Bruce Campbell is currently starring in USA’s top-rated spy romp “Burn Notice” as the wisecracking Sam Axe, but for some fans, he’ll always be Ash, the beloved hero of Sam Raimi’s cult favorite “Evil Dead” trilogy: 1981’s “The Evil Dead,” 1987’s “Evil Dead II” and 1992’s “Army of Darkness.” Precisely for those ardent enthusiasts, Anchor Bay has just released the original film in the series on Blu-ray featuring two new HD transfers that were supervised by Raimi himself. Consequently, the thriller about a group of unsuspecting friends vacationing at a remote cabin in the woods who inadvertently unleash an ancient demonic force has never looked better. Campbell, Raimi and producer Rob Tapert also teamed up for a new commentary track that details how three young guys from Michigan launched one of modern horror’s most enduring franchises — it involved a lot of fake blood and equal amounts of sweat and tears. Campbell recently took time out of his “Burn Notice” shooting schedule to speak with Hero Complex’s Gina McIntyre about what it was like to revisit his past and to speculate about whether he’s likely to pick up that boomstick once more (spoiler alert: prospects don’t look good).
GM: Could you have imagined while you were shooting “Evil Dead” that the film would still be a part of your life 30 years on?
BC: No, we didn’t even know we were going to finish the damn movie. That was the hardest part. It took us four years just to finish it. Then basically we had to put it out to the rest of the world. It was a slow, grueling process. Everything’s long term on “Evil Dead.” The investors took about six or seven years to break even, 10 years to get into any kind of profit. Now, the last 20 years they’ve been doing fine, but everything is slow on that movie. Slow to arrive, slow to leave, I guess.
Also, I want to address something too that we always get ragged on. We always get ragged on that we put out 18 versions of “Evil Dead” and “Army of Darkness.” At the end of the day, the three of us — me and Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi — we’re not business tycoons. If people keep bitching and moaning about something new and different, we give it to them. That’s the bottom line. And technology changes, so we had to do a VHS version way back when and we had to do a PAL version and we had to do a DVD version. Now, the Blu-ray’s just a logical extension of the next best thing that’s available to put the movie out on. This is actually the first time anyone’s seen what the hell this movie looks like, and it doesn’t look that bad. It’s not a bad-looking little horror movie because Sam, firstly, supervised [the transfer] and made it look like it always should have. If you had gone into a theater and seen the original 35 mm print in the early ’80s in New York, they were all torn to shreds. You saw scenes that were missing and jumped and film that was scratched and destroyed at any midnight showings for years. They didn’t take good care of the prints. They would rip and they would cut the damaged parts out and just splice them back together. These were old-time New York projectionists; they didn’t care. They had a screening at 9 o’ clock. Something had to go through the projector at 9 o’clock.
So, finally, Bob Murawski, the Academy Award-winning editor for “The Hurt Locker” [who edited “Army of Darkness”], has been behind the Grindhouse re-releasing of “Evil Dead” in theaters, striking new prints off the new negative. It’s been a good one-two punch for the preservation of the film. We always like it as filmmakers too, because every time you update to a new version you’ve gone back in and kept that movie in its most pristine condition. That movie means a lot to us. That’s what got all of us into the business, so that’s our little baby that we like to coddle and take care of. We’re glad it’s in a new form now.
BC: We took a different approach this time for the commentary. Normally you watch the movie and go, “Hey, it was cold that time when we shot that,” or “Oh, I was really sick when we shot that.” Now we were just going to tell the history of making the movie. It wasn’t related to the images you’re seeing. It’s just a backdrop. It made it very easy for us, once we knew what our approach was. “Hey guys, how far back can you remember? Whose idea was this? Where were you? Were you guys living together?” It also gave us a chance to clarify some misconceptions that have come up over the last 30 years — “Oh, it was a college movie, you did it out of college.” That’s not really true. It was good. And once you get the three of us going, we jog each other’s memories and then any long-winded crap we would cut down and just hopefully make it a reasonable piece.
GM: When you listen to the commentary, it does seem as though you’re interviewing one another in a way.
BC: It felt like the thing to do. …
… If it was Rob’s story, if I would remember it, I’d go, “Hey, Rob, didn’t you have the thing with the thing and your lawyer was this guy?” And he’d go, “Oh yeah.” It was the logical thing because all of us knew that each of us had certain stories from our own perspectives.
GM: How do you feel watching the movie at this point?
BC: I love watching this cute, 21-year-old boy trying to learn how to act. Someone said the other day, why is that performance more tentative when in your other performances you become cockier and more arrogant? I was like, “Whoa, hey, easy.” That character, the whole point of it, the original Ash really has no skills and just he’s a mild-mannered college kid, and it’s really the other character Scott that you were supposed to latch onto. He’s the “give me that thing, I’ll go check it out.” He wasn’t worried or concerned or hesitant and then, boom, he gets killed. The whole shtick of that was to make the meek, mild-mannered guy the guy with the shotgun. I think you get more out of that than just starting out with the brash guy who’s in “Army of Darkness.” That character had to evolve from a college kid to [a jerk].
GM: How would you characterize the role these films have played in your career? That brash Ash persona seems to be the foundation for so many of the other things you’ve gone on to do.
BC: Well, basically it allowed me to get a foothold in the business through mostly genre movies for the first 15 years, and then by being around enough and getting enough experience in movies. I’d done “Army of Darkness” before I did really my first big television thing. I’d proved myself. If you prove yourself enough in certain worlds, casting people will look at you and they’ll give you a chance to audition for other stuff. So then I got into TV. One thing I feel really did lead to the next. The first TV thing I did was an action period genre show, “The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.,” with science fiction elements and good old-fashioned stunts and fistfights and guns. I could do all that crap. I was a good fit for that, even though it’s now considered mainstream, it was on Fox. It’s a show that’s good for kids. It’s just a logical progression. If you stick around long enough you try to do new things. That got me into the world of television. So then I did about 15 years of television and I’m now back into television with movies in between. But all roads lead to “Evil Dead.” And probably the same could be said for Sam. “Army of Darkness” was technically a studio film, I technically starred in a studio film for Universal. That gives you a little more street cred, and we wouldn’t have made that movie if it weren’t for the first two. I trace it all to that, and I don’t deny my roots.
Again, I think another probably slightly misconstrued idea is that I don’t like talking about the “Evil Dead” movies. I just don’t like answering the same questions. I don’t mind talking about the movie. It was a good experience overall and a necessary one to get into the business. I have no issue with the “Evil Dead” movies. I have nothing but fond memories. They were hard, they were a lot of heartache and disappointment along the way, but I’m glad we did it. And we did it ourselves. We didn’t do it with anybody else. The first movie was raised from a bunch of doctors and lawyers in Detroit, a place where they don’t make movies. So I feel pretty good that we were able to pull that one out of a hat.
GM: I know you’re a huge proponent of independent cinema. I would imagine that stems back to your experience making the “Evil Dead” movies.
BC: It made me completely defiant. On the first “Evil Dead” movie, people talk about different versions of “Evil Dead”; there were no versions of “Evil Dead.” There was no studio to tell us that we couldn’t do it. Whatever you see in “Evil Dead,” that’s Sam Raimi’s cut. That’s it. New Line Cinema didn’t have anything to do with any edited version of that movie. We edited the trailer that people saw in movie theaters. We edited that in Ferndale, Mich. We designed the poster with all the specs from all the printing places. We took our own photos and picked our own typeface. We really had to learn how you market a movie. I think we’re very proud of the movie and proud of the fact that we had a lot of opportunities along the way and a lot of people who backed us, which we’re eternally grateful for. But along the way, we also put in about four years of a lot of sweat. Whenever filmmakers ask, “Hey, how can I get my first feature going?” I’m like, “Find two partners and get ready to flush four years down the toilet.” It can be done, but you’ve got to work. If you’re a lazy filmmaker, you’re going to fail. We learned a good work ethic and we also learned the irony that we had more control over “Evil Dead” than “Army of Darkness.”
You’d think as you make the third in a series of movies that now you can call the shots. You can say this and have this budget and do this. That’s not the case at all. It depends on where the money comes from. If the money comes from businessmen in Detroit, you can do whatever you want. They couldn’t even set foot on the set if we didn’t want them to. We ran the show, but now, “Army of Darkness” comes along, that film was re-edited from the beginning. It was messed with in so many ways that made it very challenging and very difficult to endure, not only the physicality of the movie, but the psychological crap of having to deal with a studio for the first time. There were 20 minutes of the movie cut out, you can see it on the director’s cut. The studio version, I think it’s 81 minutes and the movie was 90-something when we had it. I could be wrong, but it’s incredibly short because the studio just sliced it down. It doesn’t make it good or bad. My point is that we had complete control on our very first movie, and your very first movie is the one that you’re not supposed to have any control over. You make a movie and it makes $100 million and the filmmakers never get anything back. Guess what? We got something back because we own the movie, we own the negative. It’s just interesting. People are like, “Hey, when are you going to do another ‘Evil Dead’ movie?” I’m like, I’ll do another one when we get money from doctors and lawyers to do our own version. Then I’m interested again. I’m not interested in making a $60-million studio film with a bunch of 24-year-olds telling me what to do.
GM: At this point, is another “Evil Dead” film really a possibility or just something fans love to speculate about?
BC: None of us have said no. I think Sam is always tweaking with the idea. He’s joked with a couple of concepts. He has threatened to do it multiple times. He’ll put a false statement out just to torment people. We joke that when he’s got one eye left and I’m in the old actors’ home, that’s when we’ll do it. But we both have day jobs now. The “Evil Dead” movies, you really have to lock up about two years of your life for each “Evil Dead” movie and we don’t really have the time right now. Sam says that he will gladly get back on that track, but right now he’s on that A-picture train and he’s getting a lot more creative freedoms afforded to him with his success. I don’t know that he needs to right now. And I’m kinda busy with the No. 1 show on cable. I don’t think about it a lot because I’m busy doing other stuff.
GM: What is it about these movies that have caused them to become so beloved by generations of fans and to endure the way that they have?
BC: I’ve met a lot of fathers and their sons who bonded through those movies — they didn’t get along but that those movies were they only thing they liked together. I think it’s because Ash is just a regular guy. He’s not special forces, he’s not Clint Eastwood, he’s not a squinty CIA, ex-Navy Seal. He’s nothing. He’s just a guy. He’s a garage mechanic. He’s not even that. He works in the housewares department. I think the average audience member goes, “Hey, he’s me! Look at him make that stupid mistake, what an idiot!” Because an average guy would make horrible mistakes. I love the fact that in a studio movie, Universal financed a movie where the lead character is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of innocent people. It just cracks me up every time I think of that. And I think audience members are like, “Oh my God! Ash can’t remember three simple words and he raises an army of the dead that comes to attack the castle. It’s all his fault.” It grounds it somehow, where you go, I don’t know if this guy is going to be able to pull this off or not.
Plus, Sam Raimi. “Evil Dead” took us 12 weeks to shoot. Most Roger Corman movies are like 10 days. We had days where we only got one shot. That’s absurd! He’d be fired under any other scenario. Each of the “Evil Dead” shoots was long and miserable. Every single one, but as a result, Sam’s really pulling off some cool stuff. The first “Evil Dead” we did a lot of cool stuff visually for nothing, “Army of Darkness” we spent more money on it, but he was always mixing puppets and animation. Sam’s an old magician. Every trick in the book he was using to torment the audience and entertain them. He’s a showman. Sam’s the closest to P.T. Barnum I’ve ever met. There’s a whole sequence in “Evil Dead” when Ash is going crazy that the entire thing is a 45-degree Dutch angle. Nowadays it’s not that extreme in the whole MTV world of fast editing and “Friday Night Lights” style-shooting, it’s not that big of a deal. But at the time when Sam came up with it, we were all looking at him like, “OK. Let’s just see.” Some of us backed it, and some of us didn’t because we were like, “Man, that’s just too extreme.” But it looked great. It’s probably one of the best sequences in the film.
I also feel that they’re handmade in a way. I’m not making a judgment call on whether the movies are good or bad. I think they’re not stamped out by a studio. They’re slightly weirder stories with an off-kilter lead character. It doesn’t make for mainstream success, but I think it makes for long-term success. “Evil Dead” was successful when it came out, “Evil Dead II” was in profit before we even made the movie, and “Army of Darkness” was a flat-out bomb. But now, it’s on American Movie Classics, so go figure. Twenty years later, it’s a classic. Last time I remember it was a bomb.
I also give a lot of credit to Anchor Bay. I think they were early pioneers in giving people all those crazy extras that we see on DVDs. The movie is two hours and the extras are 17 hours. I think they were early pioneers of commentary tracks, missing scenes, storyboards, interviews. They did a great job and they continue to be behind it. That’s part of it too. You can have a movie that people want to see but if no one’s there to market it…. And I’ve been touring for 20 years now myself. I’ve attended so many screenings of it and done so many interviews about it, I tend to keep the torch alive through a lot of my own activities. Wherever I go, it’s always going to come up.
GM: Speaking of your own activities, I understand you’d like to make a sequel to your most recent film, “My Name Is Bruce,” called “Bruce vs. Frankenstein” and that you’d like to be “The Expendables” of horror?
BC: Yeah, “The Expendables,” or more like the “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World” of horror. I want to get so many horror movie stars that people can’t possibly not see the movie. I want to give them other stuff to do. I want to have Kane Hodder be very particular about what he eats. I want Robert Englund to be a tough guy, like he knows tae kwon do or something. I want to find out the hidden sides of all these people. Some will play themselves, some will play alternate characters as well. I may approach Kane Hodder to play Frankenstein. He could be Kane Hodder himself fighting himself as Frankenstein. It could be crazy. It’s a silly concocted story that we hope to do maybe in a year or so. My breaks between “Burn Notice” have been getting tighter because they’ve been adding episodes. They’re trying to trap me like a rat in the TV world, and I might just let them. There’s a script, it just kind of blows right now, so no one’s really seeing it. We gotta work on it. Definitely shoot in Oregon all on a stage. It’s like the “300” of horror comedies. We want to make it a whole world. Someone’s gotta take Frank down for good.
— Gina McIntyre
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Photo credits: “Evil Dead,” Anchor Bay; “The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.,” Fox; “Army of Darkness,” Universal; Bruce Campbell jumping, Image Entertainment; “The Evil Dead” poster, Anchor Bay