For a cult classic like Sam Raimi’s original 1981 shocker The Evil Dead, there’s plenty of widely known trivia out there – from the use of his 1973 Delta 88 Oldsmobile classic to how many people fled the production when money ran short and schedules ran long. Back in 1998, when DVDs were still relatively new, Raimi and his producer Robert Tapert sat down to do a commentary on the film, giving the stories from the set from the horses’ mouths.
With the remake coming out this week, it’s a good point to look back on this groundbreaking masterpiece of low-budget splatter. Recorded before Raimi became one of the biggest directors in Hollywood, making films like the Spider-Man series and now Oz the Great and Powerful, this commentary offers some modest insight with the man closer to his low-budget roots.
The Evil Dead (1981)
Commentators: Sam Raimi (writer and director) and Robert Tapert (producer)
1. The opening shot from the POV of the spirits in the woods was the last thing filmed for the movie on location. There were four or five different options for the opening, including shots racing through the woods, but those were too fast and not dramatic enough.
2. The logging truck that almost hits the Oldsmobile in the opening of the film was supposed to have its cables snap, throwing logs across the road. However, when the crew got to set that day, none of that was set up to work.
3. The rednecks that wave at the passing car are played by Raimi and Tapert. That day, they had cut each others’ hair in order to look more like idiots. Later, Tapert accidentally appears on the right side of the frame just as the car starts to drive over the bridge.
4. The smoke seen when Sam enters the cabin came from Tapert’s cigarette, rather than a smoke machine (which they didn’t have access to that day).
5. The bones seen dangling from the ceiling of the workshop is a tribute to Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Raimi admits that such things made sense in a slaughterhouse movie like that, but he still doesn’t know what practical purpose they actually serve in his own film.
6. Raimi and Tapert call Ellen Sandweiss, who plays Ash’s sister Cheryl, “the queen of Super8 movies” because she acted in many of their earlier films. This includes the precursor to The Evil Dead, Within the Woods, in which Bruce Campbell plays the possessed monster and she plays the heroine.
7. Multiple gaffes can be seen throughout the film, including a hand tossing up the cellar door and the pre-tear to Cheryl’s robe during the tree rape scene.
8. The cabin had no cellar, so the crew cut the door out of the floor and dug a hole beneath where they laid in half of a staircase. The actual cellar was shot in the basement of Tapert’s home. Other elements of the basement – including the room in which they find the Necronomicon – were shot in Raimi’s garage.
9. The ripped poster of The Hills Have Eyes in the cellar is a reference to that film, in which there is a ripped poster of Jaws on the wall of the villains’ lair. Raimi figured the ripped Jaws poster was saying that was just a monster movie and the real terror was in that film. Raimi put the Hills Have Eyes poster in the basement as if to say, “No, Wes. This is what it’s all about.”
10. Raimi points to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead as an inspiration for his movie, specifically for its use of 16mm film, its small budget, and its smart use of a single location.
11. At the premier of the film, one of the investors came up to Raimi and said, “I’m very upset. I thought you boys said you’re making a horror picture. Not a comedy.”
12. On the opening night of the film at the Rivoli theater, the audience yelled at the screen during many of the typically stupid decisions of the horror movie characters. Bob Shaye, whose New Line Cinema was distributing the film, told Raimi they would have to make cuts to those scenes. However, when they passed by the Rialto Theater on 42nd Street later that night, they saw sold out shows for the entire night and heard people praising the film. Shaye quickly changed his mind. “It was the shortest change of an editing plan,” Raimi says.
13. Tapert says the infamous tree rape scene was inspired by a scene in Shakespeare’s MacBeth, in which the Birnam Woods come to life. Raimi said it could have also been inspired by The Incredible Hulk.
14. Originally, the forest just attacked Cheryl, but after seeing the dailies, Tapert insisted the scene should go farther, so they added the penetration shot.
15. The ring of keys to the cabin’s door once got stuck behind the jamb during filming, and that element was added to the end of the tree rape scene to increase tension.
16. Originally, the script called for Linda (Betsy Baker) to be stabbed in the foot. However, Tapert insisted that possessed Shelly (Sarah York) stab her in the Achilles’ tendon to “punish the audience” more.
17. The roaring fire seen in many shots was kept burning using locally-bought moonshine.
18. The shot of the demonic infection spreading across Linda’s leg was shot later with a different actress. She had to keep perfectly still as the infection was drawn onto her leg frame-by-frame, a process that took approximately an hour. According to Tapert, once the shot was finished, the stand-in actress promptly threw up.
19. Though it is not easily visible, Scotty (Hal Delrich) has a stick poking through his abdomen after coming back from the woods. This stick is later pulled out by Ash, resulting in a fountain of blood. Because many people don’t notice the stick, it is often suggested that Ash pulls Scotty’s penis off.
20. The censor board had their biggest issue with the stick coming out of Scotty’s abdomen as well as his broken wrist.
21. The contact lenses used for the possessed look could only be worn for 15 minutes at a time, for a maximum of five times a day.
22. Chopped onions, rather than eye drops, were used to get Baker to cry. Tapert claimed onions were simply cheaper than Visine.
23. Raimi chose to use various colors of liquids (including white, black, and even bright blue) that spewed from the mouths of the possessed because he thought the censor boards would be more lenient on him if it wasn’t bright red blood. However, the color of the liquid didn’t matter to them as much as there were bodily fluids spraying out of orifices.
24. When Ash carries Linda outside to bury her, the image of her flowing white robe in a man’s arms was a tribute to the look of the Hammer horror movies.
25. The sound of the clock chiming when Ash emerges from the basement near the end of the film comes from the movie The Time Machine.
26. Near the end of the film, Ash fires a shotgun through a window. A real shotgun with a real shell firing through a real window.
27. Twenty-five percent of the film’s U.S. box office came from drive-in theaters.
Best in Commentary
- Raimi: “It’s had love scenes played in it. It’s run over dummies. It’s hung off the Ballaugh Bridge. It’s battled on the Lodge Freeway in Detroit. It’s really been in a lot of pictures. Great movie car. Made in Detroit.” (Regarding the 1973 Delta 88 Oldsmobile)
- Raimi: “Oh God, we were so irresponsible.” (multiple times)
- Tapert: “Yeah, you go to a cabin in the woods for the weekend, you chop up your friend. Of course you bury your friend before you call the police.”
There’s already been so much written, discussed, and documented about the production of The Evil Dead that it seems almost academic to listen to this commentary. Still, there’s a certain unique insight when the information comes directly from Raimi. I also appreciated the fact that this came prior to the massive films that Raimi did, when he was still waiting for the mega-blockbuster to happen and bitter about not getting a superhero movie in the late 80s.
Raimi and Tapert definitely go into reminiscing mode, which does offer more honesty than you’d get with a single-person commentary. However, it also opens up the door to sarcasm and ribbing. At times, it’s not quite clear if they are dispensing real information or just making a joke about the situation. In particular, Raimi gets on Bruce Campbell’s case quite a bit during the commentary, and much of that seem tongue-in-cheek.
The two slow down, especially near the end, as they go into watch-the-movie mode. This is a danger in almost any commentary, though it is limited here. I imagine that Raimi was tired of talking about this movie as much in 1998 as he is today, so I’ll give him a pass.
Ultimately, with an 84-minute movie, it’s a quick burn for any fan of the film to enjoy for another viewing of this horror classic.