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An Oral History of 'Evil Dead 2': 'We Were Like 'Jackass' With Plot'

A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Before Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II opened in 1987, horror movies had one objective: to scare audiences. But when Raimi and his filmmaking collective -- actor Bruce Campbell, writer Scott Spiegel and producer Rob Tapert -- decided to remake their 1983 debut, The Evil Dead, they added the kind of Three Stooges-esque humor that informed the Super 8 shorts they shot together growing up in the suburbs of Detroit. Thanks to that injection of slapstick, Evil Dead II -- about a guy (Campbell) visiting a cabin in the woods that's besieged by demons -- became a horror classic and set Raimi on the road to eventually directing Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man films. And it all started because they were desperate for work.

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Campbell (actor): The first Evil Dead was shot throughout '81 and '82. Then we went out to make a second film, Crimewave, with the Coen brothers. We did that in '83 and '84, and it was a stupendous bomb.

Tapert (producer): We were in filmmakers' jail. We had to get a movie going to keep our careers alive.

Campbell: We thought, "OK, well, [my character] Ash died at the end of the first Evil Dead. Or maybe he didn't …"

Tapert: Our sales agent, Irvin Shapiro, who handled Evil Dead and taught us everything about getting a movie in front of an audience and get it promoted, he said, "Boys, I want to take an ad out for Evil Dead 2." And we said, "We're never going to make Evil Dead 2." But Sam had the name Medieval Dead. So Irving Shapiro had an artist do an ad. He kept the Evil Dead franchise in the overseas buyers' minds.

Spiegel (co-writer): We wrote the bulk of it in Silver Lake. Sam had rented a house with Joel and Ethan Coen. Fran McDormand and Holly Hunter were our roommates. Holly was just getting [her career] started. I'll never forget her in her sweatpants on the floor in her room, reading scripts. We wrote [the character of] Bobby Joe for her, but Rob Tapert said, "We need a babe for that role."

Tapert: Without getting myself in trouble … (Laughs.) I thought we should look for somebody else.

Spiegel: He was probably right. But we were enamored by her.

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Campbell: At first, you know, we kept checking ourselves, like, "Guys, that's too expensive, we can't do that." But then we thought, "Why not just let them write it?"

Spiegel: There was this one sequence where all the inanimate objects laugh at Bruce after he falls on his ass. That came out of me picking up a gooseneck lamp and [going], "Yuk yuk yuk yuk yuk!" Sam said, "We're going to use that in the movie."

Campbell: It was like: "They're writing a horror movie. Why are they laughing so loud? Are these guys working down there?" And they'd turn in pages every day, and it was always the most ridiculous stuff. They thought it was the funniest thing they'd ever written.

Spiegel: Sometimes Sam would try and blackmail me. We had an annoying tenant who wouldn't leave us alone. And Sam would say, "If you don't like my idea, I'm going to write a note to Irv and slip it under his door." Like, "Please come over today." And I'm like, "NO!" And he did. So we used his idea.

Campbell: I think I can speak for all of us: We'd rather be doing slapstick comedy. But because we were so concerned, at the time, with getting our work into theaters, we thought: "Eh, horror films. That's a good way in."

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The script finished, they went about trying to secure financing. The first Evil Dead was shot for a meager $90,000 and would gross $2.4 million ($6.2 million in 2013 dollars) in theaters, but they had bigger ambitions for the sequel/remake and needed a moneyman. Enter King Kong producer Dino De Laurentiis.

Spiegel: Stephen King got Evil Dead a distributor by talking it up in Twilight Zone magazine. He was the one who suggested that Sam and Rob contact Dino De Laurentiis, who was doing [an adaptation of King's] Maximum Overdrive.

Tapert: Dino had approached us to adapt Stephen King's Thinner. Sam told him, "I can't right now, I'm working on Evil Dead II." And Dino says, "Really?" Six months later, we gave him the script for Evil Dead II. He had it translated into Italian and within 24 hours said yes.

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Campbell: Dino's biggest concern was that there would be a portion of the movie that was just my character, Ash. He was like: "You can't do that. Your audience is gonna freak out, they're gonna leave." And we had to convince him.

Spiegel: We wanted it to be "The Bruce Show." Shooting Bruce with that 9 mm lens.

Campbell: Sam knew that I could flip myself because we used to do dumb acrobatics in a group called the Bonzoid Sisters. … Our Super 8 movies, our amateur movies, were all very slapsticky, lots of blood. We were like Jackass with plot.

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Tapert recalls showing the script to people and hearing similar reactions every time: "You're out of your minds." Evil Dead II was the definition of ambitious, but with a modest budget of $4 million, Raimi, Campbell and Tapert stretched every dollar -- and recruited a team of young special effects wizards -- to fully realize the bloody mayhem. The production team eventually settled on a defunct junior high school in Wadesboro, N.C., to serve as their base of operations.

Campbell: The library was the production office. We reopened the cafeteria. The dailies were shown in the auditorium. Every department had a classroom. It was perfect.

Tapert: Bruce is a very organized individual. We needed to find a place to shoot it in. Bruce went off and hooked up with some of the locals. He's great at the local yokel aspects, scouting and all that.

Campbell: I had to go to the school board to get permission to use the school. By the time I was done, I had given something to every school board member: "You're a contractor, you can build the access door we need for the trucks." "Sure, you can put in the alarm system." "We'll use your lumber store for the sets." I gave something to everyone.

Mark Shostrom (special makeup design and creation): I was fairly new in the business, but my work was ambitious. They could get me cheaper than Rick Baker.

Greg Nicotero (special makeup design unit manager): We had a crew of about seven people who built everything. It's weird to think we only had a couple of us.

Shostrom: I brought [Greg] on to From Beyond and I kept him on because he was very good at organizing all the business stuff I always hated doing. I just wanted to do the artistic stuff. And Bob Kurtzman was my key person in terms of artistry. We had about 12 weeks in my shop with seven people on the main crew. But there was so much stuff to make. We basically finished Henrietta's molds and shipped them to North Carolina. When we got there, we had the lab set up in the school.

Campbell: I would get the call sheet every day, and there was always some stupid rig that I had to be in, or some monster makeup, or me cutting my arm off, or shooting someone in the face, and that always kept me busy. I never had time to go: "Sam, listen. Let's talk about my character …"

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Shostrom: I was under a lot of pressure on this film to deliver. I flew out after 12 weeks of prep; it was my birthday. We were supposed to shoot Bruce stabbing his own hand. His evil hand is dragging him, and he takes out a knife and pins it to the floor. I made a gelatin hand that had to bleed on cue. That was the first effect we had to shoot. I thought, "If I f--- this up …" Luckily, Bruce stabbed the hand, and it bled on cue and squirted up. After Sam yelled cut, Bruce lifted up his hand and said, "That sucker worked."

Nicotero: [The movie] was every trick in the book. Growing up [Sam] was a student of Universal monster movies and he loved Ray Harryhausen stuff. I didn't understand the comedy aspect until I got to know Sam. We were shooting the eyeball fly ball, where they step on the Pee-Wee head and the eyeball flies into Kassie Wesley's mouth. He was like, 'This is a direct rip-off of one of the pie fight episodes from The Three Stooges!' It all fell into place. He has a fantastic imagination and also a great sense of humor.

Evil Dead II continues to be a pinnacle of practical horror effects, but nothing was achieved with ease.

Shostrom: It was all simple push cables and puppeteering. Very basic stuff. When Evil Ed's head spins around, we basically made an extra head, cut it at the neck, pulled the collar up, and swirled it on a rod. Very low-tech.

Nicotero: The vine trick is that it's all shot in reverse. We'd wrap the vines around Kassie and then on action we would pull the vines off and they'd play the film in reverse. The only trick shot we did was we built one rig where we had prosthetics on her face and we fed vines through her skin. She was sitting in a chair and we had a fake floor and we pulled that in an opposite direction, so we could be on her face and, in reverse, we could pull the vines out and the floor of the forest was moving on a treadmill to make it look like she was pulled at high speed.

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Campbell: [The arm chain saw] was a hollowed-out hull with a grip inside. But the obnoxious part was not that -- not the weight of that, because it was gutted -- but Sam wanted it to be sputtering all the time. You know, "putt putt putt putt putt." And he wanted a little bit of smoke to come out so people could visually see that it was on. But it wasn't on. So they did a bunch of testing of blowing smoke through tubes, you know, from a smoke container and they figured out that the best thing -- for all this smoke to travel like we wanted it to through the tube -- was actually tobacco smoke. I was basically getting second-hand smoke all day long. And then the tubes were connected down my arm and out my leg and out the back. So I was sort of connected to this thing. And when they were done at the end of the day they pulled the tube out and my whole body had about an inch wide stain from all the tobacco smoke. It was very sexy.

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The trickiest effect wasn't even a major stunt. Evil Dead II's villainess, Possessed Henrietta, was a challenge, from design all the way through production.

Shostrom: I originally did a charcoal sketch of a skinny dead lady with her bones jutting through. I told Sam, "We have to get a really skinny lady for the performer." And he said: "No. I need someone I can really depend on. It has to be my brother, Ted."

Ted Raimi (actor): I was 20. Twenty-year-olds have no regard for their mortality or anyone else's. I was the perfect age to be in that movie.

Shostrom: I understood Sam's thinking: If you get your brother, you can torture the hell out of him. But we couldn't make Ted skinny, we could only make him fat. So we did a fat dead lady. When I started sculpting Henrietta's body, I didn't have any reference photos. I had one European photography book, these cool art photos that had some fat people occasionally. So I sent someone out -- this is before the Internet -- to a couple magazine stores. "Find me porn magazines, calendars -- I need naked fat ladies!" And he only found one, a calendar. But I later saw a rather fat lady at a pizza shop and she had these varicose veins on her legs, so I added that. I had very little reference.

Ted Raimi: The process would start at 3 a.m. Howard Berger, Greg Nicotero, Bob Kurtzman and Mark Shostrom would begin gluing prosthetics on my face. That took about two hours. Then they would do the hands. Then the suit would go on, but the suit had giant beanbags to give it girth, which increased the weight by 20 pounds. [After] the suit went on, it had to be blended into the face.

Nicotero: Imagine, you're shooting in 110 degrees, and your skin can't breathe and you're covered head-to-toe in prosthetics. It was a sheer test of endurance for Ted.

Ted Raimi: I needed a respirator between takes. It's the acting version of the Rommel campaign.

Nicotero: Because the eyes were completely white, any time you put lenses in someone, they were completely blind. We would rehearse, then last minute I would put the contact lenses in.

Campbell: [Those contacts] were like putting pieces of Tupperware under your eyelids.

Nicotero: When he would sweat, it filled up the latex feet. We would put baby powder on him before we put him in the suit. When we took the feet off, it was like a sweat-and-baby powder paste.

Shostrom: There are several shots in the film where he's up on the wire and you can see this huge stream of sweat. Not a drip -- a faucet stream coming out of his ear.

Ted Raimi: As far as this being an easy way to get my SAG card … this was the f---ing hardest way.

The original Evil Dead, released by New Line Cinema, was rated "X" -- for violence -- and even banned from being shown in some countries. For Evil Dead II, the plan was to avoid ratings issues. No such luck.

Tapert: We went out of our way to change the color of the blood so that it didn't seem too realistic. But [the MPAA was] always going to be harsh because we took the first picture out without a rating.

Shostrom: Sam was afraid of using red blood except for on Bruce.

Nicotero: Back then, our understanding was that as long as it's not human blood spraying around, we'll be fine. At that time, the ratings board was really zeroing in on the gore. I think ultimately they said, "It's more about the mutilation of corpses by chain saws." That's why Evil Dead II came out unrated.

Tapert: To Dino's credit, he thought that was the strength of it. He didn't want to cut it. So he formed another company to put it out because Dino couldn't put it out without a rating.

The out-of-nowhere ending of Evil Dead II speaks directly to all involved on the movie's legacy: It was crazy, shouldn't have worked, and it made for some of the best material -- and memories -- in their careers.

Spiegel: There was a discussion about ending Evil Dead II with Bruce out of his mind. But I'm glad we stuck with the 1300 A.D. thing and it turned out so well. I was always a fan of Irwin Allen's Time Tunnel.

Tapert: We wanted it set up very definitely. To leave an open door. No, it wasn't risky -- but it was expensive. It was a big gig to build that castle. We had people working for months, this facade on an edge of a cliff in a quarry. I'm glad we did that.

Released by DeLaurentiis' DEG, Evil Dead II went on to gross $5.9 million ($12.3 million today) before it became a home-video cult favorite -- back when home video was a real revenue stream -- with nearly a dozen different DVD and Blu-ray editions. Raimi went on to make films like Darkman, The Quick and the Dead, another Evil Dead sequel, Army of Darkness, his Spider-Man trilogy and Oz the Great and Powerful (all of which feature cameos by Campbell, and many of which were produced by Tapert, a partner with Raimi in Renaissance Pictures).

Campbell: We did a test in Burbank. I hate previewing because it's a weird gauge. You're asking a bunch of bored, unemployed people to watch a movie for free. But we had a screening, a rough cut with rough special effects, and they reacted just as we hoped. They laughed, they jumped. We didn't screw up.