In 1982, author Stephen King attended an early screening of “The Evil Dead” and was flabbergasted by its no-holds-barred (no-veins-stanched) splatter slapstick, its demon-possessed “shaky cam” cinematography, its shoestring ingenuity. He called it “the most ferociously original horror film of the year.”
Almost 40 years later, King’s famous encomium — which became the movie’s most effective sales pitch during its original release — still applies. “The Evil Dead” might be the most ferociously original horror film to be booked in theaters in 2020, too, although its novelty may be harder to appreciate in the context of its two sequels, its 2013 remake, its three-season Starz network television series and its countless spinoffs and imitations in many types of media.
Friday, “The Evil Dead” returns to Malco’s Summer Quartet Drive-In, as part of a nationwide revival organized by distributor Grindhouse Releasing, a cult-movie company co-founded by Sage (son of Sylvester) Stallone and Bob Murawski, the Oscar-winning film editor of “The Hurt Locker” and a longtime associate of “Evil Dead” director Sam Raimi. In a process supervised by Raimi, the film for this revival has been scanned from the original 16mm camera negatives, and its original sound mix has been restored.
The Summer booking (with a new horror film, “Followed,” as the second feature) represents something of a homecoming for “The Evil Dead,” if we can loosely define “home” as “same state.” Although Raimi and his young key collaborators — producer Rob Tapert and actor Bruce Campbell — were natives of tiny Royal Oak, Michigan, they shot “The Evil Dead” around an isolated cabin in the backwoods of Morristown, Tennessee, east of Knoxville.
“I’m glad ‘Evil Dead’ can return to Tennessee where it all began,” said Campbell, 62, in an interview from his home in rural Oregon. “I hope Memphis enjoys it while screaming their brains out.”
In fact, Campbell has directed a movie titled “The Man with the Screaming Brain,” which he brought to Memphis in 2005 for a screening at the Malco Paradiso. Although he will make a few public appearances in connection with the return of “The Evil Dead,” the coronavirus shutdown has curtailed the actor’s typically peripatetic promotion schedule, and he won’t be coming to Memphis.
“Everything I do relates to crowds,” Campbell said. “You want hundreds of people in the theater. You want thousands of people at Comic-Con. I counted it up, and in the last three years — 2017, 2018, 2019 — I’ve been to 99 cities. This year — one city.”
The downtime, however, did enable Campbell to finish his latest book, “The Cool Side of My Pillow,” a collection of essays due later this summer.
A product of not so much beginner’s luck as beginner’s pluck, “The Evil Dead” was made for about $350,000 when Raimi, Campbell and associates were barely out of Michigan State. (In comparison, “Spider-Man 3,” which Raimi directed in 2007, cost $350 million.)
Although many of its participants have gone on to bigger if not always better things, “The Evil Dead” has — like the demons released from the Sumerian Book of the Dead by the movie’s vacationing college students — haunted its makers ever since. No one is more closely associated with the franchise than Campbell, who has transformed the original film’s hapless cipher of a hero, named Ash, into a distinctive, increasingly comedic and even beloved creation — so much so that he received top billing in the gore-soaked Starz series, which was titled “Ash vs. Evil Dead,” the better to showcase the actor’s hambone baritone, formidable chin (his first memoir was titled “If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor”), instinct for self-parody (another book is titled “Make Love! The Bruce Campbell Way”) and demon-dismembering prowess with a chainsaw.
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“The first ‘Evil Dead,’ in my opinion, is a melodrama,” Campbell said. “There is not a lot of winking at the camera because we were not sophisticated. And some stuff is funny because it’s either bad dialogue or poorly delivered dialogue or poorly delivered bad dialogue, which is the worst of all.
“The second is more humorous, we really perfected the ‘splatstick.’ The third one (1992’s ‘Army of Darkness,’ in which Ash is transported to the Middle Ages) is a ridiculous adventure, it’s almost like a Ray Harryhausen movie.”
Of course, all these movies found some of their first fans via that all-American and free-range cinema innovation known as the drive-in.
“Drive-ins were crucial to the history of ‘The Evil Dead,'” said David Szulkin, film booker for Grindhouse Releasing, which also handles such films as Lucio Fulci’s “The Beyond” (1981) and the hippies-with-rabies shocker, “I Drink Your Blood” (1970). “Drive-ins were the market that created the opportunity for movies like this one to be made.
“The drive-ins are personally important to us as well,” he added. “Everything we do goes back to seeing all of these movies at the drive-in for the first time when we were growing up. Beyond the movies themselves, it was the bigger-than-life presentation at drive-ins and the showmanship of the old film distributors that made us horror movie fans. We want to keep that tradition alive.”
And drive-ins continue to be crucial for horror. Due to the COVID-associated nationwide shutdown of most indoor theaters, the unlikely top film at the U.S. box office for five weeks in a row, from May to early June, was “The Wretched,” a low-budget chiller booked mostly in drive-ins and directed by Brett Pierce — whom Campbell, like a proud papa, identified as the son of Bart Pierce, co-creator of the special effects and stop-motion animation on the first “Evil Dead.”
Looking back on four decades of “Dead,” Campbell said what has changed most dramatically over the years is “the visceral nature of filmmaking.”
“In the first ‘Evil Dead,’ ” he said, “Ash hears a noise outside his window, swings his shotgun, and blows his window out. And the way you do that in 1979 is you put a shell in your shotgun and blow the window out. By the time Ash in ‘Ash vs. Evil Dead’ raises his shotgun, there’s no shell in any gun, not even blanks… There’s a digital flame. … So it’s incredibly safe as opposed to really reckless, but the visceral nature has been removed.”
Beyond “Evil Dead,” Campbell has appeared in many television programs and films (notably for Raimi and the Coen Brothers), and been a voice actor on such movies as “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” and “Cars 2.” But his Memphis relevance is most closely connected with “Bubba Ho-Tep,” a surprisingly sincere and even elegiac 2002 movie from “Phantasm” director Don Coscarelli that cast Campbell as Elvis, now a resident in a nursing home (where no one believes he is Elvis), who teams up with a man who claims to be John F. Kennedy (Ossie Davis) to battle a resurrected Egyptian mummy. (Yes, that old plot again.)
Campbell admits he wasn’t an Elvis fan as a kid because “when I graduated high school in ’76, he was over the hill, and he was dead a year later. But then you go back and look at that early ’70s Las Vegas footage and you realize the guy was on fire, nobody could touch him.”
“Bubba Ho-Tep” ends with the promise of a sequel, “Bubba Nosferatu,” but Campbell says that project, after many attempts at an acceptable script, is dead, and his aging Elvis hero has “officially retired.” Meanwhile, Campbell keeps on keeping on, and so do the demons of the Evil Dead: Ash will be absent, but Campbell will be working behind the scenes as a producer on an upcoming “Evil Dead” feature film from Irish director Lee Cronin (“The Hole in the Ground”).