|Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn
1986 - R - 84 Mins.
|Director: Sam Raimi
|Producer: Robert Tapert
|Written By: Sam Raimi, Scott Spiegel
|Starring: Bruce Campbell, Sarah Berry, Dan Hicks, Kassie Wesley
|Review by: David Rolston
|Official Site: www.anchorbayentertainment.com
In 1979 Michigan State University students Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert along with Raimi's high school friend Bruce Campbell, cobbled together sixteen hundred dollars to shoot an Eight millimeter horror short entitled “Within the Woods”. The resulting 32 minute film would garner a fair amount of notoriety in the local Michigan press, primarily for the unique visual sensibilities of its then nineteen year old director, Raimi. Campbell and Raimi had each made dozens of short films over the years, but it was not until they met Tapert, a friend of Sam’s older brother Ivan, that they began to seriously entertain the idea of making a full length theatrical feature. Having been impressed by samples of their earlier works, Tapert pushed them to create a production company, and lead the effort to raise Independent financing for a feature film. With most of the shoe string budget (reportedly about eighty-five of the proposed one hundred and fifty thousand dollar budget) coming from family, friends and small businessmen, the trio and a band of like minded friends optimistically set off for Knoxville Tennessee to film Raimi’s script in November of 1979.
See I know the way to this romantic little cabin in the woods.
When tests proved that their scheme to shoot on 8mm and blow up to 35 would never be successful, they found themselves faced with the additional costs of shooting in sixteen millimeter. Lacking the full complement of investors, they pressed on, and despite the support of the Tennessee film commission, arrived to find the chosen location for the film was no longer available to them. They were diverted some days later to a shack which had been sheltering livestock, and had no running water, electricity, or the necessary basement required in a large portion of the script. It was grueling work to even get the ramshackle building into a state that was tolerable. They cut a hole in the floor and dug a six foot ditch beneath it that would serve as the basement the actors would disappear into as the plot progressed.
Raimi and crew hired a local Vietnam vet as location manager, who helped them secure deals with local merchants and stretch their budget to its limit, even treating the crew to a lavish home cooked thanksgiving dinner when the production expanded from six to twelve weeks of principal photography. The schedule began to slip nearly from the first day of shooting, as the filmmakers learned their craft on the job, anchored by Raimi’s disorganized but persistent pursuit of a shots that would be if nothing else, visually arresting, they proceeded slowly but steadily. By the second month, Raimi, Campbell and Tapert found themselves understandably abandoned by cast and crew when funding had dried up, people had to leave due to prior commitments, and eighteen hour days in one of the coldest winters in Tennesee history had left everyone involved exhausted. Raimi, Campbell and Tappert with the help of a stalwart friend Josh Becker, who Raimi had originally wanted to fire from his PA job, soldiered bravely on until they had to leave their rented house, and were forced to move their belongings to the shack.
When they returned to Michigan having blown through the entire $150k budget, they knew they had the basis of something good, but still needed to finish the thirty percent of the film that had been too difficult to film initially, not to mention the additional money they would need for post production.
That final thirty percent proved to be time consuming and costly, and it was nearly three years before the film was finished and the filmmakers were able to premier it in a local Michigan Cinema in the fall of 1981. The film might very well have vanished like so many others into obscurity, were it not for a screening at Cannes in 1982, arranged by octogenarian distributor Irvin Shapiro best known at the time for having helped George Romero finance and distribute his films. Shapiro agreed to take the boys under his wing. It was Shapiro who insisted they change the title from the original “Book of the Dead” which he informed them would give people the uncomfortable impression they’d be reading for 90 minutes. Shaprio taught them about the distribution business, and got them into Cannes, where Stephen King saw the film and took a liking to it, calling it “Ferociously original”. King's recommendation gave them critical credibility, and lead the way to a domestic distribution deal with New Line.
Although it’s hard to imagine, the film got an X rating from the MPAA, which severely limited its potential for theatrical distribution. It played in a handful of theaters, but they never received any profits from New Line. Internationally however, the film did well, and was the number one video in England in 1983.
A completed film, with bonafied international box office credentials was an outstanding calling card, and one that allowed Raimi to secure the director’s chair for his next project, Crimewave, co-written with new friends Joel and Ethan Coen. Joel had had been assistant editor on Evil Dead, and after following Sam’s prescription for making a trailer, their finished film Blood Simple had become a critical smash on the art house circuit. The collective which now included the Coen’s and Joel's wife Frances McDormand, moved to Los Angeles, rented a house and set to work on a project that was nearly Raimi’s undoing.
Crimewave was to be Raimi’s first brush with the standard issue Hollywood machine, and was an unpleasant and acrimonious experience for most of those involved, as the budget soared beyond expectations, Raimi’s choice of actors was nixed (including Campbell in the lead) and the unions balked at the difficult conditions involved in filming during winter in Detroit.
Avco Embassy who had financed the project took the Raimi-Coen cut, and promptly walked away, recutting and changing the music. The film was a critical, commercial and box office disaster. Cagey Ira Shapiro had been quietly shopping a project the group claimed to have no interest in: a sequel to the Evil Dead. The last thing the trio wanted to do was revisit the Evil Dead, but with Crimewave an embarrassing and humiliating defeat, the prospect of making a Dino DeLaurentiis backed 3.6 million dollar film where they could regain control, suddenly seemed like a good idea, if for no other reason, that it represented an opportunity to return to Raimi’s wheel house.
Evil Dead II would be, as conceived by co-screenwriter and long time friend Scott Spiegel something entirely different from it’s predecessor. Where Evil Dead was a deadly serious affair featuring for example, a disturbing sequence where one of the female characters is raped by unseen spirits that infest the trees around the cabin, Evil Dead II, would re-imagine the plot of the previous picture as a gore fest that would include plenty of shocking moments, and yet would offer bountiful doses of cathartic slapstick.
In an effort to stretch every penny, and with a sneaking suspicion that this could be his last chance as a director, Raimi and company set up shop in 1986 at a high school in Wadesboro North Carolina, and built a two story set inside what had been the school gym. Shooting in the summertime under the hot lights, the set would routinely pass one hundred degrees, melting props, and drenching cast and crew in sweat, most notably Raimi’s younger brother Ted, who was encased in a full body prosthetic as one of the demons inhabiting the cabin’s cellar.
With a dedicated effects crew, Raimi and Campbell attacked the project with a fervor and desperation that produced one of the most visually inventive films ever committed to celluloid. Raimi and his team mounted cameras on a steel pole, so it could break through the back windshield and continue out the front, built a rack for Campbell dubbed the Samma-cam to achieve an effect where Ash is propelled through the treetops at dizzying speed, spinning as he goes, and mounted a camera on the front of a motorcycle which was used to chase Ash through the doors and hallways of the Cabin.
Made in the days prior to the digital effects revolution, there are puppetry shots and stop motion animation, matte paintings, and numerous trick shots using over cranking, under cranking or running the film stock through the camera in reverse. A variety of lenses are employed to disorient and underscore the psychological toll on Ash, as he becomes increasingly distraught and paranoid. Dolly shots follow a severed hand as it scurries across the floor at eye level. Mists appear along the ground and in the trees then retreat again. Raimi and Cinematographer Peter Deming film from every angle imaginable. There had not been a film in modern times which so freely abandoned the established rules of cinematic composition. The art of film making would never quite be the same.
Evil Dead II like its predecessor is one of the few films where it is not hyperbole to state that the camera itself is a character in the film. Much of the plot calls for Ash alone in the cabin, battling demonic forces which seek to possess him, and Raimi manages to create a convincing visceral reaction in the viewer when Ash is chased through the woods and into the cabin by unseen demonic forces.. As in the first film, less is more, and this technique has the wondrous effect of leaving much of the horror to the imagination.
Most critics picked up on the film’s comedic additions, and three stooges inspired slapstick mayhem, but this does not really explain its popularity. The Evil Dead II, can be stupid and silly but it is not a comedy. It manages in near miraculous fashion, to still be nightmarish and frightening, and maintains that tension in a way that has been long admired and never quite duplicated. It pays generous homage both to H.P. Lovecraft and to the pantheon of independent horror films that inspired it from Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, to Wes Craven’s the Hills have Eyes and A Nightmare on Elm Street, to Scorcese’s Taxi Driver. And yet it is the first of its kind, a film possessed of the notion that like Grand Guignol or a good roller coaster ride, witnessing horrific violence, dismemberment and vivisection can actually be a lot of fun, so long as you remind yourself that you don’t have to take any of this too seriously.
If there’s a glaring weakness to the film, it’s the lack of any character development. The actors aside from Campbell are pedestrian if not totally inept, but then they aren’t given much to work with. Primarily they are props in the film, who are only called upon to react in fear or horror when attacked.
The only returning character from original Evil Dead is Bruce Campbell’s Ash, yet the film makes no effort to tie the original to the sequel. Ash in Evil Dead II is an entirely different persona from the nebbish reluctant hero of the original. Reimagined as an intellectually dense but physically resilient man-of-action, Ash’s first inclination when set upon by his demonically possessed girlfriend is to have at her with the business end of a shovel.
Campbell’s false bravado and theatrical mannered line readings would entrench Ash firmly in popular culture, and forever guarantee Campbell cult celebrity. His square jawed good looks masked a deft comedian willing to allow himself to be manipulated by Raimi into a cartoon caricature. With one eye arched, Campbell suffers every form of privation and indignity possible, as he’s hurled through windows, against trees, down stair wells, face first into mud puddles, and pelted and drenched with foul colored liquids of every variety. When one of his hands becomes possessed, it beats him against the walls of the kitchen, breaking every nearby plate on his head, and ultimately flips him onto the floor. Campbell’s athleticism should have lead the way to more action adventure roles, but sadly, never did, save for his all too brief run as Brisco County Jr. in the TV series of the same name.
Although few people can actually lay claim to having seen the film in the theater. Critical reaction to the Evil Dead II was nearly unanimously favorable, not that it mattered given the minimal distribution it was able to secure. This guaranteed the film would never make much at the box office, which is a shame given that it was the communal Rocky Horror Picture/ midnight double feature audience for whom the film was made, even as that uniquely middle American staple of desperate independent theater owners looking to fill seats, was receding into the distant past. Released in the spring of 1987 in around 300 theaters in the US, Evil Dead II came and went in a weekend, after grossing about $900,000 dollars.
1987 was the height of the home video revolution, and teenagers had discovered the allure of the horror section, where Evil Dead II would quickly gain favor through word of mouth, even beyond the handful of admirers who had devoured the original. Ultimately, Evil Dead II became a touchstone and cultural dividing point. People either enjoy the mayhem, humor, visual artistry and cinematic references and in-jokes, or they find the film idiotic and disgusting.
Campbell’s Ash became an unlikely icon, and legions of teenage boys began to memorize his ridiculously inappropriate dialogue, attracted to his absurdly machismo responses to the carnage and demonic intruders. Through Ash, Campbell channels the stars of the Westerns and war films of the fifties and is a portal to the archetypal masculinity of Cooper, Bogart, Wayne and Reagan, with a healthy dose of Bob Hope and Curly thrown in. None of the filmmakers involved in Evil Dead II could have predicted the influence their film would come to have, especially in the growing video game industry. Quake and Duke Nukem not only adopted Ash, they just about transplanted him, borrowing his lines and delivery in the days when nobody took video games too seriously All this occurred despite the fact that none of the films ever enjoyed much success in theatrical release. The complete lack of US box office success of the Evil Dead franchise was in its own way an early sign of the tremendous changes which continue to disprove the traditional wisdoms of how and why movies get made, and where the real money is.
Along the bumpy meandering road to cult status, the Evil Dead films have made a small fortune in video, laserdisc and DVD rentals and sales, and have spawned Ash collectable action figures and made Campbell a bankable presence at fan fairs and comicons. In Evil Dead 3, released as Army of Darkness, Raimi and Campbell refined and expanded on Ash, who has subsequently enjoyed a second life as the central character in a successful video game series of his own. Meanwhile, fanatics continue to pine for a fourth Evil Dead installment, that seems less likely with each passing year.
In much the same way that Quentin Tarrantino’s Resevoir Dogs established him as the flavor of the month despite a minimal theatrical run, Evil Dead II created a buzz in Hollywood, as a film you simply had to see to believe. Raimi gained a legion of fans and admirers including James Cameron, Sharon Stone and Robert Rodriquez, and the film opened doors which would culminate after twenty five years, in Raimi’s current status as an A-List director, having far surpassed the careers of the Independent directors who inspired him. His production company (a co-venture with Tapert) has grown substantially through its Hercules and Xena first run television franchises for Universal Television, and more recently through a theatrical division named Ghost House pictures which produces low budget Horror films, and has been wildly successful at the box office, most notably with the recent remake of the Japanese film, The Grudge.
As for the Evil Dead II, it has become a reference for budding film and video makers who frequently borrow from Raimi’s bag of tricks. In the era of digital technology and special effects, Evil Dead II is a reminder of the what can be accomplished armed only with a handful of dollars, some plywood, paint, foam latex, stage makeup and Karo syrup. Raimi and company proved conclusively that there is no substitute for visual invention and ingenuity. It reminds us of the very thing that separates “Moving Pictures” from its parent “The Theater” – namely that the pictures move, and in the hands of a skilled practitioner of the art of cinematic storytelling, we can be moved along with them. There’s something scary in those woods outside, something that wants to get at our most basic primal childhood fears, and in the words of “Ash” that’s pretty damn “Groovy”.