Books of the Dead: The Followers and Clones of 'The Evil Dead'
Initially a disaster of an experimental horror film, The Evil Dead went on to become an acclaimed and influential movie that launched careers and spawned sequels and copycats, not to mention a string of cash in faux-sequels. Who were these pretenders to the Deadite throne?
The Evil DeadDirector: Sam Raimi
Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Richard DeManincor
“THE EVIL DEAD. the ultimate experience in grueling horror” was the way the closing credit sequence so whimsically described the 1981 horror classic. What fans may not have realized at the time is that the “grueling horror” that was actually seen on camera may not have been quite what the filmmakers were talking about. Making the film was a nightmare and three-quarters for most everyone involved, but the unprecedented success of The Evil Dead, particularly overseas, soon led to the original film's legendary status, two official sequels to date and one remake.
However, like most surprising horror successes, The Evil Dead also spawned its fair share of imitators, rip offs and no small amount of series confusion.
Worst things first, so to speak. The film we now know as The Evil Dead was the culmination of a great many filmic experiments undergone by writer/ director Sam Raimi, his brothers Ivan and Ted and his school buddy Bruce “The Human Chin” Campbell. The kids made experimental film after experimental film until finally the horror short Within the Woods was created as a “prototype” horror movie that led to the ultimate experience in grueling horror to be, once financing was arranged. While financing was secured, in part, due to the proof-of-concept within Within the Woods, this proposed feature's budget was estimated at $100,000, over 62 times the $1,600 budget of the prototype.
Once they got the money, everything was down hill from there, right? It sure was... just not the good kind of “down hill”. Yes, true believers, the shoot was as horrifically grueling as anything supernatural seen in the film. The crew got lost in the woods of Morristown, Tennessee where the cabin was located. The cast and crew suffered injuries (including, but not limited to, ripped out eye lashes for actress Betsy Baker) with the nearest medical center a long haul from the remote cabin in the woods that served as the main filming location. The “Demonic Eyes” effect was created by inserting incredibly thick and painful opaque glass contact lenses into the actors' eyes.
Along the way, Raimi and crew invented some truly brilliant filmmaking techniques (including some mindblowingly inventive gore effects from special effects artist Tom Sullivan), but is it any wonder that the film soon collapsed and the tortured cast and crew began to drop out of the plagued production? For those of you who haven't seen the film New Guy in Town (2012, wherein my role is 'New Guy'), as an actor I have been directed to endure some truly, truly painful things for the camera (trust me on this)... and even I might have dropped out of The Evil Dead.
Still, Raimi found himself with a sparse crew of stalwarts, only one actor left (in the Human Chin himself) and a half finished movie. Undaunted, Sam, Bruce, Ivan, Ted and producer Rob Tapert pressed on, even as the budget of the film hit the $375,000 mark and vowed to finish the film by recruiting their friends and family to stand in for the vanished actors. Credited as “Fake Shemps” in a truly GROOVY tribute to one of Raimi's biggest influences, the Three Stooges, these stand-ins did the trick well enough to finalize this scary little flick and begin shopping it around to distributors. After all... everyone should have a chance to see the film... Book of the Dead!
Yes... Book of the Dead, a reference to the most featured and famous prop from the film, lent its name to the movie itself... as originally intended by Raimi and company. It was B-Movie producer Irvin Shapiro that changed the name of the film to The Evil Dead. In addition to the change to this famous (and more easily copyrighted) title, Shapiro is also responsible for this little film's entry into the 1982 Cannes Film Festival. A feat in itself for this low budget terror tale, this screening also garnered the fandom and a very positive (and quotable) review from horror-master Stephen King himself. His quote describing The Evil Dead as “the most ferociously original horror film of the year” did more to spread the gospel of this book of the dead than any meager marketing campaign could.
Hype aside, the merits of The Evil Dead are in the film itself. King's review is far from alone. RottenTomatoes.com lists this remarkably low-budget fright flick at a rare 98 precent fresh rating. Campbell, soon to become a camp comedy/ horror icon, ironically gives one of the best dramatic performances ever seen in an independently produced horror film. Raimi's inventive filming techniques are studied to this day by aspiring filmmakers. Yet as respected as The Evil Dead was in the United States, the foreign markets were where the big money was made for distributor New Line Cinema (still years away from the big time they later achieved).
The Evil Dead scored boffo box office in Japan and Europe, particularly in England and Italy (where it was released as La Casa, or “The House”). Controversy can often be the mother of success and the gory, violent Evil Dead happened to debut on videocassette in the UK right as the “Video Nasty” witch-hunt was brewing.
The Video Nasty controversy started in the wake of the passing of the Video Recordings Act 1984 by Parliament and soon, under pressure from conservative groups videos were seized, viewed and often destroyed, all under the purview of the Director of Public Prosecutions.While The Evil Dead had almost a full minute cut by the British Board of Film Classification before it was allowed its theatrical release in England (in 1983), its video release later that same year (uncensored) was soon to be caught up in the “obscene” movie roundup.
In a 2008 email, Tom Sullivan related to me his and Raimi's trip to England to promote their growing film. “[We] heard all about the Video Nasty controversy and that there had just been an armed raid by the police on a Mom and Pop video rental store just to rid England of The Evil Dead. Whew! Fortunately we escaped with our lives and yet England prevailed.”
A similar reception met Raimi's first sequel, 1987's Evil Dead II. Occasionally subtitled “Dead by Dawn”, the second film was identified in its own closing credits as “the sequel to the ultimate experience in grueling terror” and while it did miss out on the Video Nasty scare the elder film was embroiled in, Evil Dead II did receive an “X Rating” in both the UK and the USA. Meanwhile, in Italy, “La Casa 2” received a “T Rating” (equivalent to a soft R or PG-13 in the USA)
Equal parts remake and sequel, the second film brought back Bruce Campbell as Ash and was every bit as gory and horrific as the first film with more tree rape and dismemberment and blood splatters than ever. On the other hand, Evil Dead II is also an absolutely hilarious and uproarious intentional comedy. Here Raimi pays tribute again to one of his biggest influences, The Three Stooges, with Bruce Campbell (aided by another legion of “Fake Shemps”) employing every slapstick trick in the book. That's not to mention Campbell's quiver of indignant funny faces (hilarious even when covered in blood) and his now more evolved sarcastically quipping voice that has become as iconic as his chin.
Evil Dead II was another international success and cult hit for Raimi, who had already branched out into other genres, starting with the Coen Brothers-penned 1986 thriller Crimewave. With Evil Dead II in the can and burning up theaters around the world, Raimi turned his attentions to the superhero thriller Darkman (1990) leaving the world without any kind of “Evil Dead 3”.
Across the Atlantic in Italy, a man named Joe D'Amato muttered whatever the Italian words for “Nature Abhors a Vacuum” might be and decided he wanted to fix that problem for good old Sam. D'Amato, you may recall from my first ever article for The Next Reel (Legacy of the Living Dead), was the man who directed both Zombie 5 and Zombie 6, two films that were made years prior to either Zombi 3 or Zombie 4. After renaming both of his older films to cash in on the dubious successes of those movies, D'Amato set his sights on producing La Casa 3 and passing it off as a bona fide sequel to Evil Dead II.
As directed by Umberto Lenzi (Italy's answer to letting a Jack Russell Terrier helm a picture), La Casa 3 (1988) is a messy patchwork of borrowed ideas, more closely resembling Poltergeist (1982) or House (1986) than the duo of remote cabin movies Lenzi and D'Amato were intending to rip off.
It's hard to believe that many (or any) viewers in any country would be fooled into mistaking La Casa 3 for an entry into Raimi's series. Even by its alternate title Ghosthouse, viewers still had to deal with a remarkably bad movie. How bad could it be? Umberto Lenzi, who had no problem at all being known as the director of Nightmare City had his name removed from the credits in favor of a pseudonym. Joe D'Amato, himself no stranger to pseudonyms in the credits of his 200 films took his name (by any name) completely off this picture.
D'Amato and Lenzi worked together again the very next year on a film that was quickly retitled and marketed as The Hitcher 2. As unsurprising as that is, D'Amato puree was nowhere near done in his (vain) attempts to fool the video consumer. Released only ten months after La Casa 3, La Casa 4 (1988) starred David Hasselhoff (during his dry spell between Knight Rider and Baywatch) and Zombie 5 star Leslie Cumming (who never worked again) and is almost as bad as its immediate predecessor. Completely eschewing the cabin and the woods that La Casa 3 payed minor lip service to, the “fourth” film takes place in a huge hotel on an island (hardly a “Casa”) and borrows heavily from And Then There Were None and The Shining. It also steals so liberally from The Exorcist that it actually features a now-grown Linda Blair... possessed by demons. No, I'm not joking.
The whole thing sounds ridiculous, yes, but unlike La Casa 3, fried green D'Amato was proud enough of this film to leave his “John Hancock” emblazoned all over it. Director Fabian Laurenti's next film was Troll III, the official sequel to Troll 2, lauded as the worst movie ever made. Incidentally, Troll III was co-directed by smilin' Joe D'Amato.
Incidentally, while La Casa 4 was intentionally meant to be confused for a sequel to the Evil Dead films, the confusion hardly ends there. This fourth (really second) film was released in the United States (where the title Evil Dead 4 surely would not fly) as Witchery and was also internationally known as both La Casa 4 (Witchcraft) and, simply, Witchcraft. This is in spite of the fact that another, completely unrelated film called Witchcraft was also released in 1988 and spawned a series of thirteen films over the next 20 years. The understandable confusion was so great that for a time, IMDB.com's La Casa 4 page featured the DVD cover to Witchcraft. Confusingly La Casa 4 producer Jim Hanson went on to co-write and produce the unrelated Witchcraft II... and no other films in either series.
The year was 1990 and the record still held at only two official Evil Dead films. For Joe D'Amato, this simply would not do. The master of unofficial sequels and his accountant had no regrets save not having thought of making Zombi 2 and Alien 2 before some other Italian guys thought of that. So what else could D'Amato sauce do but (and I really, truly wish I was joking here) team up with Troll 2 creators Rossella Drudi and Claudio Fragasso to make La Casa 5? Before you ask (and I doubt you would), yes, they did all use pseudonyms in the credits. Wouldn't you?
After the Foreclosure of La Casa 4, things seemed that they couldn't get more ridiculous. They did. In the fifth (really the third) film, a Catholic Priest moves into a brand new haunted house(!) along with his wife and children(!!) while his supervisor tries to convince him both that the devil exists and has the power to haunt houses and that his house isn't haunted by the devil and that this is all just a coincidence(!!!). Believe it or not, I actually have left out the more idiotic parts in my synopsis. Needless to say, the film has about seventy times seven kinds of nothing to do with The Evil Dead.
La Casa 5 is also occasionally billed as House 5, not because the title literally reads that way, but because in some re-releases they wanted to convince audiences that this was the fourth sequel to 1986's House. In some markets, however, this wouldn't have been terribly difficult. House IV (1992) was the final official film from the completely unrelated House. This drove fans of that series crazy because no video store in the United States had House III. Why? The Horror Show (1989), made by the creators of the House saga, was released in Europe with “House III” as its international English title. Thus the US distributors of the next House film grabbed the next sequential title in House IV to avoid confusion. They failed, miserably.
However, around that same time, House II: The Second Story (1987) was re-released in Italy under the title La Casa 6 and The Horror Show received the title La Casa 7 and was also informally referred to as “Evil Dead 7” and even the amnesia-born Italian title La Casa III. Thus a completely separate saga was dragged into the fray and any hope of un-confusing the consumer was lost forever. For the sake of completion, the Italian release of House IV was never tied to any of these unrelated series... or even its own, instead going by the moniker of Chi Ha Ucciso Roger?. Again, I truly wish I was joking when I tell you that translates to “Who Killed Roger?”
This confusing behind-the-scenes saga of really bad movies could have served as the legacy for both the House and the Evil Dead franchises had it not been for the fact that, La Casa 3 be damned, a third Evil Dead movie really was released in 1992. “The Ultimate Experience in Medieval Horror” came in the form of Army of Darkness. Again starring Campbell as Ash and helmed by Raimi, Army of Darkness (the working titles for which were Evil Dead 3 and Medieval Dead) directly continued the story from where Evil Dead II left off and upped the comedy angle from its predecessor to literally epic proportions.
In the years since its release, Army of Darkness has become one of the most quoted films of all time and an absolute cult classic to boot. Bruce Campbell is now best known for his sarcastic portrayal of Ash, a persona that has informed most of his other well-known characters. The Evil Dead series has found new fans each year with the first film remaining one of the best-reviewed horror films of all time and the sequels remaining two of the funniest. And, of course, Raimi has gone from directing short experiments in and around Detroit to helming huge-budget films in a wide variety of genres from the Spider-Man trilogy to 2013's epic hit Oz the Great and Powerful.
The impact of the Evil Dead series is unquestionable. Clips from the first film have shown up in the original Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Donnie Darko (2001) to name a couple. The remote cabin in the woods where all hell breaks loose may not have been a concept completely invented by The Evil Dead, but the number of films with such a setting increased every year Evil Dead has been in circulation. See everything from Cabin Fever to, well, Cabin in the Woods (which provided a fascinating inversion on this sub-genre of horror).
In 2013 the first real remake from the series was released and called, simply, Evil Dead. With the inclusion of Ash's Oldsmobile and the return to the terrifying and hardly humorous core of the series, the 2013 “remake” (produced by Campbell, Tapert and Raimi and co-written by Raimi) could almost stand as another chapter in the original saga, featuring another group of visitors to the same cabin. While fans debate whether this is a sequel or a remake, Campbell has gone on record as saying he looks forward to a future crossover between his character and those surviving from the 2013 film.
That would be impossible though, right? Doesn't the existence of a remake irrevocably mean the end of the original series in any franchise? Not according to Raimi and Robert Tapert. With Raimi's A-List status cemented by the success of Oz, he can take on any project he wants. Tapert, Raimi and Campbell recently revealed that next project will be Army of Darkness 2 (as opposed to “Evil Dead 4”), currently set for a 2016 release. Deadites fans, keep your fingers crossed that the rumors are true.
What is unquestionable is that the Raimis and their pals created a monster in The Evil Dead. It started as a disastrous failure to obtain a big break with a too long, too perilous shoot (note Campbell's changing hairstyle in the various scenes of the one-day plot). The film went through name changes and bannings only to survive as not only “the ultimate experience in grueling horror” but as an oft-imitated and cashed-in-on classic, with 30 years of positive reviews to prove it. The film that spawned its own rip-off saga (and confusion with at least two others, directly or indirectly) is finally growing its own franchise. Ash may once again say “Groovy!” and “Klaatu Barada Nikto” for fans... or, at least he'll try to.
Until then (and hopefully thereafter) I'll see you Deadites in The Next Reel.