Did you know that the cabin used to film director Sam Raimi’s 1981 supernatural horror flick The Evil Dead was an actual abandoned cabin? Did you also know that actor Bruce Campbell put his family’s home up for collateral so that The Evil Dead could be finished? Or that Joel Coen of Coen Brothers fame was an assistant editor on The Evil Dead resulting in his introduction into the movie biz? Also, I’m sure you were wondering how many times I could mention The Evil Dead in one paragraph. The answer is four.
These are but a fraction of the crazy goings-on behind the scenes of Raimi’s horror classic. The film also just happens to fit into the Nightmare on Film Street March Break theme for the month, and it’s the feature for this month’s Video Vault. It’s a breakdown-inducing trip through hell on earth with skull shattering, blood splattering, pencil stabbening (yeah, I made that one up) thrills that even after 40 years still make audiences cringe with glee. So throw on your raincoats kids, ’cause we’re sitting in the “splatter zone” for Sam Raimi’s directorial debut, The Evil Dead (1981).
BACK OF THE BOX OVERVIEW
When Ashley ‘Ash’ Williams and four of his Michigan State University friends head into the woods for some R&R, he soon finds himself in a fight for his life against the forces of evil. After finding a creepy old book inside the creepy old cabin they’re camping in, the gang decided to read the creepy old text of said creepy old book aloud. This inadvertently unleashes an evil force that comes from deep within the forest and straight after the unsuspecting kids. Now Ash’s friends are possessed and Ash must defeat the dark forces tormenting them before he too becomes one of The Evil Dead.
Bruce Campbell (Maniac Cop, 1988) plays Ash Williams, the cowardly and incapable boyfriend of the archetypal damsel in distress, Linda, played by Betsy Baker (Lake Eerie, 2016). The couple travels to the Tennesee woods with Ash’s antagonistic sister Cheryl, played by Ellen Sandwiess (The Dread, 2007), and fellow Michigan State friend and trip organizer Scotty, played by Richard DeManincor but credited as Hal Delrich (Crimewave, 1985). His girlfriend Shelly, played by Theresa Tilly, credited as Sarah York (Oz the Great and Powerful, 2013), rounds out this gang of campers from hell.
Director Raimi (Drag Me to Hell, 2009) makes a cameo as a Local Fisherman along with Evil Dead producer Robert Tapert (Don’t Breathe, 2016). Raimi also voices the Evil Dead while AMC suit, Bob Dorian provides the voice of the Archeologist. A host of performers, including Raimi’s brothers Ted (Midnight Meat Train, 2008) and Ivan (Army of Darkness, 1992), played stand-ins for the main actors, lovingly referred to as “Fake Shemps.” Fake Shemp is a term for stand-ins disguised as the main characters. Raimi coined the term in reference to the death of Three Stooges actor Shemp Howard who suddenly died while filming an eight movie deal for Columbia Pictures in 1955. A look-alike/sound-alike actor named Joe Palma (The Odd Couple, 1968) was brought in to finish the films in which Howard was needed.
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DAWN OF THE (EVIL) DEAD
Raimi and Campbell have been friends since childhood and throughout high school, they would make short 8mm films together which were mostly comedies. In one such short, they were filming a suspense scene that inspired the pair to branch out into the horror genre. This lead to Raimi making a proof-of-concept short film intended to entice potential investors into investing in a feature-length project. With a budget of $1600 and a plot loosely based on the eventual feature-length Evil Dead story, Within the Woods (1978) featured actors Campbell and Ellen Sandwiess and the same quirky directional style of director Raimi. While the short has sadly never made its way to home video (we almost had it in 2002) there are several copies floating around the internet.
After seeing the proof-of-concept, Robert Tapert (The Grudge, 2004) came on board as the film’s producer, and The Evil Dead was born, although it was originally titled Book of the Dead. There were several titles thrown around including Fe-Monsters, Blood Flood, The Evil Dead Men and the Evil Dead Women, and These Bitches are Witches, but Raimi’s admiration of H.P. Lovecraft drew him to use the Book of the Dead title. Another of the film’s producers, the late and uncredited Irvin Shapiro, made the name change to The Evil Dead as he felt it was a title better suited at putting kid’s butts in theater seats.
SADISTIC SAM AND HIS COMEDY OF TERRORS
While filming The Evil Dead both director Sam Raimi and producer Robert Tapert developed a joy for putting the actors through the rigors, sometimes to the extreme. Raimi’s reasoning behind his torturous treatment of the talent was to have that same torment they were experiencing on the set translate to on the screen. Tapert was of the same mind but seemed to find a little more pleasure in seeing the cast submersed in the misery. From poking an injured Campbell’s wounds with a stick to using fake blood with so much stickiness to it that once dried, people would inadvertently stab themselves, Raimi and Tapert seemed to have fun with their method of motivation.
But the inexperience of both cast and crew eventually caught up with everyone, not just the actors. Raimi himself worked so hard on set that he actually passed out while shooting the film’s dismemberment scene. The crew woke him up by dousing him with a bucket of ice water. It should be noted that the temperatures in Tennessee were freezing while filming was taking place. It was so cold that once interior shots were finished, the crew burned furniture in order to stay warm.
CABIN IN THE WOODS
As mentioned above, the cabin at which the film took place was abandoned and ultimately destroyed, but it has its own horror story. The story involves a grandmother, her daughter, and her granddaughter who lived in the cabin. One night as a thunderstorm raged outside as they slept. The young daughter was awoken by the thunder, frightened. She ran to her mother’s bed to climb in for safety, only to find her mother dead as she pulled back the covers. Terrified, she ran to her grandmother’s room to find her dead too. She ran from the cabin to a nearby farmhouse where she was cared for by the family living there but since the tragic event, the cabin has been vacant.
To make things creepier this story wasn’t known by Raimi and company until after filming had started when one night, after a thunderstorm, the same man from the farm that rescued the little girl came looking for the now older woman, thinking that because of the storm she may have wandered back to the cabin. He accounted the grisly events of the cabin’s past to the movie crew and it sent the already creepy mood to eleven. According to the stories from Raimi and other crew members, the woman hadn’t returned… as far as they were aware.
The Evil Dead has gone from a small indie film poised on the precipice of being banned for its extreme violence to a beloved cult classic that fans worldwide can’t get enough of. It has two equally wacky sequels, a darker, grittier remake, several video games, books, graphic comics, and a musical. From its quirky style and breakneck pace to its creepy premise and iconic leading man, it’s the O.G. cabin-in-the-woods film that will always reign over a sea of faceless imitators thanks to a tireless effort by two high school friends who wanted to make more than just 8mm home movies in their backyards.
Thanks for stopping by the Video Vault. It’s always nice to see a friendly non-possessed face every once in a while. Before you go, be sure to check out our official Nightmare on Film Street Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and Discord accounts for even more from the world of horror movies. But hey, if you’re not into the whole social media thing then subscribe to our Neighbourhood Watch Newsletter to have all things horror delivered straight to your inbox. Until next time fellow fiends, “Klaatu Barada Nikto!”