Hasitha Fernando with ten facts Sam Raimi’s iconic cult classic The Evil Dead…
The Evil Dead is a movie that requires no introduction. Since its release, 40 years prior, the beloved cult classic has spawned an enviable blood strewn legacy that includes sequels, remakes and even a TV show. So, how did an indie film shot on a shoestring budget made by a novice twenties something filmmaker achieve this? Here are 10 facts that’ll fill you in about the behind-the-scenes madness of the epic horror flick.
1. The Evil Dead is a retelling of one of Sam Raimi’s short films
Before The Evil Dead and his subsequent success as a director thanks to the box-office juggernaut that was the 2000s Spider-Man trilogy, Sam Raimi was a simple guy who had a passion for filmmaking. From a very young age Raimi used to indulge his leisure making Super 8mm movies with his childhood buddy Bruce Campbell, and during college he met more like-minded enthusiasts such as Robert Tapert and Scott Spiegel, who’d later go onto assist Raimi in future projects as writer/producers. Their first efforts together were a series of comedic shorts cobbled together by themselves. These were then followed by Raimi’s feature film debut It’s Murder! released in 1978.
His experience shooting a suspenseful crime drama inspired Raimi to tackle a horror infused story, but the inherent problem was securing the financing to achieve his dream. And this is where his short film Within the Woods came into play. Produced on a meagre budget of $ 1,600 Within the Woods was screened in a local theatre alongside The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and sparked interest amongst the audience. It also served as a ‘proof of concept’ of Raimi’s vision for potential investors. Raimi was able to wrangle part of the money needed to cover production costs by screening the short film for audiences and interested parties, and decided to expand on the concepts and ideas explored in Within the Woods for his feature directorial debut. This essentially makes Within the Woods the prequel to The Evil Dead.
2. Bruce Campbell put up his family’s property as collateral to finance the film
To say, that Bruce Campbell is one of Sam Raimi’s closest friends is something of an understatement. The guy has stuck with Raimi from the time the fledgling movie maker was dabbling in short films and what not. Campbell possessed the charisma and the dashing good looks of a bonafide star, so naturally Raimi cast him as his lead in The Evil Dead, but that wasn’t the actor’s only contribution to the film. Bruce Campbell actually put up his family’s property in Northern Michigan so that Raimi could not only finish the film, but also blow it up to 35mm film which was required for theatrical release. To thank and acknowledge Campbell for his generous financial contribution Raimi credited him as a co-producer of the film, when production wrapped.
3. Cast and crew were mainly made up of Raimi’s close friends and family
From the very beginning of Raimi’s career, he was surrounded and supported by friends and family who assisted his crazy obsession with movies. Campbell offered to produce The Evil Dead along with Robert Tapert whilst playing the lead. Ellen Sandweiss who played the female lead in Raimi’s prequel short film joined the cast as well. In addition to the usual familiar faces the young filmmaker decided to put an advert on The Detroit News, which was answered by actress Betsy Baker. Even Raimi’s brothers Ted and Ivan were both engaged in varying capacities on set, either standing in for actors as ‘fake shemps’ or under heavy makeup portraying Deadites. Tom Sullivan who had worked previously with Raimi on Within the Woods, and developed a positive working relationship with him joined the crew of The Evil Dead as the special makeup effects artist. The talented creative was single handedly responsible for creating much of the unforgettable stomach churning, blood soaked, escapades featured in the movie.
4. Production was a nightmare of hellish proportions
The production on The Evil Dead is truly one for the ages and since the movie’s debut back in 1981 its behind-the-scene drama have become the stuff of legend. Raimi primarily involved his close friends and family during the production of his feature film, so naturally, nothing went according to plan. During the first day of filming the inexperienced crew got lost while shooting a scene at a bridge. The cabin that was chosen as the film’s set was located in a secluded forest outside the small town of Morristown, Tennessee. The isolated building also served as lodging for the thirteen crew members involved in production. The conditions were inhospitable, for lack of a better word, and led to many arguments between the cast and crew.
The cabin didn’t have plumbing, so the actors went days without showering – caked in fake blood, dirt and grime. Since the cabin was pretty much coming apart, they even used some of its old furniture as firewood, during the latter half of production to keep themselves warm in the frigid weather. Accidents during shooting was pretty commonplace, with Campbell cracking a few of his ribs and actress Betsy Baker getting one of her eyelashes ripped off. Due to the set location’s remote nature access to medical professionals was also not an option.
5. Campbell and the cast members smoked pot during one particular scene
The original script called for all the characters to be smoking pot when they are first listening to the infamous tape. Campbell & co. decided to try this for real and be smoking real marijuana while they were shooting the scene. The attempt was wildly unsuccessful as the actors were unable to nail their performances and behaved uncontrollably. As a result, the entire scene had to be re-shot later on.
6. Macgyvered rigs were used extensively during the shoot
Raimi only had a meagre budget at his disposal to get through production. Because of this, he got really creative when executing the requirements of his shoot, coming up with ideas for scenes at a rapid pace on the spot. To accommodate these doozy requests which involved the director’s kinetic visual style, his crew built several elaborate low-budget rigs which functioned as their version of a dolly camera, which they couldn’t afford at that point. A camera trick used to mimic the Steadicam, was the low-cost “shaky cam” which was basically a camera mounted on a piece of wood and had two camera operators sprint around with it. Raimi did most of this on his own – jumping around the swamp and running through the woods – to create the effect of an unseen force gliding ominously through the forest.
7. Raimi inspired the Coen Bros. to make their first movie
Joel Coen was an industry newbie editorial assistant during the time Raimi concluded making his film. Working under the auspices of Edna Paul, the duo cut, chopped, and hacked the mountain of footage Raimi had in his possession into a cohesive story. In between the editing process Coen got close with Raimi and was drawn to the concept of making a prototype film to attract potential investors – like Raimi did with Within the Woods. Using that idea, Joel along with his brother Ethan, started work on their feature directorial debut Blood Simple. After cracking the screenplay, the pair shot a preemptive dummy theatrical trailer to exhibit for interested parties, featuring none other than The Evil Dead’s very own Bruce Campbell. The Coens and Raimi have been close friends ever since.
8. The film was banned in several countries after its release
Because of Raimi’s decision to keep the film as gruesome as possible, not giving much thought to censorship or ratings, the indie-horror flick got mired in a maelstrom of controversy when it debuted. So much so, the movie often got bunched together with other polarizing efforts of its era like Cannibal Holocaust and I Spit on Your Grave. Finland, Iceland, Sweden, Ukraine, West Germany, and Singapore were some of the countries which outright banned The Evil Dead upon its release. In the UK the film was granted an X certificate for cinema release only after 49 seconds was trimmed from it. However, following a campaign carried out by pro-censorship organization National Viewer’s and Listener’s Association (known today as Mediawatch-UK) the film got blacklisted and was labelled as a “video nasty.”
The situation only worsened shortly after when the Video Recordings Act was passed in 1984, effectively taking the movie out of circulation within the country. Things changed a few years down the line and in 1990, when the already censored version of the film got trimmed a further 66 seconds and was issued an 18 certificate, making it fit for home video release. Over in USA, The Evil Dead received an X rating, the label that was usually reserved for pornographic movies, and films which had disturbing and often violent content. The MPAA later revised this rating to NC-17, which is what it holds even today.
9. The original title of the film was not The Evil Dead
After completing the movie Raimi was actively looking for distribution agents and people with industrial clout to help get his effort out there. It was during this period that Raimi met producer Irvin Shapiro, the man responsible for securing the distribution of another cult classic – Night of the Living Dead. Upon the initial viewing Shapiro saw commercial potential in the product and agreed to distribute it. However, before proceeding further the Hollywood producer suggested that the title be changed to some thing that “sounded less boring.” It was then, that Raimi & co. brainstormed and eventually settled on the title The Evil Dead, which Shapiro loved.
10. Stephen King simply loved the movie
Being the founder of the Cannes Film Festival, Shapiro allowed Raimi to screen his effort out of competition at the 1982 festival. One of the attendees at that year’s festival who sat down to watch The Evil Dead, was horror author Stephen King. And the chap was simply blown away by what Raimi had accomplished, boldly proclaiming it to be the “most ferociously original film of the year”, and further cited it as his fifth favorite movie of the genre during an interview with USA Today. The writer was a staunch supporter of the flick and played an instrumental role in it gaining some much-needed mileage and attention from critics and industry insiders at the outset.
Hasitha Fernando is a part-time medical practitioner and full-time cinephile. Follow him on Twitter via @DoctorCinephile for regular updates on the world of entertainment.