Stephen King was agog after the premiere of “The Evil Dead” at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival. He hailed the fast and furious occult bloodbath as “the most ferociously original horror movie I have ever seen.”
Made by a team barely out of their teens, in conditions closer to a Marine Corps training exercise than a professional film set, the 1981 movie featured melodramatic dialogue, a wispy plot and anemic characterization. Nevertheless, the kamikaze energy of director Sam Raimi and the goofball charisma of star Bruce Campbell thrilled horror fans, spawning a cult that has only grown through two sequels and endless speculation about a remake.
Now a new big-budget version, with Raimi and Campbell on board as producers, is about to possess screens nationwide as “Evil Dead” (the remake) opens today.
“‘Evil Dead’ was a shoestring masterpiece,” said David Konow, author of “Reel Terror.” In one shot, a green garden hose can be seen at the edge of the frame, spraying gore on the actors. What made the film special, Konow said, is an essential quality that inferior efforts lack.
“It comes down to sincerity. They more than made up for whatever budget they may lack with enthusiasm. They studied by watching a lot of B movies at Detroit-area drive-ins where they could see two for $2. They said, ‘We can do something a lot better than this.’ And they gave it everything they had and tried their best to make the best movie they could.”
“We were extremely motivated,” Campbell said by phone recently from Miami, where he was shooting his seventh season of USA Network’s “Burn Notice.” “We were at the end of high school and we thought, ‘We’ve got to make something happen here.’ The first investors were my parents, and that wasn’t money they had sitting around loose. They would have lost a huge chunk of money if this went south.”
In the early 1980s, scary movies were stalled in a repetitious cycle of mad-slasher movies that copied the formula of “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th.” Even Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” focused on a psychopath with a hatchet.
Raimi, whose only practical experience was making 8 mm films in his backyard, took things in a different direction. He brought five students to a ramshackle cabin in the deep woods for a weekend of sex and drugs, then sent demons to violently possess them one by one, turning them into mutant-zombie killing machines. Only by turning the tools at hand into weapons can the living survive. Raimi shook up horror lore by making the hero a terrified square-jawed guy (Campbell) instead of a hapless woman.
Being self-taught may have a lot to do with the uniqueness of Raimi’s approach, but the apt student of horror classics produced a movie with echoes of “Carrie,” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Psycho.” Since Raimi personally preferred comedy to horror, and had a special weakness for the Three Stooges, there’s a slapstick flavor to many of the film’s scenes of two-by-fours to the head and body falls.
“Sam had a magician’s background,” Campbell said. “He used old-fashioned sleight of hand and effects to make a low budget work.” Money was so tight during shooting at the Tennessee cabin that when they finished filming in a room they would break up the furniture and burn it in the fireplace to stay warm.
“It was like making a movie during the Great Depression,” Campbell said. But poverty-inspired necessity produced some wonderfully inventive ideas. Raimi achieved his own version of the Steadicam tracking shot by strapping the camera to a plank with a crew member at each end running like mad. He dubbed it “Shakicam.”
“Most indie horror films are shot in a week,” Campbell said. “Our first attempt was 12 weeks. And we had to go back three and four times after that. As a result, I think Sam was doing shots that were much more visually interesting.” As when Campbell had to endure take after take in which stage blood mixed with chunky dog food was flung in his face.
Campbell, who reunited with Raimi to produce the new remake, passed along the lessons he learned on the 1979 shoot to prepare his actors for the rigors of making an “Evil Dead” movie.
“There aren’t many movies like this in terms of the physical demands on the lead actors. Being punished by monsters, being thrown down stairs, things thrown in their face, hours and hours wearing extensive makeup effects. I knew what was coming and I thought it was only fair to warn them. ‘Get your sleep, eat your Wheaties, don’t party too hard, stretch.’”
He knew they had hit gold, he said, when he watched the remake’s lead actress, Jane Levy, walking away from a demanding take, peeling off her filthy clothes and muttering curses to herself.