What's 'Groovy' About Evil Dead? From Cult Horror To Horror Comedy
A couple guys go into the woods -- director Sam Raimi and actor Bruce Campbell, to be specific -- make a movie called The Evil Dead, then remake that movie years later, and in doing so create a comedy-horror masterpiece. And somehow the punchline to this strange cinematic saga is:
We'll step back. The original 1981 movie, The Evil Dead, sees five friends going to a cabin in the woods for a weekend of fun, but when they find the Necronomicon, a mysterious book bound in human flesh, their world is turned upside down by unspeakable horror. The Evil Dead became a cult classic; its plot was recycled for Evil Dead II (and arguably the movie that followed), again directed by Raimi and starring Bruce Campbell. Evil Dead isn't the biggest horror franchise -- it's not Friday the 13th, Halloween, or Nightmare On Elm Street -- but it's arguably the most interesting because it switches from gruesome horror to slapstick comedy at the drop of a hat, or chainsaw.
The Evil Dead's gestation lies in the 1970s, with a friendship forged in the suburbs of Detroit. Along the way, the Raimi brothers and Bruce Campbell found help from Stephen King and the Coen Brothers before bringing Ash Williams to the masses, remaking their beloved masterpiece into something much more groovy.
Within the Woods
Growing up in Michigan in the 1960s and '70s, Sam Raimi was obsessed with two things: filmmaking and the Three Stooges. After his father brought home a Super 8 camera, Raimi began making short films with his brothers Ted and Ivan, and his ample-jawed friend Bruce Campbell. They made several comedies together before Raimi got the idea to make a horror film as his first feature.
Raimi didn't jump into The Evil Dead headfirst. Instead, he and his brother's college roommate, Robert Tapert, went off to a farm house in Marshall, Michigan, with Bruce Campbell to film the proof-of-concept short "Within the Woods" for $1,600. Made with props picked up from a Halloween store, the film essentially tells the same story as Evil Dead, but shorter and somehow with more of a downer ending.
Within the Woods was never commercially released, but after screening prior to a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show it gathered a cult following and it helped Raimi raise about $90,000 to fund a feature version of the film. Raimi told IGN in 2015:
[Within the Woods] was made to be a tool to help us raise money from potential investors. So it wasn't really a prototype, like a 'pilot' or anything like that, for Evil Dead. It was really just something that we could show investors... So it's really a tool for these kids -- Bruce Campbell, [producer] Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi, me -- to show potential investors what we were doing. Because, in Detroit, the idea is so insane to ask somebody for money to invest in a movie -- especially 30 years ago. They had no idea what we were talking about. So we needed something to show them.
Tennessee was scarier than the film itself
After raising enough money to start shooting, Raimi put together a cast made up of Detroit locals: Betsy Baker, Ellen Sandweiss, and Theresa Tilly (credited as Sarah York) joined Campbell and Hal Delrich for their trip to the woods. Filming took place at a remote cabin in Morristown, Tennessee, that was the home of horrors both on and off screen. According to Raimi the entire filming process was a nightmare -- how skin-crawling is the thought of eyelashes being ripped off by prosthetics? The "demon eyes" that every actor aside from Campbell had to wear took 10 minutes to apply, and could only be left on for about 15 minutes because eyes could not "breathe" with them in place, and on top of all that it was freezing and everything was covered in Karo syrup. Raimi explains:
There was no running water, and it was in the 20s and 30s -- we didn't have any winter wear. It was freezing. When you're in that cold for 16 hours, you start to -- I started to die. There was no food, and everything was covered in Karo syrup in that temperature. So I'd be running the camera, but my hands were covered in Karo syrup. You'd lean against something and get it all over your hands. The only water we had was in a hot water heater so you could make instant coffee. Boiling water over your hands from the tap; that's how you'd wash them, to load the film into the camera.
Twelve weeks of mirthless exercise in agony
What was supposed to be four weeks in Tennessee turned into a twelve week shoot that saw actors peel off one by one as the torture of an underfunded film set grew to be too much to handle. By the end of the shoot an injured Bruce Campbell was the only actor left on set along with Tapert and the Raimi brothers, forcing them to get extremely creative with how they finished their movie. In several scenes Ted Raimi, Sam's older brother, ended up playing the "fake shemp," named as such after Shemp Howard of the Three Stooges, who passed away suddenly in 1955 making it necessary to have an actor stand in for him to finish his role. While speaking with Starburst, Tilly said that it wasn't the demonic possession that scared her on set, but the rickety bridge that the cast actually had to drive over:
I can’t believe I was so stupid to agree to get in a car and drive across that bridge which was ready to fall any minute. I am just happy I survived it all.
At the end of the shoot, the small crew burned most of the furniture inside the cabin to stay warm as the final shots were all exteriors. After returning to Michigan, Raimi and Campbell discovered that they failed to shoot some much needed footage and they spent the next four days pouring fake blood and "monster-guts" on Campbell to finish production.
A mountain of footage
Long before the days of Premiere Pro or Final Cut, when you shot a film you really shot it on film. Most people didn't (and still don't) have editing bays in their homes so Raimi had to find some place to actually cut the film together. He found an editing association in Detroit where his editor Edna Paul brought along an assistant named Joel Coen, one half of The Coen Brothers (Raising Arizona, No Country For Old Men). While Paul cut most of the film, Coen edited the shed sequence, a section of the movie that has a whiz-bang pace to it that Raimi's films have become known for. The initial cut ended up running at 117 minutes which was cut down into a merciful 84.
Stephen King helped dig up the Evil Dead
With The Evil Dead in the can the next step was to sell it to a distributor -- easy, right? It turns out that it's easier to stumble across the Necronomicon and get all of your friends murdered in the woods. After exhausting American distributors who didn't see the film as a moneymaker, Raimi brought the film to a film sales agent named Irvin Shapiro who brought the film to the Cannes film market, which runs concurrently to the film festival.
At the film market movies are screened for potential distributors who make an offer based on what they think they can make at their theaters. Stephen King happened to be a client of Shapiro's; he was at the festival for a screening of Creepshow and managed to catch The Evil Dead, which he loved. When Raimi asked King for a quote that they could put on the poster for the film King declined, but he offered something even better -- a review. Raimi says that one review changed his life forever:
He wrote a review for Twilight Zone Magazine. It was very generous of him, and we were able to use the very positive quote that he gave us. Without that, the movie may have been lost, but with Stephen King's endorsement, we were able to make our first sales. Then the film started to be successful where it had been sold. Then, after that British success, we were able to enter it into film festivals and awards. Then we were able to find an American distributor. So really, his endorsement opened the doorway for the film to be seen.
Stephen King to the rescue (again)
Following the cult success of The Evil Dead, the close-knit unit of Raimi, Tapert, and Campbell went to Hollywood where they successfully pitched Crimewave, a film written by Raimi and the Coen Brothers, to Embassy Pictures. As bad as the filming conditions were with Evil Dead, they were nothing compared to the horror of working with a studio. Embassy and Raimi butted heads through production and post production, turning the film into a massive failure.
The stink on Raimi and Campbell was bad. So bad that when they decided to go back to the well and film Evil Dead II, there were no investors to give them a leg up for a sequel to a genuine cult sensation. Without financing Raimi had to let one of assistant directors go so she could take an actual paying job on a movie that Stephen King was making with Dino De Laurentis. When King heard that the guys behind his favorite movie were in trouble, he made the sequel happen. Raimi explains:
So Stephen King, I'm told -- I've never talked to Mr. King about this -- but the rumor is that he called Dino De Laurentiis and said, 'Dino, you've got to make these guys' movie, Evil Dead II.' So we got a call from Dino De Laurentiis, and he sat us down in his big office and said, 'Okay, we're going to make the movie.' So Stephen King, that's twice he's come to my rescue.
Evil Dead II, and the birth of groovy
The big question surrounding Evil Dead II is whether or not it's an actual sequel to the first film. The answer is yes and no. The film opens with a sort of "recap" of the events of the first film, but it leaves out everyone aside from Ash and his girlfriend Linda. Campbell has explained that they had to reshoot the beginning of The Evil Dead because Raimi didn't own the rights to the film, so its footage couldn't be used to set up the "sequel" portions of the movie.
Evil Dead II's retelling of the first film in a snappy intro has long been a source of debate, but Campbell says that it's basically just a "sequel," or a ret-con and a sequel whose inconsistencies only add to the surreal nature of these films. Even if the timeline is a little wonky, all is forgiven thanks to the fact that Evil Dead II is just as good as the original, and it takes the series into new territory.
Plot details aside, many movie fans argue that Evil Dead II isn't a remake of The Evil Dead because it's in a different genre. As a horror-comedy film. Evil Dead II may be more of a parody of the original than a retelling.
One scene in particular is incredibly important to this innovation or split in the horror genre. After severing his own hand, Ash straps a chainsaw to his stump of an arm and uses it to cut the barrel off a shotgun to take out the Deadites who are infesting his cabin. After his shotgun surgery he says one word: "Groovy."
With that brief sequence, Raimi and Campbell captured the spirit of horror comedy -- it is genuinely scary and genuinely funny.
Neither Campbell nor Raimi have ever explained why they went with "groovy" instead of "great," or "cool," but that just makes Evil Dead II, and the series as a whole so much more fascinating.