From all accounts, the making of Sam Raimi’s 1981 horror classic, The Evil Dead, was nothing short of a trip to Hell itself only in freezing cold temperatures rather than the classic fire and brimstone. The actors and crew alike all went through hellish experiences, and Raimi himself worked to the point of collapse, but their dedication brought us one of the original and best horror films that spawn multiple sequels, comic books, video games, a TV spin-off, a musical and still inspires directors and writers today.
The Evil Dead’s origins can be traced back to a short film called Within the Woods that Raimi made back in 1978. Having made several comedy shorts using super 8mm film, Raimi decided to make the move to the horror genre, feeling that he could have more success with it. With a shoestring budget of $1,600, Raimi cast his close friends Bruce Campbell and Ellen Sandweiss as the main couple, with Scott Spiegel and Mary Valenti in supporting roles. On completion, Raimi managed to convince a manager of a movie theatre to show Within the Woods and it premiered before a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It was well received and after time it earned Raimi $90,000 which he immediately put to use making The Evil Dead.
With winter fast approaching the decision was made to not film in their home state of Michigan, but to go further south, to Tennessee, a decision which would come to haunt them given that 1979 saw Tennessee having one of the coldest winters on record, and Michigan one of the mildest. When the initial cabin location they had hired fell through Raimi was pointed in the direction of an all but ruined building outside of Morristown. Somewhat fitting, they found out part way through filming that it was the site of a real-life scary story, involving the grisly murder of two women.
The first thing the crew had to do was construction and renovation work, including the removal of manure which coated lots of the floors up to four inches deep and the installation of a cellar as one didn’t exist in the place. It was also a long way from any other properties so the thirteen crew members all had to sleep in the cramped place, with most sharing the same room. The cabin also lacked any internal plumbing all of which lead to heightened tensions on the set when mixed in with long days and nights of shooting in freezing cold temperatures.
Almost everyone on set suffered differing injuries, ranging from frostbite to Betsy Barker (who played Linda) losing her eyebrows when her makeup was removed, to Bruce Campbell losing some teeth when a cameraman slipped and his camera ended up hitting Campbell in the face. Even Raimi was effected and fainted during the shooting of a scene. He’d been up all night shooting after having spent all day storyboarding and writing that he just collapsed from exhaustion. Raimi also took great delight in torturing his cast to get the right reactions on camera, Campbell himself tells of how he had badly twisted his ankle during the shoot and how Raimi kept poking his injury with a stick.
Due to the horrendous conditions most of the actors left as soon as they were no longer required and Raimi had to use stand-ins for any background or close up shots of the missing actors. Raimi was inspired by The Three Stooges who used this technique, which was known as ‘Fake Shemps’. The most notable of these stand-ins was Ted Raimi, Sam Raimi’s little brother.
Lastly, the biggest problem that beset production was the fact that they kept running out of money and production had to be stopped so that fundraising trips could happen to secure more funds. You can see one way in this affected the final production in that Campbell’s hairstyle changes several times throughout despite the fact the action takes place over one day. It was Campbell himself who saved the day when it came to funds, he put up his family home as collateral so that Raimi could not only finish the film but so it also could be converted to 33mm. It was because of this that he is credited as a Co-Producer because of Raimi’s gratitude.
The limited funds also affected how the filming was achieved, to get around this Raimi came up with several innovative ways of getting the more unique shots in the film. Instead of the Steadicam, he created the ‘shaky cam’, which was mounting a camera to a piece of two by four and having the operators run with it. The ‘ram-o-cam’ which saw the use of a t-bar to smash glass panels before the camera could go through it, to give the effect of the Evil Entity causing the damage.
Raimi is a fan of dutch angles, which is when a camera is tilted instead of filming normally. Several elaborate rigs had to be constructed as they couldn’t afford a camera dolly, and to get a smooth shot they would coat the rig in vaseline to allow a smooth slide along. Lastly, the least innovative effect was how they achieved the opening sequence of the camera panning across the swampy water, quite simply it was Raimi on a raft holding the camera while Campbell pushed it along through the ice-cold water that was up to his waist.
Sound effects were achieved by Raimi taping things that sounded cool and using them in post-production and by blending his voice with the other actors to make them sound more otherworldly. Of course, you can’t talk about The Evil Dead without making mention of all the blood. Again the blood effects were achieved by a homemade concoction the base ingredient of which was Karo Syrup, here in the UK the closest substitute we have would be Golden Syrup. This made the substance incredibly sticky and it got everywhere. Campbell would spend hours and hours coated in the stuff and when they were able to drive off site to take showers he would have to travel in the back of a pick-up truck because he was that sticky.
All of these remarkable things went into producing the gory horror film that we know and love today, and it quickly became a cult classic. But we were nearly denied the experience in the UK as it only managed to achieve an X-rating granting it a cinema release after 49 seconds were cut. When it was released on video it was withdrawn and copies seized almost immediately because it became a part of the Video Nasties scare in the 1980’s. It was released again after even more cuts were made in 1990, and it wasn’t until the year 2000 that the uncut film was resubmitted to the BBFC once more and fans could finally be able to experience Raimi’s original vision (or nightmare).
Many years later when Sam Raimi stepped up to direct the first Spider-Man film his budget was roughly four hundred times that of The Evil Dead. Although there has been a modern version of the film, 2013’s Evil Dead by Fede Alvarez, it makes you wonder what Raimi could have achieved with a similar budget for his original… however, would it have been as much fun?
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