Sam Raimi is one of the most successful and influential filmmakers in Hollywood, bringing his mischievous and darkly playful style to huge studio tentpoles like "Oz the Great and Powerful" and the "Spider-Man" trilogy. However, to most of his fans, he'll always be the kid from Michigan who, once upon a time, had access to a cabin, a camera, a few bucks and a ton of imagination.
Raimi rose to prominence with his feature film debut, "The Evil Dead" (1981), a DIY horror flick that many consider to be the first true successor of George Romero's game-changing genre piece, "Night of the Living Dead" (1968). Using his earlier short film "Within the Woods" as a calling card, Raimi and his longtime pal Bruce Campbell scraped together around $90,000 from friends, family and even a dentist or two to bring the novice filmmaker's macabre vision to life, which transformed an idyllic weekend getaway for five college students into a gruesome battle against demonic forces. The 13-member crew shot on location in Morristown, Tennessee under less than ideal conditions, somehow managing to create what would become of the most popular cult films of all time through grueling trial and error.
Now, over 30 years later, another group of college kids is set to embark on a little late-night reading of the Necronomicon in the Fede Alvarez-directed remake. Produced by Raimi and Campbell, the new "Evil Dead" trades the original's wink-wink sense of haunted-house fun for completely over-the-top grand guignol terror, a film that looks to bring true "horror" back to the horror genre. We spoke with Sam Raimi, still that Michigan kid at heart, in an exclusive interview about his return to the cabin in the woods.
Q: Let's talk about why you wanted to do a remake of "Evil Dead." What interested you in that idea?
SAM RAIMI: When my partners, Robert Tapert, Bruce Campbell and myself made the original "Evil Dead" film, it was back in 1979, ‘80 and ‘81. And we could only afford to shoot it in 16 millimeter. The sound was mono. We couldn't afford stereo, let alone 5.1 surround sound. And it was released in very few theaters, probably 60 prints were made. It only showed in certain markets on the big screen because it was an unrated picture. So very few people saw it on the big screen. And those that did, saw a compromised picture with compromised sound. And we really felt it was a good ghost story and deserved to be told once on the big screen with high quality visuals and great acoustic treatment. So, we decided to remake it because it is, after all, just a ghost story. It's like a campfire ghost story that is best if somebody retells every generation. And, in this case, that storyteller is Fede Alvarez. He's a great filmmaker, and I really loved the short film that he made. When I started to work with him on a different film which we never made, I saw what a great, talented individual he was and what a precise storyteller he was. And I thought, this is the guy I want to tell my ghost story, for the new generation, with pristine sound and picture, on the big screen -- seen for the first time, like it was meant to be.
Q: How important are the fans? You've got a lot of people who are fanatic fans. It's become a cult classic. So how important is it to make the fans happy with this movie?
SR: It's really important. The original "Evil Dead" almost never caught on. It was only through a group of individuals who found it on video and then began to tell their friends about it and insist that they see it that the picture survived. And it allowed us to make a sequel, and then a part three called "Army of Darkness." And, in fact, this remake, some 30 years later. So the fans are everything in the case of "Evil Dead." They're the reason the picture survived, the reason we can remake it, and that's the crowd we want to please. And I think this picture will give them what they seek in bloody spades.
Q: Are there any surprises in store for these fans?
SR: There's a lot of surprises because the picture isn't a literal remake of the original. It's inspired by, it's based upon, but it's got a whole new storyline. The situation's similar: five kids go up to the cabin, they find the ancient Necronomicon, and one by one, they're possessed. How they're possessed, who they are, what their interactions are -- are all new. So it's going to be constantly surprising to the audience. And I think it's going to deliver great shots and scares.
Q: Bruce Campbell had an interesting comment about how one of the key differences is that the central character was male in all the films he was in, and is now female. And he had a great comment about female horror and thriller heroines being, you know, really the norm and not men. Do you remember any of those conversations with him? I actually felt that he was a little unusual, that usually the victim is female. And in the case of the original "Evil Dead" it wasn't. And now you're going back to a female again.
SR: Well, in the case of the original "Evil Dead," Bruce was my best friend back in high school and college, and I simply wanted him to star in the movie. So even though the norm was and still is to star females in horror pictures, I really wanted to work with the actor that I most trusted and knew would be great at it. In Fede’s new version of "Evil Dead," he decided to have the female character be the lead. And he has both male and female possessed.
Q: How closely did you work with Fede on this? I know that you're a champion of the director and that you tend to want to give them their lead. Did you just say, "Fede go make a movie," or how closely did you work with him?
SR: Well, I worked very closely with him, but gave him room to create everything he needed. For instance, I asked Fede and Rodo to give us a pitch of the treatment that they wanted to tell, and then I told them that I was planning to get another writer to write the screenplay. But their draft was so good, we decided to let them write the first draft screenplay. Rob, Bruce and myself gave them notes and they took those notes and incorporated them into a second draft. I think the same is true with the cut of the picture. I always maintained final cut, but Bruce, Rob and I really gave notes but never overrode Fede artistically, because we so respected his vision. And I think there has to be only one director on a picture. And it was him, always him.
Q: Any reason why New Zealand?
SR: My partner Robert Tapert lives in New Zealand now. And he's got an excellent production crew that he has worked with on "Xena Warrior Princess" and "Hercules." Many of those people went on to Rob's newest show, "Spartacus." So he's got a trusted crew that he works with. And he knows the locations and it just seemed to be the most logical thing to do, since he was the on-set producer.
Q: I find it interesting, in his interview, Fede said that he wanted to do as much practical effect work as possible. But one of his businesses, besides being a director, is that he owns a visual effects house. Can you comment on the effects of the movie?
SR: Fede really did as much as possible with physical effects. I think he knows, because he owns that visual effects company, he knows that it's a very valuable tool and when to apply that tool. And I think he felt that in this movie, "Evil Dead," to make it gut-wrenchingly real, he had to stay away as much as possible from CGI and really show the audience it was happening on screen. I think that was why he chose the route he did.
Q: And if I'm a fan that perhaps has never seen an "Evil Dead," if there's such a thing, what do you tell me to get me to go to this movie?
SR: It's the ultimate experience in grueling terror. And I dare ya.
Check out this clip from 'The Evil Dead':