“The Most Terrifying Film You Will Ever Experience,” promises the teaser poster for the upcoming remake of Sam Raimi's 1981 horror classic “The Evil Dead.” Talk about setting the bar high.
Then again, the marketing team is merely following precedent. One of the most controversial movies of the 1980s, Raimi's film, about five college students who unleash demonic forces after playing a recording of incantations from an ancient Book of the Dead, proved a sleeper success in part because of all the moral outrage that surrounded its initial release. So selling the remake as a truly extreme entry in the horror genre isn't exactly a bad way to go.
There's also that blood-soaked red-band trailer released to the interwebs late last week, which depicts, among other things: a beautiful young blonde woman slicing off her demonically-possessed arm with an electric knife; another character mutilating her face with a shard of glass; and lead actress Jane Levy vomiting a river of blood into another woman”s mouth. Truly, the Sony marketing team is going for the jugular here.
Oddly enough, the remake was shot all the way out in Hobbit country (f.k.a. New Zealand), which is why I found myself in Auckland over the summer (errr…winter) to visit the set of the Ghost House production. Always skeptical of such obvious cash-in endeavors, I was curious (though not exactly optimistic) of the remake's potential to put an actual inspired spin on a tried-and-true title. Or at the very least, not be afraid to soak the screen in crimson.
“One day I was at a place and I get a call saying, 'Hey, it seems like Sam [Raimi] wants you to remake 'Evil Dead' for him,” says Fede Alvarez, the young Uruguayan director who won the job of helming the new version, as he simultaneously slaps a hand down on the table in front of him. “And we pitched something to him, right? It wasn't exactly the story [we have now] but the tone was there. I was trying to make the movie I saw when I was 12. I watched 'Evil Dead' when I was 12 years old. I went to the video store and I asked for the scariest movie they could give me. The guy looked around and said, 'Here, take this.' And he gave me 'The Evil Dead.' And I was like, 'What? It looks like a porn movie.'”
Prior to speaking with Alvarez we were taken on a tour of the film's outdoor set, our first stop being the rustic outdoor cabin constructed in the forests just outside of Auckland. Surrounded by tall, non-native pine trees that give the setting a distinctly “North American” flair, the austere structure appears to be almost an exact replica of the backwoods shanty featured in the original film.
Inside, a collection of faux-family photos featuring cast members Jane Levy and Shiloh Ferandez – who play rehabbing heroin addict/main heroine Mia and her brother David – adorn the walls. In the film they've come to this remote place to help aid in Mia's recovery, and along for the ride are three companions: Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), Olivia (Jessica Lucas) and Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), David's girlfriend. If you ask me, it's a pretty dreary location in which to tackle your demons; with a dusty, broken-down piano tossed against one wall and a rusted out car sitting out back, it seems more like a place that someone might come to die.
In the shed a few paces away, blood splatter adorns the musty walls, telling tales of savagery and chaos. A chainsaw sits idle on a rotting shelf, sharing space with rusty paint cans and a small animal cage.
We move outside. Walking among the pines – the tops of which sway eerily in the wind as if a wild, unhinged spirit is moving through them – we come across a Ford station wagon that has crashed off the main road, its front wheels resting beside a pool of stagnant water. In the distance, waves crash like low, rolling thunder.
It is then that a contortion of branches catch my eye – long wooden fingers tangled into an unnatural mass on the ground, as if they had come to sentient life of their own accord. They appeared to have been sent forth from the belly of a nearby tree, which is wretched and gnarled and…watching me.
For those who have already viewed the red-band trailer, the most infamous moment from the original film – the rape of a young woman by a demonically-possessed tree – appears to have been “modernized” for the remake, which seems a good indication of Alvarez and the studios” willingness to “go there” in terms of testing the MPAA”s limits.
“I have always been exceedingly concerned about [getting an NC-17],” says producer Rob Tapert, a tan, salt-and-pepper industry veteran who has been with the franchise from the very beginning. “Because they swing so much as to what they decide on a weekly basis is an NC-17 or an R or a PG-13, I just don”t know. But FilmDistrict, who bought this, Peter Schlessel”s company…they all said, ‘we want this [to be] the hardest R you guys can give us.” And so, we”re certainly shooting that. I suspect there”ll be pushback, because ‘Evil Dead” and ‘Evil Dead II” both went out unrated. The film board never forgot that. It”s like passed down as…”when ‘The Evil Dead” or these guys come in with a project, hit ’em hard.”
Indications of the finished product”s hardcore nature can be seen in the collection of gruesome concept art adorning the walls of the room where we conduct interviews with cast and crew. “Swallow this, motherfucker,” reads the caption for one, evoking Ash”s famous one-liner from “Evil Dead II.” Another is titled “Mia vs. Evil Mia” – the accompanying artwork depicting the titular struggle in appropriately over-the-top fashion.
“I could name ten of the most horrible things that could ever happen to you in your whole life, and all of those ten things happen to this character,” said Levy of her rehabbing protagonist, who represents nearly the polar opposite of the lovably cynical teen she plays on ABC”s “Suburgatory.” “It”s, like, a horror of all horror films. It is extreme, and that”s a lot of the reason I took this project on. I thought like why not do the most extreme movie possible? And the farthest from what I”ve been doing for the past year.”
Unlike the original film, which saw the quip-heavy Ash (Bruce Campbell) fending off the murderous advances of his group of “Deadite-ized” friends, the remake features a Linda Blair-esque Levy wreaking supernatural havoc on those unlucky enough to have accompanied her on her road to sobriety.
“I had a tube practically down my throat, and I'm on top of this girl and vomiting all over her,” says Levy, describing the process of shooting the “blood-barf” moment seen in the trailer. “When you actually do something like that – I don't think I can actually describe the sensation – but I actually went to the corner and cried. I'm really sensitive, but I felt like I was really drowning my friend Jessica [Lucas], it felt so bad. I was shaking.”
Given the squeaky-clean sitcom role she”s become best known for, seeing a crazy-eyed Levy splitting open her tongue with a straight-razor before forcing her tongue down the throat of one of her female co-stars comes as something of a shock upon first viewing the trailer. What makes the moment so terrifying (for my money, this is one of the outright scariest trailers to come down the pike in years) is that in the gleam of her deranged stare something recognizably human lurks. So it's not surprising to learn that that combination of the demonic and the mortal is something the young actress was aiming to convey with her performance.
“We”ve seen possessed people a lot of times in movies, and as an actor you”re always interested in trying something new,” said Levy of portraying the Deadite version of Mia. “I actually chose to humanize my Deadite a little bit, and I hope that turns out to be scary. I tried not to do much of like spider crawling up wall, psycho body contortion…just because I guess I wanted to try something new, and I also thought, and Fede thinks, that the idea of there being a human quality is almost scarier. …Finding something that you can relate to about this person who”s also doing horrible things, I thought would be terrifying.”
Clad in a gray sweatshirt and glasses and with a full head of long, curly hair, Fede Alvarez leads us through a soundstage-bound replica of the cabin we toured earlier on location, this one completely ravaged by the aftermath of no-holds-barred “Man vs. Deadite” warfare.
In the kitchen, the infamous electric knife glimpsed in the trailer lies dormant on a blood-splattered floor, while a nearby refrigerator has also been doused with gore. In the bathroom, a broken mirror and sink share space with a carnage-soaked shower, while one of the bedrooms contains a shotgun and, most tellingly, the Book of the Dead that holds the keys to unleashing the demonic forces of the title. It too, is smeared with blood.
Later we follow Alvarez up two flights of stairs onto a tall wooden platform, only to be directed to a square hole in the center of the floor. A ladder descends into the dark opening, at the bottom of which lies the “cellar” that in the original film was used to contain Ash”s possessed sister Cheryl. Equipped with a flashlight, Alvarez leads us down into the black pit.
As we enter the caliginous space, one of the first sights on offer is a dead white cat wrapped in barbed wire. Moving further inside, we soon come across dozens of them – cats in wire, hanging from the ceiling; and chains too, slick with blood. Also present are countless melted-down candles, a blood-coated straight razor, and even a chunk of brain littering the floor – a remnant, we are informed, of a human head explosion.
“I don't remember the cover, but I remember the back cover,” says Fede, back in the interview room and recounting that fateful day in the video store as an impressionable 12-year-old. “I remember it was Cheryl in the basement. …We were talking about this the other day…we had to do a Deadite in the cellar. It was kind of a flashback to then, remembering what it was like to see that face for the first time and to try to make something scarier when remaking it. That was the biggest challenge.
“Basically what we pitched to Raimi was doing a movie in the same tone, with the same horror that I personally experienced when I watched it for the first time,” he continues. “Today you can watch 'The Evil Dead' and go, ‘oh it's campy!” But then I didn't laugh at any moment. It was traumatic. I was 12 and it was something I shouldn't have [watched]. I should have been way older.”
Speaking of tone, Alvarez makes it clear that this new “Evil Dead” will be a straight-up horror film, shorn of the trappings of black humor running through Raimi”s original. He”s approached it this way, in a sense, out of respect for his predecessor”s unique vision.
“It's his style definitely, that kind of very violent horror that”s at the same time over-the-top comedy,” Alvarez tells us. “So going in to make a movie is not about doing that same style or approach. It would have been so wrong…right away we agreed that we wanted to make a more serious movie. And Mr. Bruce Campbell was like, ‘okay, this is a new set of characters.” We don't want to remake the old characters. In particular, we don't want to remake Ash. I've been a fan of this forever and I'm not going to touch Ash. That's something you don't do.”
Interestingly, it was just that approach that won over Campbell – a producer on the franchise since the very first film – who was originally one of the remake's most vocal detractors.
“It was interesting that it was Sam [Raimi] who was most for it, I was relatively indifferent, and Bruce was kind of dead-set against it,” says Tapert. “But the beauty of [Fede”s] pitch and what got Bruce aboard was there was no Ash character. And up until that time, that was the tripping point. Everyone else we spoke to had talked about…’oh, let”s make Ash into this or do that”…none of those were the right thing that were gonna get it made. It was Fede that actually…brought that linchpin to getting the project made and of saying, ‘We”re not gonna deal with that, we”re gonna go in a different direction.””
But will fans of the original series at least be given the satisfaction of a Bruce Campbell cameo?
“If Fede had his druthers, there”s a gag that they wanna do,” says Tapert, not sounding convinced of the idea. “[But] I don”t see it as having…it won”t sell another ticket, I say.”
Perhaps he”s right. Nevertheless, Campbell (unfortunately not on set during our brief visit) has been an active presence throughout the process of the remake”s development.
“Bruce…[sent] us an email that was just kind of like, ‘Don't worry about trying to copy anything that we did, or trying to make it anything like what we did, because what we did worked for a totally different reason than what you guys are trying to do,”” says cast member Lou Taylor Pucci, who sits down for a chat in full “Deadite” makeup. “So I thought that was kind of cool. Everybody is on the same page about us making our own characters that [have] nothing to do with the original characters.”
Pucci, who counts himself as a major fan of the original film, predicts that old-school “Evil Dead” aficionados will be more or less evenly split in their reaction to the remake, with the deciding factor being their willingness to embrace a new spin on Raimi”s original.
“I think half of them are gonna love it and half of them are gonna hate it,” says the actor. “Because I mean really, it takes some of the best things from the old one, but it also gives some totally new ideas on it. I mean, you don”t care anything about those original characters at all. Some people love that you don't though, and some people would rather follow an actual story. And that”s what this is.”
On the monitor, we watch as David (Fernandez) pushes Mia (Levy) out of the cabin, shutting and locking the door behind her.
“No! No! No!” she screams frantically.
“Get outta here,” he says through the door, blood flowing from a wound in his neck.
Several takes of this. And then a different scene inside the cabin, as viewed over the monitor:
Shaky handheld camerawork. Deadite Eric (Pucci) advances on David, blood streaming down the front of his shirt. “He”s coming for you,” says the undead young man.
Still inside the cabin. David holds a shotgun on Deadite Eric – “get away,” he warns. And then something else happens that I won”t spoil, but which is immediately preceded by the following line: “Join us…one more soul to rise.” In the space of a few seconds Eric has fallen to his knees, a position he remains in for a moment before finally crumpling to the floor.
Same setup, new take. Pucci takes a drink of fake blood and holds it in his mouth. As Alvarez yells “Action!” he releases it. The blood streams down his chin and onto his shirt.
Same scene, new setup. A roving camera moves up and down, in and out. A few seconds in, Pucci”s Deadite contact pops out and falls to the floor. “I just lost an eye,” he proclaims. The crew bursts into laughter.
Same scene, new setup. A tracking shot through the living room of the cabin ends on a closeup of David”s face. He looks straight into camera. Something”s not right.
“This group of guys, they”re really troopers,” says Alvarez of his actors. “They”re really going for it. I mean, I see them suffer and I enjoy it so much. It has to be that way. If you feel bad for them, if you”re like ‘Oh no, let”s not do another take.” Oh no, fuck no, you go again. And usually they”re grateful the next day because they see the last take when they were like ‘Fuck, I”m miserable” and they look awesome. It turns into something real…That”s why Bruce Campbell wrote to them and said, ‘You have to suffer because movies [that] are easy to make are hard to watch.””
No doubt, the production has been an extremely trying experience for its young cast.
“Sometimes I don't really have to act,” says Levy. “I'm actually freezing cold, and I'm so tired that I'm crying, because I'm so cold and I want to go home. Really, just like my character.”
Echoes Pucci: “Yesterday… I think that was my worst day ever. And it's because I had to do all day what I'm doing just for a little bit of the day today. But it's the exact same thing: I'm covered in water right now, and wearing mesh under this and knee pads and shit that doesn't let water out. And I was just sleeping, but that's usually not well-enjoyed because I have these fucking contacts in that are – you can't even see. It's the worst thing in the world.”
Many of the hardships for the actors came as a result of Alvarez and the producers” mandate that nearly every effect be done practically (“we all saw ‘The Thing” remake,” chuckles the director) – a precept that in a sense fits with the more “realistic” feel they”re attempting to bring to this new version.
“For a supernatural story, it”s very grounded,” says Alvarez. “[There are] no people floating. There”s nothing that you can witness that you go like, ‘woah, ok, this is supernatural.” They are dealing with violence and things that happen, everything that they witness is from the real world. …So basically, we designed [it] in a way that every time [one of the characters gets] possessed, like the first stage is like some kind of self-mutilation – particularly the face. So they do something to themselves, and they”re in some state of hysteria…they”ll look fucked up. And they”ll look very scary. But if it”s something that happened naturally because of the wound they inflict on themselves.”
If Alvarez, Raimi, Campbell and Tapert have their way, one thing that will remain constant from the original film is that sense of penalizing the audience for daring to subject themselves to a film they”ve essentially been warned against from the get-go.
“We took it seriously…there was a motto that we wanted to punish the audience,” says Tapert. “This one has the same straightforward goals. …It really is to go for the jugular…as often as we can.”
“Evil Dead” hits theaters on April 12.