'Evil Dead' star Bruce Campbell shares behind-the-scenes secrets from his 'no holds barred' horror classic

·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
·11-min read
Bruce Campbell made his feature film debut in Sam Raimi's 1981 horror classic, The Evil Dead, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. (Photo: New Line/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Bruce Campbell made his feature film debut in Sam Raimi's 1981 horror classic, The Evil Dead, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. (Photo: New Line/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Time passes differently when you've spent half your life fighting the evil dead. Horror fans got their first look at Sam Raimi's blood-soaked cabin in the woods splatter movie when it premiered forty years ago in October 1981. But asked whether hitting the big 4-0 feels special, The Evil Dead's strong-chinned star, Bruce Campbell, offers an immediate correction. "It's not 40 years: It's 42 years," the actor tells Yahoo Entertainment about his inaugural outing as chainsaw-wielding king Ash Williams. "The movie was filmed in November 1979 through January 1980. It took two years to finish the damn thing! So it's 42 years old — but who's counting?"

Campbell will have another opportunity to correct the historical record on Oct. 7 when he's beamed into theaters coast-to-coast for a special videotaped introduction preceding a 40th... uh, 42nd anniversary Evil Dead screening hosted by Fathom Events. By this point in this career, he's probably seen the movie thousands of times with thousands of different audiences. But there's one reaction he'll never, ever forget. "Some little old lady came to our premiere at the Redford Theatre in Detroit," the Michigan native remembers. "We screened it there, because that was our favorite movie theater at the time."

"There were over a thousand people at the premiere, and we got word that somebody wanted to talk to us," Campbell continues. "This little old lady wanted to talk to the filmmakers. So Rob [Tapert, the film's producer], Sam and I find her and we were expecting the full finger-wag. You know, like, 'You boys have made something really horrible and disgusting!' Instead she said: 'I just wanted to tell you I was having a really bad day, but then I decided to come to this movie, and I had a great time. So I wanted to thank you.' And we were just like, 'OK. You got it.'"

The messenger might have been a surprise, but her message wasn't. Prior to shooting a frame of film, Raimi and Campbell had put in the work to ensure that audiences of all types — even little old ladies — would have their bloodlust satisfied by The Evil Dead. Born and raised in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak, the duo met in high school and spent their formative teenage years watching every slasher movie that played at a drive-in within driving distance. That's where they learned firsthand what their target audience did, and more importantly did not, want to see. 

"We watched movies that you could never get made today, like Revenge of the Cheerleaders and Massacre at Central High," Campbell recalls of his and Raimi's drive-in nights. "I mean, we really saw some classics! A lot of our influences were what not to do, because we watched lots of bad horror movies and the audience would turn the headlights on and honk the horns when they didn't like something. So we learned to not make movies like that, that would make people go, 'F*** you.' It was great market research."

That experience also taught the fledgling filmmakers that if they really wanted to break into the film industry, horror was the most viable way to go for two teenagers from suburban Detroit. "We had always done silly comedies with our amateur movies," Campbell says of the Super 8 reels that he and Raimi made together in high school. "But in 1979, you'd have to get Steve Martin or John Candy for a comedy and we knew we were never going to get those people. But you could have nobodies in a horror movie, and that gave us hope that we could make an affordable movie and get it into theaters. It was almost a business decision: If we're going to make a movie with actual investors' money, it needs to be a genre that we can pull off."

The action item at the top of their business plan was at once both completely simple and crazy difficult: "We just tried to make a horror movie that was no holds barred," Campbell explains, pointing to George A. Romero's seminal Night of the Living Dead — which essentially created the no-budget horror movie market that thrived during the '70s and beyond — as their proof of concept. "That movie was notorious at the time for being unrated, unwatchable and so terrifying that it would give you nightmares. It was like the Blair Witch of its day where there were more rumors about it than screenings of the movie itself."

Campbell comes to grips with his fears in The Evil Dead (Photo: New Line Cinema/courtesy Everett Collection)
Campbell comes to grips with his fears in The Evil Dead. (Photo: New Line Cinema/courtesy Everett Collection)

After convincing enough investors (including several friends and family members) to bankroll The Evil Dead, Raimi and Campbell abandoned Michigan for Tennessee, where they expected to find better weather conditions for a three-month winter shoot. "Turns out Michigan had a mild winter, and Tennessee had a harsh one," Campbell says, chuckling. "What are you going to do? We went down there in early November and it wasn't too horrible, but by January it was completely and utterly depressing."

Squatting in a dilapidated cabin in the freezing Tennessee woods with no heat, electricity or running water for twelve weeks meant that the madness the cast and crew were capturing onscreen was also palpably felt when the cameras were off. "There was definitely a Lord of the Flies component to it," Campbell notes. "We all went a little crazy. But we were not going to not finish that movie." As it was, they left the state with only two-thirds of the film in the can and had to raise additional funds to plug in the missing pieces. 

There's a monster in the basement in the horror classic The Evil Dead (Photo: New Line Cinema/courtesy Everett Collection)
There's a monster in the basement in the horror classic The Evil Dead. (Photo: New Line Cinema/courtesy Everett Collection)

Campbell cites Raimi's inventive, but financially impractical shooting style — in one memorable shot, the camera hovers on the ceiling with Campbell upside down in the frame, and then slowly lowers over the back of his head into a tight close-up of his face — as one of the reasons for their extra-long stay down south. "He felt under the gun to deliver something that was unusual and as a result, he was asking for incredibly difficult stuff. We would shoot all day long and only get one shot; these days, you'd get fired if you had that kind of crappy output! But my theory for why the movie is still around forty years later is that when you watch it, it doesn't look like a standard piece of s*** shot-in-two-weeks horror movie. There's a lot going on visually and that has an impact on you."

The upside of spending twelve weeks in the woods with nothing to do besides make a movie is that Campbell found himself becoming a better actor in real time. That coincided with Ash's journey from being one face in a group of five unlucky victims to the sole survivor of the demons they unleash after daring to open the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, aka the Book of the Dead. "He's a relatable character because he's you," the actor says of his alter ego, whose demon-killing career continued in two Evil Dead sequels, a Starz TV series and multiple video games, including the upcoming Evil Dead: The Game. "He has no skills, and he's not particularly brave. He's just a schmo — that's what I like about him."

There's at least one instance where Campbell put up a brave fight on set. Midway through the movie, one of the five cabin-dwellers, Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) escapes into the woods and is raped by a possessed tree. It's a divisive scene that Raimi himself has expressed regret for now. Campbell says he made his objections known at the time, but was overruled. "I was always against it — and I'm still against it —because I thought it was too much. It was not necessary to show the full monty; you could have implied it differently. But as a result, it's the point where audiences go, 'This movie's willing to go for it.' That's where we always got walkouts, too. You could always guarantee in a full crowd that somebody was going to walk out, and rightfully so."

Ash (Campbell) wields his trusty chainsaw for the first time in 'The Evil Dead' (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)
Ash (Campbell) wields his trusty chainsaw for the first time in The Evil Dead. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

The Evil Dead wasn't exactly an overnight sensation when it was finally ready to be shown in theaters. Campbell and Raimi had hustled to get the film made and kept hustling to get it in front of audiences. It took the endorsement of Stephen King to fan the rumors of how special and scary this particular no-budget movie was. Based on the buzz, New Line Cinema acquired The Evil Dead and booked it into theaters in 1983, where it eventually earned almost $2.5 million domestically — a fantastic return on investment, as Raimi and Campbell had promised their backers. 

Flash-forward to 2021 and New Line is overseeing the next iteration of the series: Evil Dead Rise, which passes the Book of the Dead to a new group of victims. Scheduled for release on HBO Max next year, the film is executive produced by Raimi and Campbell, but Ash has most definitely hung up his chainsaw. "Ash is retired — he's done. There will be no more Ash. I am doing his voice for Evil Dead: The Game, so part of Ash will be around, but it's time to tell new damn stories. Evil Dead Rise is urban: There's no more cabin, no more woods. It's all about the book at this point: It's a creepy book that gets around. And wherever it goes, trouble follows."

Campbell in the Starz series 'Ash vs Evil Dead,' which serves as his alter ego's swan song (Photo: Geoffrey Short/Starz/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Campbell in the Starz series Ash vs Evil Dead, which serves as his alter ego's swan song. (Photo: Geoffrey Short/Starz/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Forty-two years after their first feature together, Campbell still follows Raimi around to the sets of his massively-budgeted blockbusters. The actor has a cameo in virtually every movie Raimi directs, including the Spider-Man trilogy where he popped up as multiple characters who all take great pleasure in harassing Tobey Maguire's put-upon Peter Parker. (For the record, he shoots down the longstanding rumor that he would have had a larger role in Raimi's never-made Spider-Man 4 as the villainous master of illusion, Mysterio. "That was all bulls***. It was fanboy speculation and you can't stop that. Why try?")

Campbell says his Spider-Man cameos reflects the real-life dynamic he still enjoys with his high school friend. "Sam loves to trash talk, and he loves to make fun of me in front of the crew. That's just his form of affection. He started to insult Tobey Maguire on Spider-Man, and I said, 'That's good, Tobey. That means he likes you!'"

"I remember on Oz the Great and Powerful, he would trash talk me, and I'd trash talk him back," Campbell continues. "And the whole crew just drops dead silent, because they're like, 'What does this guy who came in to be a day player think he's doing trash talking the director?' It was the funniest thing I've ever seen of how much Sam's ass is being kissed these days. To me, it was just hilarious."

That good-natured ribbing apparently hasn't cost Campbell a role in his friend's grand return to Marvel: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, which continues the magical adventures of Benedict Cumberbatch's Sorcerer Supreme. Raimi nabbed the job after Doctor Strange director, Scott Derrickson, reportedly parted ways with Marvel over how horrific the studio's first "horror movie" would get. Besides his forty years of experience in scaring audiences silly, fans have been anticipating that Raimi would also bring Campbell into the mainline Marvel Cinematic Universe

"Let's just say it would be nice to be in the finished version," Campbell adroitly non-confirms about his presence in the second Doctor Strange. "No matter what I say, it could be proven wrong, because Marvel movies go through many variations by the time they come out. So if I sat here and told you today, 'Oh yeah, I'm in my buddy Sam's movie,' I could be called an absolute liar when the movie finally comes out. Honestly, Benedict Cumberbatch could be cut out for all he knows."

You know what that means: Hail to the Sorcerer King, baby. 

The Evil Dead is currently streaming on HBO Max; visit Fathom Events for showtime and ticket information for the 40th anniversary screening.

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