May 10, 2017

Watch: How 'The Evil Dead' Became One of the Biggest Low-Budget Box Office Hits of All Time

Sam Raimi's unceasing effort to make a low-budget feature led to one of the greatest horror trilogies of all time.

I've lost count of how many times I've recommended the Evil Dead movies at this point. One of the reasons I advise that everyone watch these movies is that they're a truly incredible case study on the type of creativity that budget restrictions can encourage in a resourceful filmmaker. Who knows if this trilogy would've been as successful as it was if Raimi hadn't created it as an easy-to-shoot, one location throwback to the even lower-budget exploitative horror films his generation grew up with?

[Note: If you somehow still haven't watched the trilogy, then you may want to stay away from watching too much of this video, because there are heavy spoilers throughout. ]

Let's start back in Raimi's college days at Western Michigan University. Raimi, along with his brother's roommate Rob Tapert and future star Bruce Campbell, was obsessed with Super 8 mm film. They became avid short filmmakers on the medium and would set up screenings at the school's auditorium where they would charge students to get in. Campbell became the "actor" of the group, as "he was the one that girls wanted to look at." It wasn't long before their offbeat, cultish shorts became popular enough within the community to further their ambition to bigger and better things. 

That came in the form of their first feature, It's Murder whose poster promised “crazy comedy gags” and “zany boffo stunts.” It only made about $2,000 gross but, more importantly, the audience’s reaction to the film's scarier moments convinced Tapert that they should make a horror film. And thus, The Book of the Dead was born.

"It's Murder!" Poster

As a proof of concept, the group shot a short called Within The Woods to raise money to shoot their feature, the title of which would later be changed to The Evil Dead. The plot was very similar to what The Evil Dead would actually become. For reference, Raimi studied exploitative horror films showing at his local drive-in theaters. They raised $90,000 as a testament to their efforts and set off on production. Raimi was just about to turn twenty years old.

Now, even by 1979's standards, $90,000 was a pretty measly sum of money to shoot a feature with.  But it's what they managed to do with the money that makes the film so special. To be fair, it was a pretty dangerous set. They used real gunfire and shattering glass, and several minor injuries occurred as a result. A cameraman famously slipped during filming, smashing his camera into Bruce Campbell's face and knocking out several of the actor's teeth. In fact, many of the 37 members that comprised the film's cast and crew say it was one of the worst experiences they'd ever been involved in due to freezing temperatures, the locale, and Raimi's filming which took endless hours.

Indeed, the temperatures were so cold during shooting that the camera and other wiring froze. They then had to be thawed by the fireplace inside the cabin. For the most part, it was filmed inside a real-life abandoned cabin, except for the basement, which was a composite of Raimi's garage, and Tapert's parent's house. 

"Evil Dead" Credit: New Line Cinema
It also features some innovations we'd never seen before in horror. The demonic POV shots were achieved by the "shaky cam," a rig set up simply by mounting a camera to a two by four, and held by Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell as they ran along on either side. Stop motion animation was used to produce one of the goriest scenes in the entire trilogy, as a body decomposes before Ash's very eyes.

They ran out of money pretty quickly.  After completing principal photography in the winter of 1979-1980, most of the actors left the production. However, much of the film still needed to be completed. For that reason, most of the second half of the film features Campbell and various stand-ins Raimi dubbed "Fake Shemps" to replace the actors who left. They did everything they could to complete the film, from taking out high-interest bank loans, borrowing money from friends and family and even making cold calls to businesses around their hometown state of Michigan. 

If you want an example of a truly collaborative film, there perhaps is none better than The Evil Dead.  The amount of sacrifice each crew member gave to the film is truly remarkable. In a last ditch effort, Bruce Campbell put up his family's property in Northern Michigan as collateral so that Raimi not only could finish the film, but also blow it up to 35 mm film which was required for theatrical release at the time. Raimi was so grateful for Campbell's financial contribution, he credited him as Co-Producer.

"Evil Dead: Credit: New Line Cinema

In the end, the film may have run over schedule and its $90,000 budget ended up inflating towards $400,000, but they were picked up for a theatrical release, and Evil Dead would go on to gross more than two million dollars. 

In my opinion, the process of watching this trilogy unfold over the next two films is one of the most enjoyable experiences in cinematic history. The tone of the series gets much more humorous and slap-stick, and the special effects greatly improve as their budget grows bigger. From the get-go, Raimi, Campbell, and Tapert have been fearless filmmakers and the story they decide to tell in The Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness is nearly impossible to see coming.  

So once again, if you have the stomach for it, please watch the Evil Dead trilogy. It may just end up making you a better director.      

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2 Comments

Thanks. Hope we can do a movie like this.

May 10, 2017 at 1:55PM, Edited May 10, 1:55PM

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Sameir Ali
Director of Photography
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I love the Evil Dead movies. I kind of define the whole series as gore comedy.

If you really want a rags to riches success story for true horror then I would have to say 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' (1974) takes the cake. Final budget of $300,000 and grossing over $30 million. It truly stuck terror with a ever possible "abduction and torture" theme which seemed possible in real life. It touched a natural fear people have. Similar to how people stopped swimming in the ocean or lakes after 'Jaws' (1975).

In TTCM, the sound of the camera flash bulbs in the opening scene/monologue has been copied so many times now in movies and music if only to establish the mood for terror. https://vimeo.com/72629426

And don't forget 'Halloween' (1978) $300,000 turned into $50 Million!

May 10, 2017 at 2:40PM, Edited May 10, 3:01PM

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Timothy Cook
Self employed storyteller.
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