Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Evil Dead

I discovered The Evil Dead at a Meijer store in my hometown. For all you non-Michigan natives, it's like a Super Walmart except dirtier. I had been browsing through the movie section and spotted this horror movie with special packaging. It was behind a glass case so I couldn't pick it up, but for some reason I was utterly intrigued by this odd horror movie that I had never heard of. I actually can't remember when I finally watched The Evil Dead, but I believe it was late in high school. Keep in mind that I was not a big fan of horror movies when I was younger. Sure I loved Halloween and scary stuff, but movies made it a little too real. Somewhere along the line I got over my fear, mostly because I realized there were actually good movies out there in the horror genre. I have to be honest though, I watched Army of Darkness before The Evil Dead and The Evil Dead 2. This was before I knew that it was part of a greater trilogy of films and hadn't made the connection quite yet. Army of Darkness is a favorite of my dad's and if my father and I agree on a movie or TV show, well, that's a miracle in itself. I can't tell you how many times I've watched all three films, but it's a lot, trust me. There's just something about them. I really can't explain it. I could go on and on about how much I love these movies, but I won't. I'll just elaborate on the first film in the trilogy, mostly because it has the most interesting backstory.

The Evil Dead is one of those movies that shouldn't have seen the light of day. If any number of things had gone differently, we wouldn't have these movies, and possibly any movie directed by Sam Raimi. Yep, that means no Spiderman movies. This film also jump-started the careers of the Coen Brothers, so we might not have had such movie classics as The Big Lebowski, Fargo, and O Brother Where Art Thou? Luckily for us nothing went wrong. The Evil Dead's unbelievable production all started with Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, two friends from Southeast Michigan who enjoyed making Super 8 mm films together. They duo directed a few comedies, but Raimi's attention soon turned to the horror genre. Raimi was trying to break into the film industry and knew he could do it if he made a short that would gain the interest of producers. Together they made Within the Woods, a film with a budget of $1,600. Raimi knew that if he could garner attention with his short, he could get investments to create a whole feature film. He surmised that he needed about $100,000 dollars to make what would later be called The Evil Dead happen. To get even close to this amount of money, Raimi had to not only ask producers for money, but strangers and family members. He even resorted to begging at one point. He eventually gained enough money to start the film, but not as much as he had hoped for. With enough money, Raimi and Campbell began to write a full treatment called The Book of the Dead, which was basically a remake of Within the Woods. The story centered around a bunch of Michigan State University students who go to a cabin in the woods and unwittingly unleash a terrible evil. Sound overdone? That's because it is, but it was original in the early 80's.

Raimi made Campbell the main character, Ash Williams, while the other roles were filled by either friends or people that responded to his ad in the Detroit News. The crew consisted of friends and family with members of the crew from Within the Woods. Raimi didn't have the money to hire a location scout, so they had to scout a location themselves. Raimi initially wanted to film right in his hometown of Royal Oak, MI, but he decided instead to film in Morristown, TN since Tennessee was the only state that seemed enthusiastic about the project. The crew quickly found a remote cabin that was miles away from the nearest building. The cabin itself had no plumbing, but was wired with a phone line. What could go wrong!? Well, just about everything. The cast and crew spent a total of twelve weeks at the cabin, with most of them staying in the dilapidated building. On the first day of shooting the crew got lost in the woods while shooting the bridge scene. Several cast and crew members were injured during the production but because they were in a remote area, attaining medical assistance was difficult. Conditions at the cabin got so bad that once all the interior shots had been finished, the crew began burning the furniture to stay warm. They eventually burned everything form inside the house, but most of the crew members still became sick from the constant cold. Needless to say, Raimi lost a few crew members over the span of the production. Things weren't much better for the cast. Each at one point in time had to wear special contacts for their Deadite versions, though since the budget was so low the contacts were as thick as glass. The contacts took ten minutes to put in and could only be worn for fifteen minutes because their eyes couldn't "breathe." If you wear contacts like I do, then you know what I'm talking about. Raimi loved to "torture" the actors because he felt that their pain and anger would translate well into horror. Basically Raimi put the actors through hell, even going so far as to poke Bruce Campbell's freshly injured leg with a stick.

A small budget meant that Raimi couldn't afford a camera dolly or other camera equipment, so he made up new camera techniques. The first invention was the "vas-o-cam", a mounted camera that was slid down long wood platforms to create a more fluid sense of motion. Instead of a Steadicam, he used what he called the "shaky cam", which involved the camera being mounted to a board and having two camera operators sprint around the swamp. Most of the moving shots involve the camera being attached to either a stick and pushing it through a window, attached to a bike and riding it through the swamp, or rigged up and ran over logs and cars so as to make it look like it's from the perspective of the never seen "evil force". Raimi is a huge fan of The Three Stooges and decided to borrow a filming trick from the popular slapstick comedies. If you know your Stooge history, after Shemp passed away, the studio had a bunch of shorts that weren't quite finished. Instead of re-shooting, they instead put in a "fake shemp". Sometimes it's easy to spot a fake shemp, but most of the time it's just a double with his back to the camera. Raimi decided to use this same technique when his actors were otherwise occupied or unavailable. Most shots of people with their backs to the camera aren't actually the actors anymore, but random crew members and for the most part Raimi's brother Ted.

Raimi had a ton of footage to edit and decided to enlist the help of Edna Paul and Joel Coen. Coen and Raimi became good friends during the editing process and Coen eventually stole Raimi's idea of making a smaller film to build the interest of investors, a tactic he used to make Blood Simple. After editing the film down to from 117 minutes to a more marketable 85 minutes and adding extra sound effects, the film was finally ready for a premiere. Raimi decided to celebrate finally finishing his movie by having an extravagant premiere. They chose the Redford Theatre because it was a favorite movie theater for Campbell as a child. Raimi wanted the experience to be special so he made custom tickets, installed wind tracks in the theater, and even ordered ambulances to park out in front to build atmosphere. The premiere drew one thousand people, a number far exceeding anything the cast had envisioned. The audience responded positively to the movie, so Raimi decided to take the movie "on tour" as a way of building hype.  Raimi showed the movie to anyone that would watch, booking meetings with distribution agents and others in the film industry. Raimi eventually found some luck with Irvin Shapiro, the man who was responsible for distributing Night of the Living Dead and other famous horror films. Shapiro commented that while the movie "wasn't Gone With the Wind," it had commercial potential. He hated the title Book of the Dead, reasoning that it made the movie sound boring. It was then that Raimi brainstormed some new titles, eventually landing on The Evil Dead, which was deemed the "least worst" title. Shapiro also advised Raimi to distribute the film worldwide to garner a larger income, though it would increase the movie's budget. Raimi decide this was sound advice and scrapped what little money he had left to distribute the film in other countries.

Luckily for Raimi, Shapiro was one of the founders of the Cannes Film Festival and had agreed to show The Evil Dead out of competition. Stephen King was present at the screening and gave the film a rave review. King called it his fifth favorite movie in the genre in an interview with USA Today and stated that he was deeply impacted by the movie. King would end up being one of the film's largest supporters in finding a distributor and even let Raimi use his quote about the movie in advertisement. What did King say? Oh, only that The Evil Dead was the "most ferociously original film of the year." King's comments garnered attention from critics who usually would have swept such a low budget movie under the rug. Raimi finally found a distributor in New Line Cinema for domestic release and Stephen Woolley's distribution company for the U.K., with both heavily promoting the movie. This was unusual, as most low budget movies never received a substantial amount of promotion or even a wide release. For one reason or another, both companies saw something special in The Evil Dead and decided it was worth the risk.


The Evil Dead was released in theaters in late 1981 and had an initially disappointing gross of only $108,000 in the opening weekend while showing at 15 theaters. Word of mouth soon spread and it became a "sleeper hit", eventually making $600,000 domestically and $2 million overseas. It was a huge success in the U.K. and became the best-selling video in the horror genre, out-doing such big budget movies like The Shining. The success in the European market was chalked up to heavy promotion and the more open-minded nature of the audience. That's right, we Americans are close-minded. The film proved to be controversial as Raimi wasn't concerned with censorship. The film was labeled so bloody and graphic that both it and its sequel were initially given an X rating (they are now both R), something usually given to porno movies.While the movie wasn't pornographic in nature, it was probably the most violent movie of it's time. This hurt the movie in some ways, but also made it more infamous. It was even banned in some countries. Now who's open-minded?!

Initial critical response to the movie was almost universally positive. Fangoria called it "the exception to the usual run of low-budget horror films" while the Los Angeles Times called it "an instant classic," and proclaimed it "probably the grisliest well-made movie ever." Not bad reviews for a movie that sounded like it was going to die a quiet death in the middle of a Tennessee swamp. The film continues to have stellar reviews to this day, with a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. The film is considered to be one of the best horror movies of all time and has cemented itself as probably the biggest cult film of all time. The only thing that reviewers bring up as a negative in the film is the unfortunate tree rape scene. Yes, you heard me correctly. At one point in the movie a bunch of possessed trees rape a woman. Raimi still doesn't know why to this day he included it in the film and has regretted the scene since the release.

So what happened to the cast and crew after this movie was such a success? Sam Raimi went on to direct Darkman starring Liam Neeson, the popular Spider-Man trilogy, and most recently The Great and Powerful Oz. Of course he also directed the second and third films in the Evil Dead trilogy, with the second film becoming an even bigger success (and even considered better than the first), and the third having a much bigger budget but doing mediocre in theaters. Go figure. Joel Coen and his brother found success with Blood Simple and eventually became the big-shot directors they are today. Bruce Campbell, the king of B-movies, starred in the second and third Evil Dead films, had cameos in every other Raimi film and a few Coen Brothers films, and even was the star of a few short-lived TV shows like The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. and Jack of all Trades. Campbell recently starred in My Name is Bruce, a movie about the crazy obsessions people have with his character and The Evil Dead in general, and co-starred in Burn Notice.

Let's get one thing perfectly straight. I like weird movies. I have odd taste in movies sometimes and I'm kind of used to others not agreeing with my choice in movies. That being said, I realize this movie isn't for everybody. I haven't exactly sold the movie by taking about the tree rape scene. Sure, that is probably the weirdest and most unnecessary scene I've ever seen in a movie, but the film makes up for it in every way possible. It's a cheap movie that looks cheap. The cast and crew are extremely inexperienced. Some parts of the movie are downright funny when they aren't supposed to be. But, that's part of the charm of this movie. The difference between this cheap horror movie is that it actually scares the crap out of you and keeps you coming back for more. It has a surprisingly solid story, one that has been copied countless times now. Fair warning though, if you don't like gore or other disturbing images, then this movie really isn't for you. Of the three movies it is definitely the most horror oriented. However, if you have a strong stomach and love yourself some good ol' B-movie fun, then you could do much worse than this movie.

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