress” the bent up girders with branches and vines for the scene.

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The core cast were all from the Detroit area. Bruce Campbell was brought back to play Ashley J. Williams, Ellen Sandweiss was cast as his sister Cheryl, and a casting call was held to fill the roles of Scott, Shelly, and the ever-present Linda. Raimi and Tapert recall that people thought they were creating a snuff film or porn flick and the girls all showed up to the casting call with their boyfriends to make sure they were safe. Actress Betsy Baker answered an ad in The Detroit News to earn her spot as Ash’s girlfriend, Linda. Actress Theresa Tilly (credited as Sarah York) got the role of Shelly while actor Richard DeManincor (as Hal Delrich) signed on to play Scott. DeManincor decided he needed a better stage name and cobbled one together from his roommates’ names.. As filming started to go beyond the original six week shooting schedule, cast and crew members left for other jobs. The filmmakers decided to fill these spots with a series of stand-ins affectionately called fake Shemps (an homage to the Three Stooges), played by family members and friends. Raimi’s brother, Ted, and Tapert’s, sisters Dorothy and Mary Beth came on to be fake Shemps, while Don Campbell (Bruce’s brother) was a production assistant and assisted with some of the effects.

Locations

Finding locations to film was another matter since the trio didn’t have location scouts. Raimi initially wanted to film in his hometown of Royal Oak, Michigan but ultimately shot most of the film in Morristown, Tennessee since winter would be soon upon them and it would be too cold to film in Michigan. However, many of the scenes were shot in Michigan, such as the intro shot of “the force” (the entity in the woods) going over the swamp and the basement shots. The filmmakers quickly chose the cabin since it was a fair distance away from other buildings. Thirteen crew members slept in the cabin during pre-production, resulting in several arguments. Campbell recalls that there were several inches of cow manure on the cabin floor from local livestock that freely roamed the area. Whenever actors or crew weren’t busy filming, they were set to fixing up the cabin to shoot. They tore down wallpaper, scraped the manure from the floor, and tore out the ceiling to access the beams to hang lights. The only carpenter on set, Steve Frankel, had to create many of the props with nothing but a circular saw. The cabin had no plumbing, no running water, and no heat other than the fireplace, but did have a phone line in case of emergency. The state of Tennessee gave the young filmmakers permission to destroy a bridge that was no longer used and was set for demolition. They artfully bent the support beams up to create a clawed hand to prevent the characters from venturing too far from the cabin.

Principal Cinematography: Lost in the Woods and Other Stories

The remote location of the Tennessee cabin created several problems for cast and crew. The first days of filming were full of problems due to the inexperience of the filmmakers and crew. On the very first day, the crew got lost in the woods during a scene shot on a bridge; whether it was getting to the site or coming back, I don’t know. Bruce Campbell suffered a sprained ankle while going down an embankment during filming. Actress Betsy Baker (Linda) accidentally had her eyelashes ripped off when removing a mask; just the thought makes my eyes water. Ms. Baker and her co-stars also had to deal with sclera contact lenses to achieve the “demon eye” look. The glass lenses that were used could only be worn for 15 minutes at a time, five times a day and were reportedly very uncomfortable. The cast and crew were also subject to a myriad of injuries and colds as the winter deepened. Toward the end of principal photography, the weather had turned so cold that the remaining crew and Bruce Campbell (the last actor to leave) had to burn the cabin’s furniture to stay warm. This is why the cabin starts to look emptier as the movie progresses.

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Raimi is known for quickly coming up with scenes and creative angles to create an atmosphere for the film but his storyboards, according to colleagues, bordered on stick figures though Raimi knew what he wanted to see on screen.

The cabin location didn’t originally have a cellar. Instead, they cut a hole in the floor and dug a hole underneath that was between 5-8 feet deep (accounts vary) and built a few steps to make it appear that the actors were descending into the cellar. Once the actors are shown coming directly at the camera down the steps, they are actually in a root cellar at Tapert’s family farm. When the camera moves to an alcove where Scott and Ash find the book and dagger, they are standing in Sam Raimi’s garage.

There were no stuntmen or coordinators on the shoot, which meant the actors got banged up a little during filming. When Cheryl (Sandweiss) is running through the forest, she isn’t wearing any padding to protect her. She was out there in a nightgown and slippers tripping over branches and stumbling over hidden roots and holes. Raimi, Tapert, and Campbell recall that she didn’t complain much about it and was willing to do what it took to get the shots.

They used live ammunition during the shotgun scenes. The theory was that, since they couldn’t afford blanks, they would just use real ammunition because they were far away from other buildings or people. It could have been disastrous if one of the actors or crew had been shot.

In a failed attempt at realism, the actors smoked weed for the tape recorder story time scene. Unfortunately, everyone got so high that the footage was completely unusable. Once the actors sobered up a little, they were able to film the scene that ended up in the movie. Another interesting fact about that scene, part of the incantation hints at a creator cameo. “Saman sa’rob dar ees haikar dande roza” means “Sam and Rob are hikers on the road.” You can see the pair with fishing gear on the side of the road waving when Scott complains that the only thing on the car that works is the horn.

   Tapert (left) and Raimi (right)

Tapert (left) and Raimi (right)

Sam Raimi loved to “torture” his actors to get more from them in scenes. He had the misguided thought that he needed to somewhat abuse the actors to get across real emotion. I mentioned where Bruce sprained his ankle, he also cut his leg up in that fall and Raimi took to poking the wound with a stick to get a look of pain from the actor.  Campbell was also tortured by the sheer amount of fake blood (Karo syrup and food coloring) that covered the cabin. Raimi and Campbell both recall not being able to touch anything for fear of coming away sticky. With no running water, they brought water with them to boil for instant coffee, Raimi would use black coffee to clean his hands before resuming filming. At one point, not long after they filmed the girls getting killed, Campbell refused to have any more fake blood near his eyes because they would get glued shut. Each day after filming, he would have to ride in the back of a truck and shower fully clothed to soak off the caked syrup.

Principal cinematography wrapped on January 23, 1980 and most of the crew had gone home long before. Only Campbell and Raimi were left when Raimi discovered that some pickups were needed, resulting in four days of reshoots.

Special Effects and Controversy

As with Within the Woods, the low budget didn’t allow much room for effects shots and the team had to improvise several of them. They used standard tricks of the trade, like shooting things in reverse for the infamous forest rape scene, or driving with a camera strapped to a van to follow the car’s passage into the forest. The clock, however, was made by a professional clockmaker. It needed to be able to tell time as usual, but also run backwards and stop on command. The clockmaker managed to accomplish the task and it was controlled by a simple switch. The sketches that Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) drew, as well as the pictures and molding of the Necronomicon, were all done by Tom Sullivan.

The tree rape scene was a huge source of controversy for the film. Raimi said he intended for something to shock or “hurt” the audience, but he and Tapert didn’t realize how intense the scene really was until the first screenings. The sequence was shot in multiple pieces and it was difficult to determine how far was too far. Tapert admits that the scene would have worked just as well without the moment of penetration, but he and Raimi wanted to push boundaries. They pushed themselves right into an initial X rating.

During the death scenes of the undead (later renamed Deadites), the actors spit out copious amounts of milk because the filmmakers felt the creatures should have different colored blood than humans. This idea comes up again during the stop-motion animation sequence. As the bodies start to decompose in front of our eyes, they start to ooze all sorts of colorful and multi-textured sludge.

“The Classic”

Any true Sam Raimi fan knows that he manages to use his 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 in nearly every one of his films. Initially, the car was used out of necessity during Raimi’s Super 8 film days, but quickly became a trademark in his films. Now, Raimi may call the Delta a “classic,” but Campbell recalled it as “a piece of junk” during his commentary track.  

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a picture of the Classic in Within the Woods. In The Quick and the Dead, it’s reported that Raimi had a special covered wagon built which was dropped over the car during a scene or that it was hidden in a barn under a tarp. For the Love of the Game (1999) was supposed to feature the car, but that particular scene was left on the cutting room floor. Some fans also claim that Raimi managed to sneak the Classic into Oz, the Great and Powerful (2013), but I doubt it’s in there unless he used the same hiding method as in The Quick and the Dead.

Camera Rigs

Being a low-budget production, they couldn’t afford a dolly camera or a Steadicam; they had to improvise camera rigs. The very first scene (and one of the last filmed), showing something moving through the woods and a swamp, utilizes what the filmmakers called the “Sam-o-cam.” In this case, Sam Raimi had the camera strapped to his hand (or in front of him) and was being pushed on an inflatable raft through a Michigan swamp. In another instance, to get a shot from the rafters looking down on Bruce’s head, Raimi reportedly hung upside down from the rafters while filming to follow Bruce through the room.

They used the “vas-o-cam” as a stand-in for a dolly camera. It was a modified sawhorse with a 12 foot long board on top. The board was wrapped in gaffer’s tape and coated with Vaseline. The camera was bolted to a U-shaped bracket that could slide along the Vaseline coated board, creating a smooth motion. However, it got so cold that the Vaseline would harden, ruining the shots.

The “ram-o-cam” was literally just someone breaking a window with a stick before the camera struck it.They used real glass in the windows, not tempered or candy glass, so it was important that the panes be broken before the camera went through the window.

Lastly, the “shaky cam” was a camera bolted to a board that could be carried by one or two crew, often by Raimi. They could run and jump over obstacles and the footage was stabilized in the editing room. On the DVD commentary, Campbell said they also used the shaky cam for dolly shots, though the cameraman would be pushed in a wheelchair.

Editing

Editor Edna Paul and her assistant, Joel Coen (yes, that Joel Coen), trimmed Raimi’s mountain of film into a respectable 117 minute film, which was further cut down to a more marketable 85 minute feature. Campbell thought the original run-time was good, considering that the script should have run about 65 minutes. The stop-motion sequence that took Tom Sullivan three months to create, took several hours to cut properly. It was also discovered that many of the sounds didn’t record well during filming. This isn’t unusual but required extra time to re-record sounds and dialog.

Promoting, Touring, and Distribution

With the film finally completed, Raimi and friends decided they wanted to celebrate with a big premiere. Detroit’s Redford Theater became ground zero for their big screen debut of Book of the Dead (later renamed The Evil Dead). Raimi ordered custom-made tickets, wind tracks within the theater, and staging ambulances outside to set the atmosphere and imitate horror director William Castle, who liked to use gimmicks to scare his audiences. Local attendance of a thousand patrons exceeded the filmmakers’ expectations. The positive response from the premiere audience led Raimi to the novel idea of touring the film around the country to build hype. It had been popular to “tour” movies in the Golden Age of Hollywood to raise interest in the films. However, touring was no longer a widely used practice by the time The Evil Dead hit the market, but that wouldn’t stop Raimi.

   Rami, Tapert, and Campbell at Book of the Dead premiere

Rami, Tapert, and Campbell at Book of the Dead premiere

As with fundraising, Raimi showed the film to anyone willing to sit down for the hour and 25 minute film. He booked meetings with anyone with experience in the film industry, including distribution agents and eventually came upon Irvin Shapiro. Shapiro was a film distributor known for handling films by Kubrick, Scorsese, George A. Romero, and others. He allegedly remarked that the film was “no Gone with the Wind” but had commercial potential and wanted to distribute it. Shapiro also suggested that Raimi change the film’s name from Book of the Dead to something else; the title made the movie sound boring. Raimi racked his brain for alternate titles including The Evil Dead, Fe-Monsters, These Bitches are Witches, Blood Flood, and The Evil Dead Men and the Evil Dead Women. They settled on The Evil Dead as the best of a bad lot. At Shapiro’s urging, Raimi scraped together enough cash to distribute worldwide to increase the film’s earning potential.

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The Evil Dead premiered at the Cannes Film Festival (not in competition) and happened to be viewed by Stephen King, who worked with Shapiro to distribute Creepshow. When Raimi approached Shapiro about getting a statement from King, Shapiro simply told him to ask the man. King refused to comment then, but offered to write a review for the film that Raimi could choose a quote from. The review later appeared in the Twilight Zone Magazine. King gave a glowing review that made the distributors and critics take note of the small independent production that would have otherwise flown under the radar.  

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A British distribution agent named Stephen Woolley took notice. He decided to take the risk and took on the task of releasing The Evil Dead in the United Kingdom. Woolley took another risk in the way he promoted the film. His promotion strategy was more in line with big budget movies of the time including posters, movie trailers, and other materials. Woolley stated that he went out of his way to spend more on promotion because he found Sam Raimi to be “charming” and he (Woolley) really enjoyed the film.

Release, Reception, and Censors

Shortly after the film’s UK release in 1982, Fangoria magazine started writing articles and stories about the production’s history which had spanned several years at this point. With the backing of a horror publication like Fangoria, Stephen King, and Irvin Shapiro New Line Cinema decided to throw their hat into the ring and distribute in the United States. Early positive reception from early previews only bolstered their decision for a commercial domestic release. There were sneak peek previews of the film in Detroit and New York that prompted a positive review from audiences and New Line decided to move to wider distribution than originally planned. The heads at New Line also did something unusual- they ordered the simultaneous release of The Evil Dead in theaters and on VHS with a bunch of media promotion in 1983 (when the film got wider release in the US). They also wrote Sam Raimi a check big enough to pay off his investors.

The Evil Dead quickly gained popularity, but came under fire from the British Board of Film Classification just as quickly for being extremely violent and graphic. It was labeled as one of the UK’s “video nasties” and was banned until the filmmakers agreed to remove over a minute of footage. The film also garnered an NC-17 rating (R rating now), but Raimi skirted this issue by releasing the film unrated.

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US and UK reviews of the film were generally positive and lauded Raimi’s creative use of camera angles. When compared with contemporary horror films, UK reviewers Petley and Cooke commented that the low-budget sleeper hit showed more imagination and “youthful enthusiasm” than the average horror film at the time. The LA Times is noted to have called The Evil Dead “possibly one of the grisliest movies ever” but also called it an instant classic.

Later reception of the film was just as positive, like a statement by Christopher Null (of filmcritic.com) saying “Raimi’s biggest gross out is schlock horror done the right way.” Other reviews called it one of the greatest modern horror films in relation to its budget and applauded the twists to the typical horror formula, like the ending where it appears that Ash is killed by the unseen force in the woods.

With The Evil Dead forever holding a place in the halls of horror history, it’s hard to believe that it came from such arduous beginnings but still failed to establish Sam Raimi’s reputation. Those involved with the film endured horrible shooting conditions that went on for too long because they had to keep stopping to raise money. However, nearly 40 years of positive reviews have helped the schlock-fest gain fans and placed Raimi, Campbell, and Tapert high in the B-movie crowd. Raimi is on record saying that The Evil Dead has some of the strangest, most dedicated fans who look for something different in the films they enjoy; The Evil Dead happened to fill that niche.

When rewatching The Evil Dead, I finally pinpointed something about the Ash character that bothered me. He is a complete coward for 95% of the movie and only steps up to the plate when his life is on the line. From the outset, it seems we are meant to root for Scott as the hero because he is the one that steps up from the start. Scott’s death dashed any hopes of him being the hero and we were left with Ash to either prevail or die. Ash watches as the evil force possesses his sister, girlfriend, and friends and he is helpless to stop it. He’s even hesitant to take his sister, Cheryl, back into town. It’s only during the final confrontation with Scott and Shelly, now possessed and rotting, that he manages to become a hero. I think some fans forget this when they see Ash as a badass in Evil Dead 2, Army of Darkness, and Ash vs. Evil Dead.

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With that being said, it’s time to close this down and head on into the next film for October- Evil Dead 2. Hopefully I can clear up something that still bothers people- is it a remake or a continuation of the first film and how is Ash not dead?  As always, leave a like and a comment below or DM me @InsomniacTx on Twitter.