In early 1979 a group of friends relocated to a farmhouse near Marshall, Michigan to shoot a short film called Within the Woods. Directed by nineteen-year-old Sam Raimi, who had cut his teeth on a handful of Three Stooges-style capers while still in high school, the thirty-minute film would mark his first foray into the horror genre, an experience that would ultimately lead to one of the most controversial and acclaimed horror movies of the 1980s: The Evil Dead.
Along with actor Bruce Campbell and producer Robert Tapert, whose family home served as the location for Within the Woods, the other key member of the crew was Tom Sullivan, the man responsible for the gruesome special effects. His work had been such a crucial ingredient of the short film that when Raimi and Tapert had raised the budget for a big screen adaptation, then referred to as The Book of the Dead, Sullivan was the only choice to handle the elaborate make-up.
Released as home video began to gain momentum, The Evil Dead provoked a strong reaction when it made its way onto VHS in the United Kingdom, almost single-handedly prompting the government to create the Video Recordings Act 1984 in response to what had fast become known as ‘video nasties.’ When Raimi returned to direct a sequel several years later, he approached the material with more tongue-in-cheek, drawing inspiration from his earlier comic short films.
Sullivan was once again brought in to contribute, but the majority of the special effects were created by Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger and Robert Kurtzman who, the following year, would launch KNB EFX Group, one of the most successful special effects companies in Hollywood. Following the release of Evil Dead II, Sullivan worked as a sculptor for Chris Walas on another sequel, The Fly II, before contributing to Raimi’s third and final instalment of the Evil Dead trilogy, Army of Darkness. In recent years, Sullivan has gained acclaim through his website Dark Age Productions, creating replicas of his movie work.
Tom Sullivan talks about the innovation of digital effects, his upcoming documentary and his desire to return to the Evil Dead franchise.
In the thirty years since you made your first movie, special effects have made several significant changes, specifically with the innovation of CGI. What challenges have you faced adapting to this new technology and how do you feel about digital effects?
I think Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock sums it up. I haven’t adapted well at all to digital filmmaking. I am okay with Photoshop but hardly a master at it. I bought the Adobe Creative Suite with Premiere Pro and After Effects and other programs ten years ago. The tutorials and instructions were incomprehensible. I bought the Dummy books and I couldn’t even get the instructions to match the screen. I never edited a frame, much less did any effects. Hundreds of dollars down the drain.
I feel defrauded by Adobe. Several times I asked their customer support what courses I could take in a local college to understand their manual. They never had an answer. Their Premiere Pro manual comes with no glossary so I was lost. I’m not a computer engineer and they can’t explain how to use their product. Not made for each other I guess. With my own failings at digital filmmaking aside, I do love what is being done with digital filmmaking and I wish I could participate.
Many modern filmmakers have chosen to replace practical effects with fully digital characters, yet the most effective are those that incorporate both. Which movies do you feel have best demonstrated this?
At one point I’d have said the Jurassic Park films but today’s digital composites are almost impossible to detect. This subject comes up at my convention appearances and the fans and I are in agreement. We prefer the ‘old school’ approach to the digital deluge. Bottin’s The Thing comes to mind. I’m curious what the prequel’s approach and reception will be.
I’m not as hard as some on the digital FX results. There are clearly many digital FX houses that have the talent, time, budgets and finesse to produce miracles. When I see Weta’s Kong, I see a living, thinking animal. And many more spectacular images and characters are being developed by growing armies of creative artists. That can only be a good thing. I just saw Captain America and Battle L.A., both extensive green-screen films. I can’t tell where the set ends and the magic begins, unless I use deductive reasoning. And that’s cheating.
What kind of effects do you specialise in and what were your first attempts at creating FX when you were younger?
Actually I don’t specialise in effects. I taught myself a variety of skills in order to become an über director, but my plan failed spectacularly. Growing up and reading film magazines like a fanatic, I was watching Lucas and Spielberg launching their large productions and hiring dozens of artists to supply hundreds of design alternatives to illustrate their creative film concepts. My plan was to expedite that by being able to have my production designs, storyboards, effects designs, art direction, scriptwriting, all done by myself as a cost-cutting and creative monopoly on the film.
When the Book of the Dead opportunity came along Sam Raimi only needed the ‘special effects’ Tom Sullivan, which was fine, but I kind of got typecast and since I didn’t pursue FX and went back to Illustration my film output has been rather low.
Ever since I saw the original King Kong I have been fascinated by stop-motion animation. In the towns I lived in I was the only geek interested in making movies and so it was hard to get interested actors for my films. Animation is an ideal solo endeavour. It also demanded all the skills I wanted to develop. I have a short Super 8mm dinosaur film called Time Eater. It’s a compilation of stop-motion shots with no narrative. There is a T-Rex, Allosaur battle and a Volcano exploding with miniature earthquake damage. There is also a reel of Super 8mm FX tests and stop-motion clips. Those will be in my documentary being filmed now.
Looking back on the various cult films you have worked on over the years, how do you feel about how your special effects stand up and are there any specific gags you feel are severely dated?
As Sam gave me about three weeks with the script, which left little time but to break down the script, purchase and order supplies I think I might need and then whip up the FX, props and make-ups the night before they are due on set, I think it works okay. If I could have only had a couple of months it might not have looked so cheesy. But Sam was big on secrecy. Sam was big on the Three Stooges, so some of those gags were not only dated but extinct.
Which modern films do you feel best demonstrate advancements in effects (both practical and digital) and do you think that they are overused by filmmakers like Michael Bay and George Lucas?
ILM is still blazing the trail but now innovations are everywhere. What wondrous times we live in. I loved the destruction in 2012 and the Transformers films. But then Repo Girl and Terry Gilliam’s digital era films are innovative and creative use of the new advancements. It’s a tool and artists are just beginning to discover what it can do. Personally, I’d like to see the critters slow down. Harryhausen loved to let us look at his creatures; now they zip by like they are getting paid by the second. But that’s me.
Your role involves not only the creating but also the staging of the FX gags; do you feel this has prepared you to take a shot at directing your own feature?
I have a number of scripts and am developing more. The Last Ghost Story was close to being made. Inspired by ideas planted by Ghost Hunters and other shows and documentaries. I had a producer, FX artists doing tests, creating concept art, as well as music, costume personnel and ghost consultants, all in unofficial pre-production when the place burnt down. No one was hurt, thankfully, but there goes the perfect location. It was fifteen miles from my home and the owner was to be our primary backer. So crap!
If I make a film it’s going to be an out-of-pocket budget. I’m not satisfied an independent filmmaker can actually make money on their movie. Even if it turns into a huge hit. My research wasn’t too promising for the filmmakers. Who wants to make other people millionaires? Been there, done that.
Over the years there has been talk of a remake of The Evil Dead. If this was to go ahead how do you think the filmmakers should approach re-designing the special effects?
Approach it like the original and hire me to design the special make up, FX, the Book of the Dead, Kandarian Dagger and a hugely expensive digital meltdown finale. I’d get Phil Tippett’s gang to do the meltdown and some other surprises we’d come up with. Of course, some pre-production time would be nice. Yeah, hire me. I’ll figure it out. If I’m too expensive then just go nuts with whatever you can find. It worked once.
What’s next for you?
Great question. A documentary is being about my life and career in film, illustration and other odd creative things I’ve done. In filming the interviews for the documentary we wound up with a lot of information I’ve never heard, from many unsung crewmembers of the Evil Dead films, as well as the usual suspects. We will have extra DVDs with the uncut interviews, making this an Evil Dead document. The working title is called Invaluable, based on a quote about me in a Fangoria article on Evil Dead and me. Then I’m thinking of a book about my art and film work.
And in the meantime I am still making personal appearances at horror conventions with the Tom Sullivan Movie Memorabilia Museum and Art Print Gallery, featuring my props, art and photos from The Evil Dead and other films. Also my Art Print Gallery has a plethora of illustrations from Evil Dead, H.P. Lovecraft and other fantasy art I’ve done over the decades. And the prints are for sale. It’s all printed on archival quality paper with archival quality inks. You can impress your friends for centuries.