Bruce Campbell is starring in USA’s spy romp “Burn Notice” as the wisecracking Sam Axe, but for some fans, he’ll always be Ash, the beloved hero of Sam Raimi’s cult favorite “Evil Dead” trilogy: 1981’s “The Evil Dead,” 1987’s “Evil Dead II” and 1992’s “Army of Darkness.”
Precisely for those ardent enthusiasts, Anchor Bay has released the original film in the series on Blu-ray featuring two new HD transfers that were supervised by Raimi. Campbell, Raimi and producer Rob Tapert also teamed for a new commentary track that details how three young guys from Michigan launched one of modern horror’s most enduring franchises.
We spoke with Campbell about what it was like to revisit his past and to speculate about whether he’s likely to pick up that boomstick once more (spoiler alert: Prospects don’t look good).
Could you have imagined while you were shooting “Evil Dead” that the film would still be a part of your life 30 years on?
No, we didn’t even know we were going to finish the damn movie. That was the hardest part. It took us four years just to finish it. Then basically we had to put it out to the rest of the world. It was a slow, grueling process. Everything’s long term on “Evil Dead.” The investors took about six or seven years to break even, 10 years to get into any kind of profit. Now, the last 20 years they’ve been doing fine, but everything is slow on that movie. Slow to arrive, slow to leave, I guess.
What was it like to sit down with Sam and Rob to record the commentary for the Blu-ray? You talk in such great detail about how the movie came together ...
We took a different approach this time for the commentary. Normally you watch the movie and go, “Hey, it was cold that time when we shot that,” or “Oh, I was really sick when we shot that.” Now we were just going to tell the history of making the movie. It wasn’t related to the images you’re seeing. It made it very easy for us, once we knew what our approach was. “Hey, guys, how far back can you remember? Whose idea was this? Where were you? Were you guys living together?” It also gave us a chance to clarify some misconceptions that have come up over the last 30 years — “Oh, it was a college movie, you did it out of college.” That’s not really true. Once you get the three of us going, we jog each other’s memories.
How do you feel watching the movie at this point?
I love watching this cute, 21-year-old boy trying to learn how to act. Someone said the other day, why is that performance more tentative when in your other performances you become cockier and more arrogant? I was like, “Whoa, hey, easy.” That character, the original Ash, really has no skills and is just a mild-mannered college kid, and it’s really the other character, Scott, that you were supposed to latch onto. He wasn’t worried or concerned or hesitant and then, boom, he gets killed. The whole shtick of that was to make the meek, mild-mannered guy the guy with the shotgun. I think you get more out of that than just starting out with the brash guy who’s in “Army of Darkness.” That character had to evolve from a college kid to (a jerk).
How would you characterize the role these films have played in your career? That brash Ash persona seems to be the foundation for so many of the other things you’ve gone on to do.
Well, basically it allowed me to get a foothold in the business through mostly genre movies for the first 15 years. I’d done “Army of Darkness” before I did really my first big television thing. I’d proved myself. If you prove yourself enough in certain worlds, casting people will look at you and they’ll give you a chance to audition for other stuff. So then I got into TV.
The first TV thing I did was an action period genre show, “The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.,” with science-fiction elements and good old-fashioned stunts and fistfights and guns. I was a good fit for that. So then I did about 15 years of television, and I’m now back into television with movies in between. But all roads lead to “Evil Dead.”
I think a probably slightly misconstrued idea is that I don’t like talking about the “Evil Dead” movies. I just don’t like answering the same questions. I don’t mind talking about the movie. It was a good experience overall and a necessary one to get into the business. I have no issue with the “Evil Dead” movies. I have nothing but fond memories. They were hard, they were a lot of heartache and disappointment along the way, but I’m glad we did it. And we did it ourselves. We didn’t do it with anybody else. The first movie was raised from a bunch of doctors and lawyers in Detroit, a place where they don’t make movies. So I feel pretty good that we were able to pull that one out of a hat.
At this point, is another “Evil Dead” film really a possibility or just something fans love to speculate about?
None of us have said no. I think Sam is always tweaking with the idea. He’s joked with a couple of concepts. He has threatened to do it multiple times. He’ll put a false statement out just to torment people. We joke that when he’s got one eye left and I’m in the old actors’ home, that’s when we’ll do it. But we both have day jobs now. You really have to lock up about two years of your life for each “Evil Dead” movie, and we don’t really have the time right now.
What is it about these movies that have caused them to become so beloved by generations of fans and to endure the way that they have?
I think it’s because Ash is just a regular guy. He’s not special forces, he’s not Clint Eastwood, he’s not a squinty CIA, ex-Navy Seal. He’s nothing. He works in the housewares department. I think the average audience member goes, “Hey, he’s me! Look at him make that stupid mistake, what an idiot!” Because an average guy would make horrible mistakes.
Plus, Sam Raimi. “Evil Dead” took us 12 weeks to shoot. Most Roger Corman movies are, like, 10 days. We had days where we only got one shot. That’s absurd! He’d be fired under any other scenario. Each of the “Evil Dead” shoots was long and miserable. Every single one, but as a result, Sam’s really pulling off some cool stuff. The first “Evil Dead” we did a lot of cool stuff visually for nothing, “Army of Darkness” we spent more money on it, but he was always mixing puppets and animation. Sam’s an old magician. Every trick in the book he was using to torment the audience and entertain them. He’s a showman. Sam’s the closest to P.T. Barnum I’ve ever met.
I also feel that they’re handmade in a way. I’m not making a judgment call on whether the movies are good or bad. I think they’re not stamped out by a studio. They’re slightly weirder stories with an off-kilter lead character. It doesn’t make for mainstream success, but I think it makes for long-term success. “Evil Dead” was successful when it came out, “Evil Dead II” was in profit before we even made the movie, and “Army of Darkness” was a flat-out bomb. But now it’s on American Movie Classics, so go figure. Twenty years later, it’s a classic.