He sat alone in a corridor, awaiting to be summoned before the judge. The well-dressed young man shifted awkwardly in his chair, attempting to appear calm and collected to anyone who may be watching, but inside his emotions ran amok. He was scared, fearful of what sentence may be awaiting him beyond the large doors of the courtroom, but he was also angry that the witch-hunt had been allowed to go this far. He had been lambasted by the media and forced to defend himself against a foreign government that had labelled his art a corruptive influence on the minds of the young. He had been dismissed as little more than a pornographer, and the moral majority had cited him as public enemy number one. It was somewhat iconic, perhaps even inevitable, that artistic expression and freedom of speech would both become victims of draconian censorship in 1984, a year that had been prophesied by the late George Orwell as being governed by totalitarianism and thought control. And even as popular music in the United States was being debated by the Senate, its artists forced to justify the content of their work, thousands of miles away in Great Britain, horror and fantasy filmmakers were waging a similar battle against the House of Commons. Twenty-four-year-old Sam Raimi had wanted to provoke his audience, to scare and excite them in equal measures, but in all his wildest dreams he never expected this charade to go so far, and now here he was, in another country, preparing to go on trial for the crime of making a little splatter picture called The Evil Dead.

‘How high school street horror is invading the home,’ declared a headline by The Sunday Times in May 1982, provoking the public’s concern that the new video phenomenon that had begun with the arrival of the VHS and Betamax recorders just a few years earlier was introducing their children to an array of gruesome and sexually-explicit images that the tabloids had dubbed ‘video nasties.’ Horror movies and smut were no longer relegated to local cinemas and adult theatres, now they were available for rental from local stores, allowing the suggestive and vulnerable minds of prepubescents to be sullied by such shocking titles as SS Experiment CampThe Beast in Heat, and Nightmares in a Damaged Brain. As the furore increased, the Director of Public Prosecutions felt compelled to intervene, and soon video stores across Britain were raided by the local authorities, with many proprietors facing prosecution for their role in the distribution of such questionable content. When the DPP published their list of fifty-two titles that would become the subject of investigations the following summer, The Evil Dead found its way among the collection of so-called nasties. It had merely been intended as a means to capitalise on the popularity of the independent horror scene, but now Raimi had his cohorts were having to defend the artistic merits of their work. Now more than ever, the question of censorship and the moral responsibilities of the artist were under debate, even as these notorious movies continued to fascinate and disgust a public that revelled in the carnage and excess of on-screen sex and violence.

Can a movie go too far? At what point can an artist be held accountable for the impact that their work has on its audience? That has long been at the centre of the debate of censorship: when should the voice of an artist be silenced in order to protect the well-being of the public? This had come into question during the fifties when the influence that comic books had on its young readers was a cause for concern, and now, almost thirty years later, the debate had resurfaced once again. Whether it was the gruesome violence of Cannibal Ferox, or the supposed real-life murders depicted in Snuff, both the media and government raised serious concerns on what emotional and psychological impact these types of pictures would have on their viewers. ‘It is unrealistic to imagine that laws which allow the distribution of porn for adults can, at the same time, ensure that children are not corrupted,’ insisted moral campaigner Mary Whitehouse. The controversy surrounding the video nasties would centre on how the advent of home video could result in children being exposed to pictures that were intended for an adult-only audience. ‘I don’t believe in a banning censorship, because I think that an adult should be free to watch what he likes, if minors and animals are not involved,’ explained Cannibal Ferox star Giovanni Lombardo Radice to Love-It-Loud. ‘On the other hand, I do believe in age censorship, because extremely violent movies shouldn’t be viewed by children, which is unfortunately preposterous since video tapes appeared.’

The Evil Dead may not have been the most shocking or explicit of the videos targeted by the DPP, but it would become one of the more notorious. Common themes among the nasties were cannibalism, rape, murder, and disembowelment, and while Raimi’s film would feature a notorious scene in which a young woman is raped in the woods as branches and vines come to life, for the most part his premise was presented as fantasy, with its central concept being that of demonic possession. It was a story that could not exist in the real world and should only be viewed as a piece of fiction. But as newspapers continued to capitalise on the growing fear that horror films now represented, The Evil Dead was often used as a prime example of how debased modern cinema had become. As to why horror movies had turned so nasty overnight could be attributed to three key factors: the relaxing of censorship in the United States during the late sixties, which allowed filmmakers to explore subject matters previously seen as taboo; advancements in prosthetic special effects in the seventies had given rise to a new breed of make-up artists, with the likes of Stan Winston and Tom Savini leading the charge with their elaborate and gruesome set-pieces; and the arrival of home video at the dawn of the eighties. But the public, and more importantly the government, were not prepared for the onslaught of pornography and bloodletting that was to follow.

‘Scotland Yard is already studying one of the nasties exposed by The Sunday Times with a view to bringing a prosecution under the obscenity act,’ revealed the newspaper in their 30 May 1982 edition. ‘The video, SS Experiment Camp, contains a large number of explicit scenes of violence towards women, who are shown naked in an electric chair, supposedly being cremated in gas ovens, and subjected to experiments by ‘a Jewish doctor working for the Nazis.’’ The offending film, an Italian Naziploitation picture produced under the title Lager SSadis Kastrat Kommandantur by cult filmmaker Sergio Garrone, had first gained controversy four months earlier when its distributor, Go Video, had published its poster in the latest issue of Television and Video Retailer, which led to a barrage of complaints. It was this publicity act that first drew attention to the dangers of home video and the rise in shocking motion pictures, and in the months that followed, the likes of The Driller Killer and I Spit on Your Grave would also be analysed by the authorities. While The Evil Dead would enjoy considerable success both on the big screen and on home video, copies were soon seized by the Metropolitan police, and by the spring of 1983 The Times announced, ‘War declared on the video nasties.’ And yet like many of the films targeted by the DPP, The Evil Dead was produced by a group of independent filmmakers who had used the public’s obsession with horror movies in an attempt to break into the industry, and long before the police raids and legal trials, it had first begun as an idea by a group of teenagers, one that they hoped would resonate with the young patrons of drive-ins in their native United States.

The Evil Dead

Perhaps it was somewhat ironic that while those that spoke out against The Evil Dead were not fans of horror movies, the man most responsible for this particular video nasty had little love for the genre too. Sam Raimi was a fan of slapstick comedy and had no interest in the low-budget splatter films that had begun to turn a profit in the wake of the success of Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a few years earlier. The Evil Dead had been created as a means to an end, and although the teenager failed to see the appeal of such pictures as The Last House on the Left or Halloween, he could see that on a minimal budget a filmmaker with passion and imagination could enjoy commercial success. The Evil Dead had started its life as Book of the Dead, a highly-derivative tale of five college friends vacationing in a remote cabin in the woods of Tennessee, who inadvertently awaken long-dormant spirits that possess the group one-by-one until only one reluctant hero remains. But this would not be Raimi’s first attempt at filmmaking, as over recent years the hyperactive youth and an ensemble of likeminded friends had banded together to create a succession of short films, shot on Super 8, each one more ambitious than the last.

Sam Raimi was born fifteen miles north of Detroit in the Michigan city of Royal Oak. The fourth of five children, Raimi first developed an interest in the art of filmmaking by observing the family home movies shot by his father, the owner of a local furniture store. Already seduced by the mysteries of magic, he became fascinated with the illusion that could be created with nothing but a camera. ‘That was a powerful experience to me, to see his manipulation of space and time on film,’ he told author Bill Warren. ‘The magical qualities of film, being able to capture time and replay it, in an altered reality – you can play it faster, or slower, or in an order you choose, you can reassemble time, with the added enhancement of the sound of the moment, years ago, being replayed. I was living in a time warp. I thought that this magic was something I had to be involved with, that I had to consume myself with.’ With little understanding of the mechanics of filmmaking, Raimi began to experiment with various techniques and narrative devices, indulging in such genres as the American western and slapstick comedy, the latter personified through his love of The Three Stooges. Initially touring as a vaudeville act, the trio first gained nationwide exposure in the mid-thirties following their signing with Columbia Pictures, and over the next decade they became one of the studio’s most prolific and successful stars. ‘Although we were with Columbia for over twenty-four years, our contract was lucrative,’ recalled actor Moe Howard many years later. ‘Columbia made millions from The Stooges.’

Celebrated for their physical humour that followed in the tradition of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, The Three Stooges would have a profound effect on the young Sam Raimi, and this influence soon found its way into his own short films. ‘I like their physical comedy and their sound effects. The hyper-real shticks that they do,’ he recalled in the late eighties. ‘And certainly we’ve ripped off, stolen blatantly, as sixteen-year-olds, many Three Stooges gags and did them ourselves, so was greatly influenced by The Three Stooges.’ While Raimi often created his own zany comedies with the participation of both local children and his younger brother, Ted, across town another fellow high school student had similar dreams of breaking into the movie industry. ‘Sam had been making films in his own neighbourhood since 1972. As it turned out, he had access to a strange new toy – a video camera,’ explained Bruce Campbell who, due to his good looks, was often cast in Raimi’s short films. ‘As our ambitions grew, so did our budgets. The average film cost of around a hundred books soon ballooned to four or five hundred. Eventually, a question began to loom: can we actually make money with these things?’ The creative circle that surrounded Raimi had grown considerably since his first attempt at creating a motion picture, and now this pool of talent included Mike Ditz, Josh Becker, and Scott Spiegel. Among the comedies that this troupe produced were The James Hoffa Story, James Bombed, and The Happy Valley Kid, but for their next project they were determined to take a significant step forward and create something far more polished and professional than they had ever achieved before.

By the time that the camera began rolling on It’s Murder! in 1977, Bruce Campbell had become Raimi’s leading man, with his natural charm and charisma winning over many of the girls in their school. ‘Bruce Campbell starred in every Super 8 movie that we made because, very simply, he was the good-looking one, and still is,’ confessed Raimi. ‘So we said, ‘Hmm, the girls like you, so we’ll put you in front of the camera. Girls don’t like us, we’ll stay behind the camera.’ And only when Bruce was unavailable would we put ourselves in front of the camera.’ For Campbell, his association with Raimi first came during the latter’s early attempts at performing magic in front of an audience. ‘That’s how I first hung out with him. I was his assistant,’ laughed Campbell in 2016. ‘We would wear lab coats, we would appear for bar mitzvahs and things like that. He would hit me, and he saw that the audience liked it when he hit me, so he associated my pain with entertainment. And he never stopped!’ It’s Murder! was ostensibly a whodunit mystery that owed an aesthetic debt to the film noir thrillers of the forties, but with the sensibilities of The Three Stooges, with Spiegel taking the central role of a hapless detective attempting to uncover the truth behind the mysterious death of a rich man and the investigation into his gold-digging relatives. By this point, Raimi’s inner circle had been joined by Robert Tapert, who had been Raimi’s older brother’s roommate at Michigan State University, and had turned his back on business studies to pursue his passion for filmmaking. Along with Campbell, Tapert would become Raimi’s most trusted collaborator in the years to come.

Another member to join the crew that would become instrumental in the creation of The Evil Dead was an aspiring special effects artist called Tom Sullivan. ‘I taught myself a variety of skills in order to become an über director, but my plan failed spectacularly,’ he confessed to Love-It-Loud. ‘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.’ In a 1983 interview with Fangoria, Sullivan detailed how he first became involved with It’s Murder! ‘My wife was attending Michigan State University at the time,’ he told writer Bob Martin. ‘I happened to read in the school paper about their MSU Society of Creative Filmmaking, and decided to look them up.’ This group, based out of the university campus, had been founded by Raimi and his friends in an effort to cultivate and inspire local talent. ‘In Sam’s freshman year, he suggested we all make a movie together,’ recalled Tapert. ‘We ran the Society of Creative Filmmaking at Michigan state; Sam was president. We started putting on a Super 8 festival every spring for two years. When we left, other people kind of picked up the ball. I guess they still have it – their annual Super 8 film awards.’

The killer in the backseat

While Raimi had thus far indulged in his love of physical comedy, It’s Murder! would mark a significant turning point for all involved. ‘A suspense scene called for what we later would term a scare,’ revealed Campbell. ‘This played out when a heinous criminal leapt upon an unsuspecting victim from the backseat of a car. Screenings of the film were always met with a lacklustre response, but that scene always delivered – people never failed to jump out of their seats. ‘It worked great,’ Sam noted. ‘When we showed it, that was the one part of It’s Murder! that really worked well.’ Aside from comedy, scares were the only other guarantee of provoking a strong reaction from the audience.’ The inspiration for this use of a jump scare would come from another member of the ensemble. ‘We had a scare for the backseat of a car that I picked up from I Saw What You Did, being a big William Castle fan,’ admitted Spiegel. ‘It worked so well in the original film that John Carpenter also used it for Halloween: the killer in the backseat.’ Observing the crowd night after night jolting as the figure appeared from behind its victim, Raimi became convinced that if he was to sustain that level of intensity throughout a ninety-minute feature film then they could finally turn a profit. The horror film had grown in popularity throughout the seventies, with the success of The Exorcist and The Omen proving that the supernatural remains a box office draw, and as he observed such independent filmmakers as Carpenter and David Cronenberg gaining both critical and commercial success, he became convinced that creating a horror film was the most logical course of action.

But in truth, neither Raimi nor his friends had any real knowledge of horror, and so they began to conduct research on all the genre pictures that were populating the cinemas and drive-ins around Detroit. ‘Sam and I first decided to do a horror film after doing research on what pictures did well in the markets,’ recalled Tapert. ‘And at the time, which was the late seventies, there were still a lot of drive-ins, especially in the Midwest, which is where we grew up. And there were forever horror films playing in the drive-ins on double-bills, which we always saw and said, ‘God, we could make something better than this. There’s absolutely no doubt about it.’ So up until the time we decided to make a feature film we had done mainly comedies, and decided that horror is the entry level that people use, and decided to make the ultimate experience in horror at the time.’ Throughout his research on the genre, Raimi became convinced that he had discovered a formula that ran through every successful horror film. ‘One of the things that we learned from our repeated visits to the horror pictures were certain laws that happened to apply to all horror pictures,’ he would later claim. ‘And that is the innocent must suffer; the poor sap who walks into the house has to be tormented. And then the next law we came to realise governed all horror pictures was that the guilty must be punished; whatever evil thing there is out there, whatever dark force there is, the audience wants to see their hero lay into it pretty intensely. And then we found there was a third law, and that is you must taste blood to be a man; you’ve got to go through this coming-of-age, through this blood experience.’

While Raimi would first apply those theories to Clockwork, a seven-minute thriller he had created for his university course, his knowledge was pooled together into a screenplay that he had christened Book of the Dead. Although he had never written a horror film before, he utilised his research to establish several recurring themes that he had found in modern genre pictures. The first was to gather together a cast of young, good-looking characters and have them engage in premarital sex which, much like many modern-day urban legends, often leads to punishment, as depicted in both Black Christmas and Halloween. Secondly, the characters are to be isolated away from civilisation so that they cannot rely on anyone coming to rescue them, as demonstrated in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. And finally, Raimi exploited the public’s recent fascination with the supernatural, which had been so perfectly demonstrated with the phenomenal success of Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror. But realising that they could not merely ask for the picture to be funded without any proven track record, Raimi, Tapert, and Campbell set about formulating a masterplan. ‘Sam had already written a script, so he wrote a thirty-minute condensed version of not the same story, but some of the same elements, that we did as a Super 8 movie,’ Tapert told Starburst. Through Phil Gillis, Tapert’s family lawyer, they began to discuss their legal options and draw up a business summary for potential investors.

Taking the basic elements of his feature screenplay, Raimi concocted the short tale of a group of friends visiting a remote cottage who accidentally defile an ancient Native American burial ground, causing one of the friends to transform into a homicidal ghoul. Relocating to Tapert’s family farm in Marshall, Michigan, the thirty-minute film, which Raimi had entitled Within the Woods, was intended as a teaser for local investors, a presentation of their ideas and talent on a smaller scale. Produced on a budget of $1,600, filming took place over six days and required Campbell to wear heavy prosthetics, courtesy of Sullivan. ‘One of the many constants in horror films of that day was that the lead had to be a woman, and she had to be terrorised,’ explained Campbell. ‘Ellen Sandweiss was the natural choice as the starlet/female victim. Ellen had been in numerous Super 8s, and expressed a sincere desire to be an actress. I was cast as her innocuous boyfriend, who would later become possessed and stalk the others relentlessly. Scott Spiegel, who had demonstrated a gory flair in Clockwork as the psycho, was cast as the obnoxious boyfriend of Mary Valenti – daughter of a friend the Tapert family, who also had stars in her eyes. The film, pieced together over a very hot three-day weekend, would serve as the first hint that films weren’t always gonna be as easy as chucking pies around in our spare time. To pull off this $1,600 film, we needed special make-up effects.’ Sullivan’s work on Within the Woods was more than enough to convince Raimi that he could handle similar duties on Book of the Dead. ‘That was mostly casting,’ confirmed Sullivan. ‘Building an arm, doing some make-up on Bruce, a lot of scars all over him, and popping his eye out.’

For all intents and purposes, Within the Woods was created as a trial run for The Evil Dead, or as it was still known in 1979, Book of the Dead. The intention of producing this short was not only to present to investors, but for the filmmakers to push their own limits in order to prepare for the arduous task of making a feature film. ‘It was really a halfway point between our Super 8 movies and a professional, low-budget, feature-length movie,’ admitted Raimi. ‘We wrote a script from the git-go, we had professional make-up effects prepared in advance with the moulds, and on-the-set make-up. And we had professional lighting, in the sense that we rented professional lights for the first time. And we experimented with camera speeds, taking it a little further than we had gone before, recording synch-sound at a third slower for a monstrous effect. For instance, although we shot the movie itself at eighteen frames-per-second, we shot Bruce Campbell at twenty-four frames-per-second to give him more mass on screen, and to make it much slower and heavier, an inhuman pitch.’ His experience on Within the Woods would result in Raimi becoming a more experimental filmmaker, often incorporating unusual angles, zooms, and edits into his feature films, a technique that he had first toyed with on his Evil Dead prototype.

Within the Woods

But if these aspiring filmmakers were going to present themselves as professional businessmen to any potential investors then first impressions were paramount. Thus, they decided to adopt a more adult appearance for their meetings. ‘We had to shake the flaky image of filmmakers and conquer the Midwest,’ declared Campbell in his memoir If Chins Could Kill. ‘Fortunately, a love of cool old suits gave me a leg up. I had already accumulated three or four vintage, double-breasted wool outfits. My basic theory had been to haunt Salvation Army stores with a methodical zeal, and soon I knew when and where to look for the good stuff. An annual church bazaar in a nearby wealthy neighbourhood produced a great bounty as well – castaways from the Detroit elite. Hell, it was good enough for the Fords and the Fishers, it was good enough for me. My usual layout for a primo suit was twenty-five bucks. Dump another $15-20 on top of that for tailoring, and $10 for some two-toned wing-tip shoes, and you’ve got yourself, on average, a $50 masterpiece. I was stylin’ in the Motor City. We also needed briefcases, so it was off to Montgomery Ward.’ With the producers having undergone a radical transformation, now they needed to form a production company in order to appear legitimate, and then draw up a list of local professionals that they could approach in search of investments.

‘Sam Raimi, myself, and Bruce Campbell have a company called Renaissance Pictures, out of Detroit,’ revealed Tapert in 1982. ‘We went to different doctors, dentists, and lawyers, to their homes, and we would set up our little Super 8 projector screen, and get their whole family and friends to come and see this little horror film we made. And in the process we’d terrify their family, make their kids unable to sleep all night. Enough people after banging on enough doors finally said, ‘Yeah, you seem to at least be honest, and your horror film worked. I can’t imagine why people would pay to go see it.’ These aren’t people who are in the film business, and know nothing about it, except what they see on TV.’ But before they could even screen the film, first they had to force their foot in the door, which would take some imaginative manipulation on their part. Thankfully, through his talents as a magician, Raimi was an expert at misdirection. ‘What we did was call them and say, ‘Yes, we’re a friend of Dr. Perkinson, and he has given us your name and said that although he cannot invest, you might be able to,’’ he explained to presenter Jonathan Ross. ‘‘Well, I certainly can’t invest. I can’t invest. I won’t have anything to do with you.’ ‘Well, why don’t you let us come by your house and show you our picture, Within the Woods, and see if you might be interested after that?’ ‘Well, I’m not really interested.’ ‘Well, we’ll be by around eight o’clock.’ So we’d kind of force our way in and get the foot in the door, and then we’d set up a Super 8 projector and show the movies on his dining room wall – take some down art – and proceed to make them sick, and then hopefully get the investment out of them.’

With Campbell having not only taken the lead role in the majority of Raimi’s Super 8 shorts but also working hard in a production capacity to get the project off the ground, it would make sense that he was once again cast as the protagonist for Book of the Dead, this time as the well-meaning but hapless hero Ashley Williams. Ash travels from his home in Michigan to a remote cabin deep in the woods of Tennessee with his girlfriend Linda, sister Cheryl, best friend Scott, and Scott’s girlfriend, Shelly. They arrive to find that the property is rundown and can only be accessed by vehicle across a derelict bridge. ‘The trick was finding qualified actors who wanted desperately to be in the union, but just hadn’t figured out how yet,’ admitted Campbell, who Raimi would take great pleasure in torturing throughout the shoot. ‘All the actors were contracted to make a staggering $100 per week. Fortunately for us, this was well before the age of overtime, forced calls, meal penalties, night premiums, and residuals. It wasn’t about money. An actor acted – period! The first read-through at Sam’s house was a little on the clumsy side. It was really hard to get a sense of the film, when the dialogue in the climax consisted of, ‘Ahhhhh! Grr. Noooo!!! Help! I can’t feel my legs!’ Had these poor actors read the fine print at the bottom of their contract, they would have seen the disclaimer, ‘In addition, you will also be the guinea pigs for make-up testing. These heinous products have not been tested on animals, because they will be tested on you.’’

Having already proven herself on Within the Woods, Sandwiess was brought on board to portray Campbell’s on-screen sister, but whereas she had previously played the final girl, this time it would be Sandweiss that was subjected to heavy prosthetics. ‘Once they had raised the funds, I took a semester off college, in ’79 to ’80, and we shot the film in Tennessee,’ she told Den of Geek in 2019. ‘Of course it was exhilarating at age twenty to be off making a feature film, and the boys were a lot of fun. But the budget was tiny, and it wasn’t a union film, so the conditions were harsh and everyone on the set was very inexperienced. We were all in our early twenties, and for many it was our first experience making a feature film. At the Tennessee cabin where we shot most of the film, we had no electricity, no plumbing, and no running water.’ When asked by Deadites Online whether she preferred the experience of making Book of the Dead over the short film that had proceeded it, Sandweiss confirmed, ‘I think I’d have to go with Within the Woods, because I didn’t have to deal with make-up, contact lenses, cold temperatures, etc. Also, let’s face it, it’s good to be the murderer, rather than the murderee, and fun to act all dramatic and traumatised after the kill.’

While the casting of Ash and Cheryl had been relatively straightforward due to both Campbell and Sandweiss’ long association with Raimi, finding other actors that were willing to be subjected to such torture in the name of art would prove more problematic. ‘We just dug them up in the Detroit area,’ scoffed Tapert. ‘They were doing commercials and things like that, and it was very hard getting actors and actresses because it is a car town. We were shooting during the big auto company presentation, and everyone wanted to work for a week and maybe earn $700 or $800 doing auto shows. They can tour the country and that. So, we finally settled on these three people. They went through, I have to say, an incredible amount of hard work.’ One such local performer to cut their teeth on industrial films and commercials was Betsy Baker. ‘The first time I met Sam, he was sitting at a restaurant table with Bruce and Robert,’ recalled Baker almost thirty years later. ‘I had arrived a little late, I walked in this restaurant and I saw three young guys – they couldn’t have been more than nineteen, twenty, twenty-one at the most – and they were sitting there laughing with each other, they were blowing straw papers at each other, they were doing that spoon routine, when you lay down the spoon and you pop it up, and I said, ‘It just can’t be them! They must not be the guys I’m meeting.’ But they were the only ones in the restaurant.’

According to Campbell, Theresa Tilly, who would be cast in the role of Shelly, was the daughter of an accountant associated with Renaissance Pictures and, despite being credited as Sarah York in The Evil Dead, was born Theresa Seyferth. ‘Unlike Ellen Sandweiss and Bruce Campbell, who both went to Groves High School in Birmingham, Michigan, with Sam Raimi, I was not a friend or classmate of Sam’s. I had just graduated from St. Mary’s College of Orchard Lake with a B.A. in Communication Arts,’ explained Tilly to Starburst. ‘I was struggling to be an actor in the Detroit area, doing a lot of local theatre, setting up my own puppet shows in malls and schools, commercials, and car industrials; whatever I could get my hands on in Motor City! I got a call from my agent – whom I barely knew – asking me if I was interested in auditioning for a feature film. Sam, Rob, and Bruce had gone to local theatres looking for résumés for small-time actors, like myself, who might be interested in working for nothing to be in his feature, called Book of the Dead.’ But Tilly’s association with the project would come to be a thorn in her side. ‘The Evil Dead was scheduled to be shot as a non-union production,’ she told Love-It-Loud. ‘I had just become a member within that year. I was told by a rep at the union, and by people at Renaissance Pictures, that the fact that I was a brand new union member wouldn’t be a problem, and that it would all be worked out before we went to shoot. Well, nothing was worked out. So I did the movie, changed my name, thinking it would never be seen. I do regret that I used a different name. Also, I ended up with a fine from S.A.G. and a six-month suspension.’

He was so thrilled to be there

Another actor that would join the cast of Book of the Dead under a pseudonym was Richard DeManincor who, according to co-star Baker, was an award-winning diver. ‘Rich, with a ‘what else have I got to do for the next six weeks?’ attitude towards the whole thing,’ said Campbell. ‘He also had union jitters, so Rich adopted the stage name Hal Delrich. This was the result of combining the first names of his two roommates at the time: Hal and Del. Rich also got napped by the union, and eventually worked his way out of the business.’ Sandweiss remembered how passionate he was for the genre and the light-hearted tone he brought to the set. ‘Rich actually had a little bit of Scotty in him, that kind of ‘party down’ guy,’ she revealed in the 2007 documentary The Evil Dead: The Untold Saga. ‘And he was the only one, really, of any of us who had always loved horror movies, and always wanted to be in one. And he was so thrilled to be there, to be in a horror movie. And, to this day, so thrilled that he got to be in a horror movie.’

One trope that would become commonplace in the horror genre throughout the seventies and eighties was the concept of the ‘final girl;’ the virginal and intelligent heroine that resists premarital sex and rebellion against authority, and is thus able to defeat the forces of evil. This was perhaps best personified in Halloween’s Laurie Strode, and would become a standard for the slasher cycle, but could also be seen in other horror films such as Alien and Hellraiser. But with Book of the Dead, Raimi had decided to subvert this trend by allowing a male character to become the sole survivor. ‘I was the pseudo-hero, Ash, who was really just one of five generic people at the beginning, and then through a trial by fire, kind of wises up a little bit,’ explained Campbell. ‘He’s kind of an idiot! If he hears a sound he goes outside, he looks through doors that you know he shouldn’t. So he’s not really very smart. If they were smart enough not to go to the cabin you wouldn’t have a movie. So they show up, it’s a creepy place: ‘Let’s go in!’ And they find a tape recorder with some weird things on it: ‘Oh, that sounds great. Let’s play that!’ And then people are possessed: ‘Oh, what do we do now?’ You can’t be too smart the first couple of times, so you let some monsters kill some innocent people. But it’s important to have victims; so really the five of us were victims. I was the pseudo-hero, only because I was really a victim throughout most of the movie.’

It could be argued that the sixth character of the movie was the remote cabin, and so location casting was as equally important as that of the actors. With fall having set upon the area, the leaves had long since abandoned the trees, and so the woods looked barren and lifeless. As the producers feared that snow would soon befall Michigan, they were forced to search further afield for an old shack that would offer the kind of foreboding fear that the script demanded. Having little in the way of resources, Raimi and Tapert reached out for assistance in obtaining a suitable place to shoot. ‘The Tennessee Film Commission had scouted locations for us, but when we got down there, the cabin we had intended to shoot in was unavailable,’ revealed Raimi. ‘We stalled and shot whatever we could, but since ninety per cent of the film takes place in the cabin, we were in a bind. We finally did find a place, an old cabin in a little valley surrounded by miles of woods near Morristown, Tennessee. This area had been used as grazing land, and cattle had knocked down the cabin’s door. The place was covered with six inches of cow dung. We all had to shovel out cow dung for a week. We ripped out walls, tore out the ceiling, and made a studio out of the place. Our transportation captain, David Goodman, doubled as cook, and he made chili that is deadly, very difficult to consume. He also made such things as chocolate pizza, which I don’t recommend, and many other delicacies unknown to this planet.’

It was not only Raimi’s screenplay that would be littered with folklore and tales of the supernatural, as the cabin that became their base of operations had a legacy of its own. ‘As we soon found out, this was no ordinary cabin,’ revealed Campbell. ‘There was something of a history to the old place. In the thirties, so the story goes, a young woman named Clara lived in the cabin with her family. One night, a terrible thunderstorm swept through the valley. During that storm, her parents were both brutally and inexplicably murdered. The stunned girl, escaping from that grim fate, wandered aimlessly until she was taken in by neighbours. To this day, apparently, every time there is a terrible storm, Clara would wander from the Morristown Manor rest home, looking for her parents. She was found, just days before we arrived, wandering in the hills behind our cabin. Well, Clara or no Clara, the reality of it all was that there was no electricity, no running water, and no telephone service in the cabin. Cattle had the run of the place, and had managed to deposit easily four inches of manure in every room. There were no doors, the rooms were very small, and the ceilings were claustrophobically low. This sucker needed work – a lot of it.’

Due to the cold November temperatures, and the abundance of fake blood that soon drenched the floors of the cabin, shooting on location in a rural region of Tennessee soon began to take its toll on the young cast and crew. ‘There was no running water, and it was in the twenties and thirties; we didn’t have any winter wear,’ recalled Raimi. ‘It was freezing. When you’re that cold for sixteen 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 been 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.’ These factors threatened to bring principal photography to a standstill, with the actors often forced to sit in heavy make-up as they waited to be called to set. Their first experience at making a feature film was not as glamorous as they had hoped.

Robert Tapert, Steve Frankel, Sam Raimi, Tim Philo, and Josh Becker

Even shooting in the surrounding area would often prove challenging, such as during the opening sequence in which Ash and his friends make their way through rural Tennessee on their way to the cabin. As Ash studies the map in an effort to gain their bearings, demonic forces pull the steering wheel from Scott’s grasp and attempt to drive them off the road, yet seconds before they crash head-first into another vehicle he is finally able to regain control, angrily criticising Ash for the poor state of the car. ‘We were shooting the very first shot of the movie,’ said Raimi. ‘Tim Philo, the cameraman, and myself went to this field to get a very long shot. We’re using a telephoto lens of this bridge that the car is crossing as the kids are coming up to the cabin. Well, the whole field was filled with cows, and there was one bull. And it wouldn’t let us into the field. There was a barbed-wire fence and you had to crawl under the thing, but it won’t let you go anywhere near its cows. So we had one of the production assistants sing to this bull to distract it, and we snuck around another section of the field, down this hill where the bill couldn’t see us. We snuck under the fence, passed the camera gear through, set up the shot; we were starting to shoot, and we heard some screaming. And what he was screaming was, ‘The bull is coming!’ We looked up on the hill and there was a bull charging us. Well, I don’t have a good story about grabbing the negative or anything like that. I just ran for my life, and he chased us around the trees. And we couldn’t get out because the fence is electrified, and it’s not something you can grab and climb over in a minute. You have to actually stop and crawl under this thing. It was a nightmare!’

Principal photography on Book of the Dead would commence at the cabin on 14 November 1979 with a scene in which Scott navigates their car, a 1973 Delta 88 Oldsmobile belonging to Raimi, across an old bridge that is in such poor shape that a sign warns travellers to cross at their own risk. Eventually arriving at the cabin, their evening’s festivities are cut short when the trapdoor to the fruit cellar is thrust violently open with no rhyme or reason. Sensing the anguish of his companions, Scott grabs a flashlight and ventures down into the darkness to search for the source of the disturbance, but when he fails to return, Ash reluctantly picks up a lantern and follows him into the cellar. Carefully stepping through the puddles, he calls out his friend’s name but gets no response, yet as he began to lose all hope, Scott bursts out of the shadows to make him jump. Allowing Ash a moment to compose himself, he leads him over to a work bench where they find an old tape recorder lying next to an ancient book, the titular book of the dead. In a playful homage that would become a recurring trend over the subsequent decade, Raimi decided to include an in-joke directed at fellow horror filmmaker Wes Craven. ‘There’s a torn-up poster of Jaws in The Hills Have Eyes,’ explained Raimi. ‘So I thought it would be funny to tear a Hills Have Eyes poster into pieces in The Evil Dead, to tell Wes, ‘No, this is the real horror, pal.’ So then, in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes put The Evil Dead on a television set, saying basically, ‘No, Sam, The Evil Dead is just pop entertainment. This is real horror.’’

Among the artefacts that Scott and Ash would carry back upstairs to the group were an ancient Kandarian dagger, a recording made by archaeologist Professor Knowby, and the Naturon Demonto, a book that, as Knowby explains, was ‘bound in human flesh and inked in human blood.’ Filled with pages of resurrection passages that allow the evil forces to possess the living, Ash unwittingly brings this entity back to life by allowing the recording to recite passages from the book. Yet while Ash is often blamed for bringing the dead back to life, Raimi had demonstrated on several occasions that the spirits were already able to interact with the real wold, from their attempts to crash their car during the opening scene to Cheryl’s hand being forced to draw a demonic face in her sketch pad. The responsibility of designing the book would fall to their resident special effects artist Tom Sullivan. ‘I had a version of the Book of the Dead finished,’ he claimed in a 1983 interview. ‘It was much bigger, kind of Ten Commandments-sized, but that turned out to be too big, so I made a smaller one. Before going down to Tennessee, I had just enough time to come up with a list of everything I thought was needed and gather most of it together.’

One of the more visually-impressive elements of The Evil Dead was how Raimi chose to depict the point-of-view of the evil forces, floating through the woods in an unnatural way as it closes in on the cabin. To achieve this, Raimi designed his own variants of such devices as the Steadicam. ‘Sam also wasn’t one for the standard medium shot, close-ups, over-the-shoulder angles that most film and television shows use to cover a scene,’ detailed Campbell. ‘There is an entire sequence in the film where every shot was photographed at a forty-five degree Dutch (tilted) angle. That’s quite severe. I must admit, we all thought Sam was crazy when this scheme was revealed, but he was the director. The results were very effective and hold up pretty well, even against the cock-eyed, ‘MTV style’ used regularly today. As a result of Sam’s boldness, this shoot spawned a number of low-tech but unique camera rigs.’ Early tracking shots were easily accomplished from a technique created by Raimi that was dubbed the Shaki-Cam. ‘We came up with a board, where we mounted the camera in the middle, and the lens acted as the axis point,’ explained Raimi. ‘And it ended up smoothing out the point-of-view because the longer the board was that the camera was mounted on, the jiggle decreased proportionately to the length of the board, so it gave us a very eerily smooth look, and it seemed to work out okay.’

On Wednesday, 5 December, exactly three weeks into the shoot, Raimi and Sandweiss shot one of the key scenes that would cause The Evil Dead to be labelled as a ‘video nasty’ just a few short years later. Having heard sinister voices from within the darkness, Cheryl steps out of the cabin and slowly ventures into the woods, pleading for the intruders to show themselves. But suddenly the trees come to life and branches reach out for her, scratching at her skin and pulling at her gown, exposing one of her breasts. Both of her arms are tied down and her legs pulled wide apart, before a thick branch is thrust violently deep inside her vagina. ‘That scene initially was supposed to just be a ‘tree attack’ scene. The rape part kind of evolved as we were shooting it.’ Sandweiss told Love-It-Loud. ‘It was pretty gruelling, shooting in the cold, in the middle of the night, getting scraped up by trees. Not a whole lot of fun. People were quite shocked when they saw it, but not quite as shocked as I was.’ Both Raimi and Sandweiss have since expressed regret for the sexual aspect of this sequence. ‘I’m sure that the tree scene would be done differently if it was filmed today,’ she later claimed. ‘First, I’m not sure that it would be characterised as a tree rape, as Sam has since said he regrets that it ended up that way. I think it would have gone back to what was originally intentioned in the script: trees coming to life and attacking Cheryl, which would also satisfy today’s more feminist audiences.’

My goal is not to offend people

Eventually breaking free of the trees, Cheryl staggers to her feet and charges forward, desperately running through the doors as the spirits close in to claim her soul. ‘It was nicely done,’ wrote second unit assistant Josh Becker in his on-set journal. ‘A hundred-and-twenty feet of dolly track (particle board), four 1,000 watt lights, and the 5,000 watt lights on the driveway, with access to a high angle shot on one side and a low angle on the other. We did twenty-two takes of her running in a nightie and undies (it was about forty degrees), then two of her falling at the camera. On the second take, she fell hard and scraped her legs, got pissed, began cursing, and said she couldn’t film anymore. Shooting came to a halt.’ By the release of Evil Dead 2 in 1987, Raimi had already admitted that he regretted transforming the scene into a supernatural sexual assault. ‘I think it was unnecessarily gratuitous,’ he confessed on the short-lived British television programme The Incredible Strange Film Show. ‘And a little too brutal! And, finally, because people were offended. My goal is not to offend people. It is to entertain, thrill, scare, make them laugh, but not to offend.’

Reusing a moment from Within the Woods, when Cheryl arrives back at the cabin she desperately searches above the door for the keys, eventually locating them but then struggling to find the one that will unlock the door. As the spirits reach her, she drops the keys onto the ground, but when she reaches down to retrieve them a hand grabs her by the wrist, and she is relieved to see the caring face of Ash. Realising it is too late, the evil retreats back among the trees, but when she pleads with her brother to drive her to the closest town, they discover that the bridge has been destroyed and that it is now impossible for them to escape. As Scott gathers wood for the fire, Ash returns to the tape recorder in an effort to understand what may have happened to Cheryl out in the woods. ‘I know now that my wife has become host to a Kandarian demon,’ dictated Professor Knowby. ‘I fear that the only way to stop those possessed by the spirits of the book is through the act of bodily dismemberment.’ This declaration by the professor would give Raimi license to fill the majority of The Evil Dead with scenes of decapitations and mutilation, all courtesy of Sullivan and his associate Bart Pierce.

As the cast would soon come to realise, one of the most difficult aspects of working on a horror picture is dealing with prosthetic special effects, which often includes deformities, contact lenses, and an abundance of fake blood, often made through a mixture of corn syrup and food colouring. With Sandweiss, in particular, forced to endure this process for the majority of the movie’s running time, filming would often prove uncomfortable for Raimi’s young victims. Despite Cheryl having returned to the sanctuary of the cabin, the evil forces have already claimed her soul following her violation, and she suddenly transforms into a possessed ghoul, her body levitating above the ground as she demands to know why mere mortals have awoken them from their centuries-old sleep. In order to portray this incarnation of Cheryl, Sandweiss was subjected to Sullivan’s make-up chair. ‘There was no time to do casting; I tried a few of the actors’ faces, but it was all so incredibly rushed that none of them were usable,’ stated Sullivan. ‘The entire job was so rushed that, so far as I am concerned, the make-ups in The Evil Dead are not at all what I would have done if I’d had more time…There were times that I’d be casting something essential during filming, so sometimes Sam, who is not an artist, would do the touch-ups. But, actually, I can’t blame them, because his direction makes my work look so darned good, it’s incredible.’

Although the cast were pleased to finally be working on a feature film, the experience of enduring the make-up in order to be transformed into a ghoul pushed the performers to their limits. And for Sandweiss, who had already struggled through an uncomfortable and degrading rape scene, the process of working under heavy make-up put further strain on her emotional state. One of the biggest issues for the cast, however, were the contact lenses that they wore during their possession. ‘We couldn’t see through them,’ recalled Sandweiss. ‘They covered your whole eyeball, unlike normal contacts that just cover your iris. So all those scenes where any of us are possessed, with the white eyes, we are totally blind. It wasn’t just that we were shooting in the cold, and that we were shooting in a building with no electricity and plumbing, and all that; it was the waiting time. Normally when you shoot a movie, even if it’s difficult conditions, you then have somewhere nice to go to wait, or at least somewhere warm to go to wait, where you can wash your hands. And so when we were done shooting something, we had the cold, unheated cabin to go sit in and wait.’

A second shocking moment would come moments later, another that caused the film to fall foul of the censors, when the possessed Cheryl collapses to the floor. As the men cautiously approach, unnerved by what they have just witnessed, Cheryl reaches out and grabs a pencil, suddenly jolting upright and thrusting it into Linda’s ankle, where she twists it into the flesh, causing her to scream in pain. Grabbing an axe, Scott uses the end to push Cheryl into the cellar, immediately locking the trapdoor behind her. From there, Cheryl watches intently as she waits for the forces of evil to strike again. By time time the dust has managed to settle the darkness is upon them once more, with a demonic Shelly attacking Scott as a terrified Ash watches on. Scott manages to locate the dagger and stabs it into her spine, before snatching the axe from Ash and hacking his girlfriend to pieces. ‘It was not as much fun as you might think a dismemberment could be,’ joked Tilly. ‘It was getting all in your costume, and syrup, and the eyes, and everything in you. And then being nailed into the floor. The only part of me that was above the floor was my head, and one arm. Bruce and Rob were in some other area of the floor, and their legs were dressed up as my legs. So they were under there, and that at least made me feel better. But nonetheless, it was dark, late at night, and cold. We were in the ground, and I was worried about snakes and rats biting my butt, or something. But Sam and Tim, the director of photography, were at the camera shooting this thing, and they were trying to get just the right light. I had been under there I don’t know how long, and nobody was talking, and I said, ‘What’s going on? What’s going on?’ And they had fallen asleep at the camera.’

Tom Sullivan and Betsy Baker

Once the remains of Shelly have been buried in the woods, the survivors begin to turn to one another, with Scott, who has so far been portrayed as the hero, now suffering from an emotional breakdown after murdering his girlfriend and informing Ash that he must leave. With Linda now unable to walk due to her ankle wound, Ash tries to convince him to stay, but Scott stubbornly refuses to listen and leave them behind. As Ash watches over a sleeping Linda, she transforms into a ghoul and laughs maniacally, prompting Ash to step outside the cabin. But Scott staggers into view and falls into his arms. As both Linda and Cheryl continue to taunt them, Bruce tries to nurse his friend as he is informed of a hiking trail that could lead them to safety, but Scott warns him that the woods will not allow them to leave. While the excessive blood and gore in The Evil Dead would bring the film notoriety, for its creator they proved to be a bitter disappointment. ‘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 whup up the effects, props, and make-ups the night before they are due on set, I think it works okay,’ admitted Sullivan. ‘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.’

While the cast and crew have since described their experience on the set of The Evil Dead as nothing short of hell on earth, there were some moments during the winter of 1979 that they would come to cherish. And these came courtesy of a local eccentric by the name of Gary Holt. ‘It would be incorrect to portray these twelve weeks as a mirthless exercise in agony. Somewhere along the way, maybe once a month, we managed to have some fun,’ wrote Campbell in If Chins Could Kill. ‘Our first official reprieve was Thanksgiving, and we celebrated Southern-style. I have never had a meal like it before or since. A small army of women, all related somehow to Gary Holt, took three days to prepare the fixings. In case you’re skimming, that was three days. The food was laid out on card tables, buffet-style, and ringed two large rooms. I tried to taste a little bit of everything, but this was physically impossible – the sweet potato dishes alone came in five varieties. Events like this tended to bring out the best of the South. You would be hard-pressed to find a single family in other parts of the country that would so willingly and happily prepare a veritable feast for seventeen people they didn’t know, or even like for that matter. I’m including moonshine under the category of ‘fun,’ but that was debatable. Mr. Holt introduced us to its charms after weeks of constant prodding. ‘C’mon, Gary, you gotta get us some! You gotta!’ ‘Y‘all sure you want me to?’ he’d warn. ‘It ain’t fer kids, this stuff.’ ‘Aw, phooey! We’re from Detroit!’ The moonshine that Gary produced didn’t really make you drunk. It was too powerful for that – it made you crazy.’

With Shelly buried and Scott slowly dying from his injuries, Ash is tormented by both his girlfriend and sister. Yet while the other ghouls were depicted as monstrous, Linda displays a childlike quality that makes her appear even more sinister. But this was less a storytelling device and more out of necessity. ‘After a few nights of wearing a latex mask that was made weeks prior to leaving Detroit, I had a discussion with Sam at the cabin, and told him I had another idea for Linda’s character,’ revealed Baker. ‘That discussion led to the removal of the mask, and make-up applied to look like that of a creepy baby doll’s face, which then brought along the childish speech and song, and the maniacal laughter. The real working chainsaw was not a favourite of mine, nor do I recommend it for anyone, either. The contact lenses were also very uncomfortable, you were totally without sight when wearing them. And taking them back out became a difficult task after five or ten minutes, because your eyes were dry, inflamed, and your hands were dirty.’ Unable to dismember Linda in the same way that Scott had done to Shelly, Ash drags his possessed girlfriend outside and returns to Scott, who has since succumbed to his wounds. Linda reappears and so he stabs her in self-defence, as Cheryl bashes violently against the trapdoor that has kept her caged like an animal in the cellar. Even though he knows that if he is to survive he must cut Linda’s body to pieces, he is unable to press the blade of the chainsaw against her flesh, and so decides to bury her close to Shelly’s final resting place.

Just as the third act of the film became a story of survival, as principal photography began to overrun, and the enthusiasm slowly drained from everyone on set, the task of completing the picture also became about surviving. ‘The month of January began to take on a Lord of the Flies feel. We were now a full month over schedule. Gone were the days of zany antics – we had entered the darkest, oddest days of the shoot,’ detailed Campbell. ‘When you get tired, you become careless and lose the ability to sense danger. Late one night, after securing a light, Josh jumped down from the rafters and impaled his foot on a sharp, upturned spike. He yanked his foot off the nail, dragged himself over to a couch, and curled up in a ball. For the next several days, we’d peek into his room before shooting and see how he was doing. ‘Josh, are you coming to the set today?’ ‘No.’ ‘Okay.’ John’s diary, kept faithfully, chronicled the collapse of our youthful enthusiasm. The cabin was so rural that we never thought anything of leaving the equipment in place and going four miles ‘home’ to eat lunch or dinner. The driveway had become so inaccessible that only a damn fool would try and steal anything – or so we thought. Returning from a late lunch, we discovered that our power tools were missing. The loss: a skill-saw, sabre-saw, drill, and chainsaw. The ironic thing about the whole incident was that a $20,000 Arriflex camera, sitting out in the open, wasn’t touched.’

Although Linda would only remain buried for less than a minute of screen time, as her resurrected corpse reached out from the earth to strangle her former lover, for the actress in question that would prove to be another unpleasant experience. ‘I was literally buried and covered with dirt – and blankets – for hours in Tennessee, one long, miserable cold night,’ Baker told Book of the Dead. ‘It was a really difficult scene to shoot.’ As Ash tries to subdue the possessed Linda, he decapitates her and is sprayed with her blood. ‘For about eighty per cent of the film, he’s covered in blood and more blood,’ scoffed Raimi. ‘Since we shot things out of continuity, he would have to remember exactly how much he had on him. In some scenes, half of his face was covered, sometimes, just a few drops. We had no continuity person, so he had to take care of it all himself. Also, the blood was horrible. It’s a substance similar to maple syrup, and this stuff dries and hardens, starts pulling at your hair and it hurts. His whole body was covered in it. This was at fifteen degrees, so not only is he covered in Karo syrup, but he’s freezing to death. This suffering probably didn’t hurt his performance where he’s going schizo paranoid.’ Finally retreating back to the cabin, he discovers that Cheryl has escaped from the cellar and is now hunting him down, even as he keeps a tight grip on his shotgun.

Realising that the only way to defeat the ghouls is by retrieving a box of shells he had seen in the cellar, he reluctantly heads back down into the cold, damp darkness. But with Campbell now carrying the film almost by himself, something that was once a pet hate soon pushed him close to breaking point. ‘We had days where we filmed for twelve hours and got one shot,’ Campbell told the Jim and Sam Show. ‘Sam would be fired in three days today! In the TV world, by lunch you’ve killed the bad guy, little Billy has got his medicine back, and you’ve kissed your co-star. It happens so fast. But Sam’s shot is, ‘I want to be tracking with Ash from one window to the other, above him – even above the rafters of the cabin. How do we do that?’ And we’re like, ‘Yeah, how do we get that?’ So we would spend the whole day trying to figure out how to get that shot.’ Becker would also recall how frustrating it was to work with their director. ‘Sam seemed to know what he wanted, but was not willing to share it with anyone,’ he lamented. ‘I drew storyboards for Sam a couple of times, but he couldn’t get with that programme. Not to mention that Sam is the slowest director on planet Earth. We spent one night shooting one single shot that was never achieved. Bruce and I were just discussing in regard to Oz the Great and Powerful that took Sam six months or something to shoot, as did all the Spider-Man movies. As Bruce and I noted, Sam didn’t become a slow director as his budgets increased; he was always a slow director.’

I had to be hanging from the ceiling

During his time in the cellar, Ash is terrorised by an array of forces, which taunt him with old film footage and vinyl records that have been left abandoned below the cabin. Finally obtaining the shells, Ash returns back upstairs and prepares to take his last stand against the evil. With only one actor and no dialogue, Raimi was forced to become visually creative during the lead-up to the film’s blood-drenched finale. ‘The most difficult shot for me, personally, in the picture was a track beginning upside down, and it goes over Bruce Campbell’s head, and then the shot ends right-side up,’ he later recalled. ‘And for that I had to be hanging from the ceiling, underneath the knees on a rafter. So I was actually hanging upside down with a camera like that. Bruce walked towards me, and I had to actually pick my body up with my legs and come back down. It’s very difficult to explain, but it’s actually what happened. And that was the most physically-difficult shot.’ As Ash waits for the sun to rise so he can finally escape the evil of the woods, he continues to be tormented by his sister, yet even as he tries to keep her from breaking through the front door, the dead body of Scott is resurrected and attempts to claim his soul.

As Scott tries to overpower him, Cheryl grabs a fire poker and begins to beat him senseless, and so in an act of desperation Ash manages to grab the book of the dead and toss it into the fire. Both of the ghouls are stopped in their tracks, and as Ash watches on in horror, their bodies slowly begin to melt right before his eyes. ‘I finally convinced Sam I could do it in clay animation and got the go-ahead,’ explained Sullivan. ‘I did eight drawings to represent the meltdown action, which Sam saw and liked. I was going to need a cameraman, and fortunately Sam and Rob knew the perfect guy in Bart Pierce. Not only an experienced cinematographer, but an animator as well. We met when Bart picked me up in his van, as I had a pick-up-shots shoot to do with Sam and crew north of Lansing, Michigan, and this would give us a chance to get acquainted. This was in the summer of 1980. Bart and I hit it off really well, as we both loved the original King Kong and all things Harryhausen and Danforth. That was until it came time to approach the meltdown sequence. I wanted to do animation, but as much as Bart loved stop-motion, he felt that with all the new advances in make-up effects, like the work of Dick Smith, Rick Baker, and Rob Bottin, that audiences might not go for it.’

With Pierce providing invaluable assistance, Sullivan set about recreating the special effect-filled climax from Raimi’s screenplay. ‘Tom drew about a dozen storyboards based on that, and those storyboards are pretty much what we filmed. Tom did all of the sculpting, all of the make-up, and the majority of the mechanicals for the sequence,’ explained Pierce. ‘After all that, we went back to Sam, who showed us a cut of the rest of The Evil Dead, and told us what he wanted as an ending, which would be more violent than all the rest of the film; the tour de force of the movie. The most important thing we had to do was see that the ending matched the rest of the film; it had to have fast, rapid motion, never a still moment in the frame, and we had to shoot it in 16mm, though we could have done it in 35mm much faster. We did the mattes in the camera, using a 16mm Mitchell with a matte box, using hand-cut mattes; and, because we were using half-frame animation (two exposures per frame, for more fluid movement), matted with live action, just about every shot there went through the camera anywhere from three to seven times.’

Raimi and Tapert may have used their experience making Super 8 shorts to create Book of the Dead, but with little knowledge of special effects, they were unsure how they would create the gore-soaked finale, and so left Sullivan and Pierce to their own devices. ‘That I have to credit to the two special effects men,’ said Tapert. ‘They were working for weeks and weeks, and I’d just stop by and say, ‘Hey! Going great, fellas. Looks swell.’ We were editing at the time. I had storyboards, and they basically shot and moved everything themselves, which is strange because that’s how I feel the big guys work, but for us it’s really weird not to do everything for ourselves.’ Even prior to filming commencing near Morristown, Sullivan had already begun conducting experiments in preparation for shooting the meltdown sequence. ‘Bart Pierce and I spent three months doing clay animation and combining in camera mattes, so we could combine live action goo and falling hair to make the effect more realistic,’ Sullivan explained to Horror Cult Films. ‘Bart had the idea of double-exposing each stop-motion frame and he pulled that off flawlessly. We would expose two frames, and Bart would rewind one frame and we would animate, make minor changes to the clay puppets, and then we shot two more frames. It softened the strobing that stop-motion tends to have.’

The filming of the meltdown would take place at the home of Bart Pierce throughout August 1980. ‘Bart and I were in sync, and having a blast developing the meltdown,’ admitted Sullivan. ‘Sam and Rob were away in New York in post, so Bart and I started our planning in Detroit. We expanded the sequence from the eight original drawings to about thirty storyboards that I drew. We had control over the action and camera movement, lighting, and the solutions to the special effects. That’s why it works; we were left alone and allowed to go nuts. Later, Sam added some inspired close-ups of Bruce and viola! Genius. I had previously commuted to Bart’s basement studio and we shot a test of the animation/split screen effect, which was incredibly gross and a smashing success. At the same time, we shot a bit of film to project onto Bruce, before the projector explodes in the basement of The Evil Dead. I poured fake blood onto a white board and Bart shot it. So with lots of confidence we plunged ahead. Soon, we were able to keep working on the meltdown animation with bile tubes, falling hair, live action arms, and critters and such, until we had a sequence. There are at least two shots that Bart and I did that were excised as too gross. Too bad, because they were the most complicated.’

Richard DeManincor and Bruce Campbell

Principal photography had concluded in Tennessee in January 1980, two months after Raimi’s camera had begun rolling in the remote cabin, and no sooner had they gathered together hours of raw footage, they then needed to find someone that could assemble it into a gripping horror picture. ‘I thought all the footage was shit, looked like shit, and would never cut together,’ confessed Becker. ‘I did, however, like a number of Sam’s whacky angles.’ At the recommendation of Image Express, a local company that specialised in commercials, Raimi and Tapert contacted an experienced editor called Edna Ruth Paul, who had previously cut her teeth on low-budget productions. ‘Through a series of referrals she became our editor,’ recalled Campbell. ‘Sam was the only one who had to be in New York, so Rob and I stayed behind while Sam, Edna, and her assisting, fledging filmmaker Joel Coen, pieced the film together.’

Born and raised in Minnesota, Coen had, much like the partners in Renaissance Pictures, spent his childhood shooting homemade short films on Super 8 with friends from around the neighbourhood, along with his older brother, Ethan. Further honing his talents at New York University, following his graduation he found work as a production assistant on a variety of independent productions. But Raimi’s approach to filmmaking on The Evil Dead would have a profound effect on him. ‘Rob and I drove my car from Michigan to New York, with all our film in the back,’ Raimi told author Maitland McDonagh in the mid-nineties. ‘We were a little nervous; if you come from Michigan and you drive into New York for the first time, the feeling is unbelievable. It’s visceral…the buildings that well up around you; it’s overwhelming. We pulled up to the editing studio, and this weird guy tapped on the window, a long-greasy-haired guy that I thought was going to rip us off or something. I didn’t want to roll the window down, but he wouldn’t go away. Finally, he said he was the editing room assistant and he was there to get the film. And that was Joel. Joel and Ethan, who at the time was a statistical accountant at Macy’s, and Rob and I all became good friends.’ Following his work on The Evil Dead, Coen and his brother utilised Raimi’s approach in financing a feature film by producing a trailer for a screenplay that they had developed called Blood Simple, a blend of neo-noir and horror that demonstrated their love of crime fiction. Following its success, they would enjoy critical acclaim with such award-winning pictures as Fargo and No Country for Old Men.

Along with Raimi’s inventive camerawork and Sullivan’s gruesome effects, another notable element of The Evil Dead was the sound design. ‘A fine sound editor named Joe Masefield did the sound cutting,’ Raimi told Fangoria several years later. ‘He came up with all kinds of incredible effects, from Kandarian plotzing to pigs being slaughtered. We had long discussions during spotting sessions about the effects we wanted to achieve and how to harmonise the creatures’ voices to make them sound unearthly. It was also great to have an experienced sound mixer, Mel Zelniker, who worked on Reds, Ragtime, and Raging Bull. We cut the sound at 1600 Broadway. That was a nice experience because I got to meet Brian De Palma, whom I really admired.’ Editing The Evil Dead would prove to be a long process, but one Raimi seemed to feel confident with experimenting in. ‘The first assembly cut of The Evil Dead came in at a hundred-and-seventeen minutes. This was quite an achievement, particularly since the screenplay was only sixty-five pages, some thirty pages shy of the industry standard,’ said Campbell. ‘What impressed me most, however, was Sam’s ability to slice his own material with steely-eyed brutality. I recall arguing with him about several large cuts he wanted to make. ‘But Sam, you can’t cut that out,’ I reasoned. ‘It took a long time to shoot!’ ‘Let me cut it out for now, and next time we screen the film, tell me if you miss it.’ This was the right way to go.’

Once the final cut was assembled, the next task that the producers faced was in gaining interest from distributors. Ever since the success of Friday the 13th in the summer of 1980, studios were eager to obtain low-budget horror films that could turn a profit at both cinemas and drive-ins across the country. But with so many titles for executives to choose from, filmmakers had to somehow stand out from the crowd. ‘Rob Tapert, Bruce Campbell, and myself went to the home of distributors, New York, first, and we crashed on people’s floors,’ recalled Raimi. ‘I remember one place, we didn’t have enough money to rent a hotel room or motel room, so Bruce called this girl that he knew liked him. ‘Say, Betty, I’m gonna come by your place, I’m in town.’ ‘Oh great, come on by, Bruce.’ ‘Hey, can I stay the night?’ ‘Sure, I’d love it!’ She was coming onto him in Detroit. So Bruce shows up at her door, she opens it, ‘Bruce, I…’ Bruce, Rob, and I are there. ‘Hello, we’re here too!’ She went, ‘Oh, you’re all here. Okay, come on in, you can stay the night.’ So it was a nightmare. Just to use this woman’s apartment we had to dupe her first of all. And then Rob and I would hear this horrible struggle going on in the back room; her advances on Bruce. Meanwhile, I was trying to fall asleep pretending it didn’t exist.’

Arguably the greatest ally that Raimi and Tapert would make when trying to bring Book of the Dead to the world was Irvin Shapiro. Having started out in the industry during the roaring twenties as a film critic and theatre manager, it was during the following decade, after the formation of World Pictures, that he began obtaining the rights to a host of foreign titles, and through Shapiro, American audiences were introduced to such European masterpieces as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Battleship Potemkin. ‘He not only introduced many French, British, and Italian movies, but also helped end a post-World War 2 American boycott of German films,’ wrote the New York Times following his death in 1989 at the age of eighty-two. ‘Mr. Shapiro formed another company, Film Classics, that organised distribution rights to thirty-nine British movies and many films by Selznick International, Samuel Goldwyn, and Hal Roach. He produced several movies and was one of the first to enter the lucrative market in licensing movies to television in the fifties.’ While Shapiro also dabbled on the small screen through his work with Unity Television, by the seventies he was specialising in independent pictures, and found new success by championing the work of George A. Romero.

Screaming and shouting at the movie

For the eager young filmmakers, a veteran such as Shapiro was the kind of asset that they were in desperate need of. ‘No American distributor wanted to touch it once we were done. It was a very depressing process, going to every single distributor in America and getting a no,’ Raimi told IGN. ‘But we were lucky enough to find a man by the name of Irvin Shapiro, who was a film sales agent. He said to us when he saw the movie, ‘Well, it ain’t Gone with the Wind, but I think. I can make some money with it.’ So he took is to Cannes – not the festival, per se, but the film market, which happens concurrently with the famous film festival. At this market, a good sales agent goes, ‘Oh, this is an unrated horror film, I know that twenty theatres in France will play it. They’ll probably make a thousand dollars each, so I know I can get $20,000.’ They know the markets, and they take films and sell them to distributors in each of the different territories. During one of these marketing screenings at the Cannes Film Festival, where there were different distributors watching the films, trying to make their judgement as to what they’ll buy that year, Stephen King was in the audience, and we heard, ‘Oh, he was really screaming and shouting during the movie.’ And I was the biggest Stephen King fan in the world. And Irvin Shapiro said to me, ‘Ask him for a quote, if he liked the movie.’ So I called him, because he was also represented by Irvin Shapiro, and his movie Creepshow, and said, ‘Could you give us a quote, what you honestly thought of the film?’ He said, ‘I won’t do that, but I will write a review.’ So he wrote a review for Twilight Zone Magazine.’

Following the publication of his debut novel, Carrie, in the spring of 1974, Stephen King became an overnight success, and in just a few short years he was the most popular writer of fiction in the world. By the end of the seventies he was not only responsible for five bestsellers, but had also gained acclaim through his pseudonym Richard Bachman. It wouldn’t take long for Hollywood to take notice, and by the winter of 1976 Carrie had made it to the big screen. Over the next five years, such acclaimed filmmakers as Tobe Hooper and Stanley Kubrick brought the imagination of Stephen King to life. King would keep his word to Raimi, and in 1982 offered his review of The Evil Dead – a new moniker bestowed upon Book of the Dead by Shapiro – to readers of Twilight Zone Magazine. ‘The Evil Dead has the simple, stupid power of a good campfire story, but its simplicity itself is not a side effect. It is something carefully crafted by Raimi, who is anything but stupid,’ wrote King. ‘What Raimi achieves in The Evil Dead is a black rainbow of horror. The make-up of his zombies is derivative of Dick Smith’s in The Exorcist, his plot is derivative of Romero’s Dead movies (even dismemberment as the antidote is derivative of these – remember the idiotic sheriff in Night intoning that you had to ‘burn ‘em or shoot ‘em, but they move slow … they’re dead, they’re all messed up?’), and his small troupe of actors ranges from the merely adequate (Ellen Sandweiss and Betsy Baker) to the fairly good (Bruce Campbell, and in particular, Hal Delrich, who brings the happy, beer-swilling fraternity scuzzo to gruesome life). So, what’s going on here? Mostly what’s going on is Sam Raimi, who is so full of talent that somebody unable to get it together might be tempted to wonder if gobbling the man’s fingernails could possibly do any good.’

While many may have believed that The Evil Dead was also an overnight success story, they could not be further from the truth. Following the assembly of the final cut, Raimi, Tapert, and Campbell were forced to find minimum wage jobs as busboys and taxi drivers as they attempted to sell the picture. ‘We worked a lot for Bill Dear, who came to Detroit all the time to shoot commercials, because he’s from there. We worked on commercials for the Maysles Brothers, too,’ recalled Tapert to author Bill Warren. ‘We ended up doing a lot of goofy production work to feed ourselves. It was a long haul, and it was difficult. I think all of us were fortunate that our parents were pretty much behind us from the beginning; if they weren’t behind us, they got aboard anyway, though I don’t think it was what any of them would have chosen for us. I know that Sam was planning to go to film school the following year – he had been accepted to NYU – but we wanted to make a movie.’ Despite the support and dedication of Shapiro, Renaissance Pictures began to fear that their movie would never find its audience, ‘We screened it for multiple distributors, and they thumbed their nose at it,’ said Campbell to the New York Daily News. ‘We sold it to Palace Pictures in the U.K. And they didn’t treat it like a low-budget movie.’

The story of Palace can be traced back to the birth of Virgin, a record story that specialised in mail orders and championing promising local talent. Following his work on a magazine entitled Student when he was just fifteen-years-old, Richard Branson and his childhood friend, Nik Powell, formed Virgin, and following the success of the store they decided to create a recording studio. Eventually leading to a record label, Virgin soon encountered controversy when they signed a young notorious rock group called the Sex Pistols in 1976, and by the end of the decade they had opened their first Virgin Megastore. But it would be the arrival of Simon Draper, an enthusiastic university graduate with a finger on the youth market, that would have a profound impact on the relationship between Branson and Powell. ‘I watched Simon and Nik fight it out, knowing that something would have to be done. Nik had been my main partner, my closest childhood friend, and we had worked together since Student, when we were sixteen. But he was obsessed with cutting back and saving money, though, admittedly, at a time when we were in deep trouble,’ detailed Branson in his memoir Losing My Virginity. ‘But once again I felt that unless we did something dramatic, which meant spending money, we would never get out of trouble. Nik and Simon reached an angry stalemate and turned to me to arbitrate between them. To Nik’s fury, I backed Simon. This was a turning point in the triangular relationship which had worked so well up to this point.’

Realising that he no longer had any significant control over the company that he had helped to build, Powell finally decided that it was time to make a fresh start. ‘When I left Virgin to set up Palace, obviously I already had enormous experience in a very wide variety of businesses; everything from retail to record companies, to music publishing companies to restaurants,’ explained Powell in an episode of Moving Pictures. ‘Richard was already, at that time, into every conceivable business at least vaguely related to the entertainment business. I was looking for a partner, someone who combined creativity with business skills, or an aptitude for business.’ And that person would be Stephen Woolley. By the time that he crossed paths with Powell, he had already gained minor success through his work at the Scala cinema in London. ‘We put on double-bills, triple-bills, all-nighters on Friday and Saturday, and had a fully licensed bar with the best jukebox in London,’ he told The Guardian. ‘Sadly, the Scala sold its last pair of cardboard 3-D glasses in 1992. In a single decade, film distribution and exhibition had been transformed. The concept of repertory double-bills, late-night screenings, and creative one-off programming suffered the same fate as the characters in Night of the Living Dead. Cinemas such as the Electric, Paris Pullman, the Tolmer, and the wonderful Academy on Oxford Street were given short shrift by multichannel Sky TV, the welter of VHS releases, and controversial small-screen programming at Channel 4.’

Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi

When Powell approached Woolley about forming a distribution company, the two soon realised that they had much to offer each other, and together they formed Palace Pictures. Powell had the experience, and Woolley had the youthful determination that had laid the groundwork for Virgin, and so the pair decided to head to California to attend the American Film Market, an annual event where independent filmmakers attempted to find distribution for their low-budget projects. ‘Three times a year, in Los Angeles, Cannes, France, and Milan, Italy, films around the world are bought and sold like slabs of meat – country by country,’ explained Campbell. ‘In fact, the American ‘Meat’ Market would be a more appropriate name. Chronologically, it is the first one of the year, usually in March, and it works like this: the market organisers take over several major hotels while the sellers, the foreign market agents, each take a suite in which to hawk their wares. Buyers from around the world wander in and out of the suites, each with a budget and a laundry list of the type of films they are willing to buy. Let’s say Joe Germany walks into Acme Foreign Sales Company, and he’s looking for a horror picture to round out his purchase. By this point, he may have already seen ads in trade magazines like Variety and Screen International, and knows that Acme represents several horror titles.’

Palace Pictures would be one such company looking for a title to purchase, and so Woolley began to search through the event for a product to release under their newly-formed banner. ‘We realised that the kind of audience that was there for video in those days, in the early eighties, were really not very sophisticated,’ he claimed. ‘At AFM, they showed trash. I mean, in the early days it was really trash. It was a garage band kind of thing. It was real gonzo film; stuff that really was made to be seen at home on their own while sharpening their chainsaw.’ It would be at the American Film Market that Woolley discovered The Evil Dead. ‘I watched the picture, and at first I was quite startled at the graphicness of the violence. It wasn’t scary; it really was someone hitting these ghouls with iron bars,’ he detailed in the documentary Discovering The Evil Dead. ‘But then after the ghouls were being hit continuously for a few times – a few more gratuitously and more grotesquely than normal – you begin to see the humour of it. I rushed out to buy it, and was confronted by this old guy called Irvin Shapiro. He had actually sold Battleship Potemkin in the thirties. This guy was a really old guy. And he was quite taken by my knowledge of cinema, my knowledge of films, and the fact that I was respecting The Evil Dead as a piece of filmmaking, and not as a piece of schlock. He named the price, and I went to Nik and said, ‘Okay, I want us to buy this horror film, The Evil Dead.’ He went to see it and was horrified!’

By the time that Palace Pictures obtained the rights to The Evil Dead, it had been three years since principal photography had commenced in the woods surrounding Morristown, Tennessee. For all three heads of Renaissance Pictures, it had been a long and painful journey, but their luck was about to change. ‘We had a very difficult time trying to finish the movie, period!’ Campbell told Reddit in 2015. ‘So it wasn’t like, ‘Wow, this movie’s going to be really successful.’ It took us two years to complete it. We kept running out of money, so to us it was really just a struggle to complete it. For one, when the first Evil Dead came to my local Showcase Cinema in Pontiac, Michigan, in, whatever, 1981 or ’82, and showed in my theatre where I would watch The Poseidon Adventure as a kid, that’s when we made it in my mind. Because it was a very difficult thing to envision that you would one day make a movie that would show in your actual theatre.’ But once they had obtained The Evil Dead for distribution in Great Britain, Palace Pictures made an unprecedented decision in how to unleash it upon the public. ‘We did something really audacious. We released the film theatrically in cinemas and on video at the same time. This was unheard of!’ boasted Woolley. ‘We figured at that point the cinema audiences and the video audiences were so different and separate that we could hit both at the same time. It was the biggest video hit of its time, of its year. It sold fifty-thousand copies in one year.’ 

Palace had released The Evil Dead shortly before the introduction of the Video Recordings Act 1984, which was passed through Parliament as a reaction to the public and media outcry that surrounded the rise in explicit sex and violence on home video. As a result, the British Board of Film Classification introduced a new rating system that served as a guide to customers on what kind of content to expect with each rental. ‘The Evil Dead was first seen by the BBFC in August 1982. Reaction within the BBFC was divided between those who felt the film was so ridiculously over the top that it could not be taken seriously, and those who found it nauseating,’ confirmed the organisation’s official website. ‘Realising that there was likely to be an equal division of opinion amongst cinema audiences, the BBFC’s director at the time felt that the best course of action would be to tone down the most excessive moments of violence and gore. It was hoped that cuts could retain the film’s humour whilst neutering the most graphic violence. In total, forty-nine seconds of footage was removed, taken from several scenes, before an X-certificate was awarded. This included reducing the number of blows with an axe, reducing the length of an eye gouging, and reducing the number of times that a pencil was twisted into a person’s leg. It was unfortunate for the distributors of The Evil Dead that their film was released at the height of the ‘video nasties’ scare.’

On 18 February 1983, Palace released The Evil Dead simultaneously on the big and small screen to resounding success, but as the film began to court controversy through the British tabloids, Manchester Police seized copies of videotapes as the moral outcry began to grow. The previous May, The Daily Star published a story regarding the threat youngsters now faced with the growing danger of home video. Before long, this attracted the attention of moral watchdog Mary Whitehouse. ‘The BBC transmitted a programme about ‘video nasties,’ in which John Smyth, Q.C. and I participated,’ she wrote in her 1985 summary Mightier Than the Sword. ‘Among those in the audience was a father who spoke of an experience within his own family. One Saturday, his twelve-year-old son went to spend the morning with a friend. When he came home, he was not interested in his lunch, or later in his tea. By this time, his parents had concluded that he was probably sickening for something and got him off early to bed. About midnight, they were awakened by him making dreadful noises in his bedroom. They rushed in to see what was the matter. The boy was kneeling, screaming beside his bed with his head down, banging his hand upon the floor. He just went on and on, unable to tell them what was the matter, so they took him into their bed, and held him tight until, in the early hours of the morning, he fell asleep. They had to do this for several weeks before he was able to sleep alone again, and even then he would sometimes shout and cry in his sleep. Bit by bit, the full horror of the ‘video nasty’ he had seen at his friend’s house came out and, in telling the truth, a certain healing took place.’

It was stories such as this, told as scare tactics, that riled up the tabloids and thus fuelled the fire that would become the centre of the video nasties controversy. On 30 June 1983, barely four months after the release of The Evil Dead, Raimi’s film was one of fifty-two titles that the Director of Public Prosecutions reported to The Daily Mail. Over the next few months, the media ran such outrageous headlines as ‘Rapist was addicted to video nasties,’ as the government targeted those that they felt were responsible for the corruption of the country’s youth. In February 1984, the distributor of Romano Scavolini’s Nightmares in a Damaged Brain was sentenced to eighteen months in prison for releasing a cut of the movie that was not approved by the BBFC, while Palace faced their own legal issues due to their involvement with The Evil Dead. ‘As well as being an incredibly successful film, it became a very controversial film,’ admitted Woolley. ‘Certainly, a lot of dealers and wholesalers were being raided. It appeared on a list with another ten video nasties, and we got swooped up by a bunch of video nasties, including titles like The Burning, The Driller Killer…titles that were pretty much out-there than The Evil Dead was. I’m not very pro-censorship. Nik really put himself on the line by testifying for the film.’

It was too violent and graphic for me

As the notoriety around the video nasties grew more intense, the distributors and filmmakers behind The Evil Dead were forced to justify their art before the British courts, and as Scotland Yard attempted to fight this new type of obscenity, Raimi made his way from the United States in order to defend his film. ‘They flew Sam all the way over there,’ recalled Tapert. ‘He flew all day, took a train to, like, Liverpool, got to court after being awake for forty-eight hours. He was sitting in court, and the defence said, ‘We’d like to call Sam Raimi, the director of the film.’ The magistrate said, ‘The intention of the filmmaker is not in question here. We don’t need his testimony.’ And a relieved, if very tired, Sam Raimi returned to the United States.’ But by this point The Evil Dead was tainted, and would be forever labelled as a video nasty. ‘I never thought for one moment about the censors. I was in my twenties. And yes, it was too violent and graphic for me,’ admitted Sandweiss. ‘I knew nothing about this at all, until way later, after the initial premier and release of the film in theatres in the early eighties. I knew very little about what was going on with the film until the late nineties.’

For Palace, the experience of distributing The Evil Dead would be a mixed blessing. ‘The first thing I recall hearing was various shops calling up our people that they had received notices of one sort or another from the Public Prosecutor’s office,’ said Woolley. ‘Unlike some of the other movies that had been labelled video nasties, this was clearly a fantasy film; the undead, and weird-looking incarnations. And therefore, in a way, not nasty. But I’ve never been a believer in censorship for anybody who is of age. After we lost some of the early cases in small villages, because we just weren’t able to respond to them quick enough; we put our defence together and got out there. We went to this strange court somewhere in East London for this test case, took one look at the jury, and thought, ‘We’re going to win this!’ Because they were clearly ordinary – as you’d expect a jury to be – ordinary, straightforward, working people. Those kind of people believed they should select their own entertainment as adults. What happened was that, first of all, it was clear that the jury hadn’t watched the film, so arrangements were made to show them the film. The judge summoned us over and said he had watched the film, and he didn’t think there was a case for us to answer.’

Even prior to The Evil Dead entering the counts, Shapiro had succeeded in landing the picture a deal with a small distribution company in the United States called New Line Cinema. Formed in the late sixties by Robert Shaye, the company spent the seventies distributing long-forgotten cult oddities and Asian martial arts pictures, but it would not be until 1982’s Alone in the Dark that they would turn their attention to film production. But following the release of A Nightmare on Elm Street in the mid-eighties, they became one of the most prolific studios in Hollywood. ‘It seemed that things were always hit and miss for New Line,’ Alone in the Dark director Jack Sholder informed Love-It-Loud. ‘Meaning that they’d have a hit and then a dry period, when it seemed they might go under. And that’s the way it was until Nightmare.’ And while New Line would fail to achieve the same level of notoriety with The Evil Dead as Palace, it brought the company a modest profit and helped to introduce the film to American cinemagoers. But by this point, The Evil Dead had already gained a reputation as a violent and corruptive picture.

Throughout the mid-eighties, The Evil Dead – which by now was hailed as a cult classic, and one of the most exciting horror movies of the decade – was targeted by both the media and government in Great Britain, and would often come under attack from the moral crusaders. ‘Mary Whitehouse’s ban-everything National Viewers and Listeners’ Association, and Festival of Light organisations, now took it upon themselves to elevate The Evil Dead to the position of ‘Number One Nasty’ (their own description of Raimi’s little opus), and proceeded with missionary zeal to agitate for the suppression of ‘that evil film,’’ wrote author John Martin in Seduction of the Gullible. ‘Despite Powell’s avowed optimism that The Evil Dead would receive a certificate swiftly, things were not to be resolved anything as readily and smoothly. The BBFC, whose very existence had been called into question over this matter, were understandably eager to cover their own position and procrastinated until May 1987, when a proposed re-release, though heavily advertised in the trade press, was scrapped at the last minute due to Palace’s inability to agree with draconian cuts demanded of them. Bearing in mind the soft censorial rides that were subsequently given to the likes of Society and Bad Taste, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that The Evil Dead had become a kind of boogey-film, the spectre of which could only be dissipated by complete dismemberment, much in the manner of its own Kandarian demons.’

In the late seventies, a trio of amateur filmmakers embarked on a mission. Tired of shooting Super 8 shorts in their back yard, they travelled deep into the woods with a small cast and crew, and spent one dark, cold winter in a cabin, where they summoned the forces of evil in order to make a feature film. Four decades later, this idea would become a franchise, beloved by horror fans young and old, but it all started with the notion that they capitalise on the trend of the time: low-budget horror pictures. And from there, they would encounter praise from a celebrated author, a career that led them to Hollywood, and controversy that brought them to the mercy of the British courts. Never in their wildest dreams could they imagine this was where their journey would take them. ‘When my partners, Robert Tapert, Bruce Campbell, and myself, made the original Evil Dead film, it was back in 1979, 1980, and 1981. We could only afford to shoot it in 16mm. The sound was mono. We couldn’t afford stereo, let alone 5.1 surround sound. And it was released in very few theatres, probably sixty prints were made,’ Raimi told writer Emanuel Levy. ‘The original Evil Dead almost never caught on. It was only through a group of individuals who found it on video, and then began to tell their friends about it, and insist that they see it, that the picture survived. And it allowed us to make a sequel, and then a part three, called Army of Darkness. And, in fact, [a] remake, some thirty years later. So the fans are everything in the case of The Evil Dead. They’re the reason the picture survived, the reason we can remake it, and that’s the crowd we want to please…It’s the ultimate experience in gruelling terror!’


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