Hero. Warrior. Champion. Slayer of Deadites. Loverboy. Fool. Moron. These are but a few of the adjectives used to describe the iconic character of Ashley Joanna “Ash” Williams, portrayed by horror legend Bruce Campbell. For over four decades since the release of the groundbreaking horror film The Evil Dead (1981), the name Ash has become synonymous with horror, and, believe it or not, comedy. As directed and created by Sam Raimi, the film’s sequel, Evil Dead II (1987) might just be the funniest horror film of all time.
Raimi, Campbell, and producer Robert Tapert all grew up in and around Michigan. Raimi and Campbell had been friends since their teenage years. By the time they were attending college in Michigan, the seeds had already been planted for what was soon to come. While The Evil Dead was a darker and more brutal film, Raimi wanted the sequel to be lighter and funnier. He also wanted it infused with the kind of stuff that the trio had loved as kids. This includes slapstick comedy, The Three Stooges, and a love of professional wrestling.
Raimi’s sequel took the lore, inventive camera work, and gore of his first film, and built on it. Ash was transformed from a scared and timid loser, into an over-the-top hunk with matinee idol good looks, and bravery to match. He also became incredibly stupid and ridiculous. The result was that the sequel outshone and even outgrew the original. It went on to become one of the most influential horror-comedy films of all time. On this Halloween, Cinema Scholars is pleased to present this retrospective on the landmark and essential horror film, Evil Dead II.
The genesis of producing a sequel to The Evil Dead had taken root during the first film’s production. Producer Irvin Shapiro had brought up the topic to Raimi, who said yes to the idea. Raimi did insist, however, that the sequel would be a large-budget epic that took place in medieval times. It would also have Ash and the Deadites traveling back in time. Raimi worked on a script with writer Sheldon Lettich to produce a screenplay. Shapiro liked the idea so much that in 1984, he took out ads in the trade papers announcing Evil Dead II: Evil Dead and the Army Of Darkness. All the studios that they pitched the idea to, quickly passed.
Raimi, Campbell, and Tapert quickly switched gears and re-teamed with Joel and Ethan Coen (Joel had been an editor on The Evil Dead) on an unnamed screenplay. Retitled Relentless, and then changed again to The XYZ Murders, it was finally changed to Crimewave (1985). By all accounts, the experience in making Crimewave was a miserable one for the trio, with the film tanking at the box office. It was also a learning experience. Subsequently, they revisited their original idea of continuing the saga of Ashley Williams. Campbell reflected on bringing Ash back for a sequel to The Hollywood Reporter back in 2013:
“…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…We thought, “OK, well, Ash died at the end of the first Evil Dead. Or maybe he didn’t…”
Raimi knew the budget for Evil Dead II would far exceed that of the $400,000 spent on the original. He tried in vain to negotiate a deal with Embassy Home Entertainment, the distributor of Crimewave. While negotiations stalled, Raimi focused on lining up a cast and crew for the sequel. Enter acclaimed author Stephen King. He had championed the original film, calling it “the most ferociously original horror film of the year.” King mentioned the sequel project to producer Dino De Laurentiis, who was producing King’s Maximum Overdrive (1986). De Laurentiis agreed to put up $3.6 million in financing on the condition the sequel be similar to Raimi’s original. The director’s plan for catapulting Ash back in time was scrapped.
Early drafts of the script for Evil Dead II had intended to be a direct continuation of The Evil Dead. Footage from the original film was even supposed to be used in the sequel’s prologue, thereby bridging the two films together. Essentially, Ash was to still be at the cabin and still trying to escape from the Deadites. Raimi and writer Scott Spiegel worked through seven different drafts of the script while hunkered down in Raimi’s house in Silver Lake, Los Angeles, which he shared with Joel and Ethan Coen, Frances McDormand, Kathy Bates, and Holly Hunter.
With a limited budget and pressure from De Laurentiis, Raimi and Spiegel felt the logical alternative was to go back to the cabin. They also decided that instead of continuing the story of The Evil Dead, they would make a straight-up remake. An introduction and recap of the previous film would be shown at the beginning. However, Raimi, Tapert, Campbell, and their Renaissance Pictures were unable to use footage from the original film due to the fact that Irvin Shapiro’s production company had sold distribution rights to The Evil Dead to distributors all over the world. Getting licensing permission would be impossible. Raimi spoke with IGN back in 2015 regarding how Evil Dead IIcame to be:
“…I thought Bruce had died at the end of that movie. [The Evil Dead]. It was only once we had our taste of Hollywood, with Embassy Pictures, with them taking our picture [Crimewave] away from us, recasting it, recutting it, putting their own music on it, taking control of the mix…Only after that awful, awful experience did we realize, we can’t do this again. Hollywood is messed up. We need to get back to independent filmmaking…The only movie that we thought could get financed would be Evil Dead 2. It’s a movie where we’d have control again…”
Betsy Baker who had co-starred with Campbell in The Evil Dead was asked to reprise her now legendary role as Linda. Baker declined as she was newly married and expecting her first child. Subsequently, the role was given to Denise Bixler. Because of having to reshoot the recap of the first film with new footage and new actors, the continuity between the two films has become somewhat murky. This has been a source of debate over the decades. The character of Bobbie Jo had been originally written for Holly Hunter. However, she was busy filming Raising Arizona (1987) for the Coen Brothers. That part was subsequently given to Kassie Wesley.
Dan Hicks, who passed away in 2020 was cast as Jake. A shotgun-carrying hillbilly, Hick’s performance greatly added to the film’s overall comedic tone. His mannerisms and speech patterns are so over-the-top that you can’t help but laugh. The back-and-forth banter and physical play between Hicks and Campbell are particularly hilarious. For the rest of his career, Hicks would continue to appear in Raimi-helmed projects. This included Easy Wheels (1989), Darkman (1990), Army of Darkness (1992), Spider-Man 2 (2004), and Oz The Great and Powerful(2013). All of these films benefited from Hicks’ unique brand of acting.
Principal photography on Evil Dead II commenced in May 1986. With a modest $4 million budget, producers Raimi, Campbell, and Tapert had to stretch every dollar. As a result, they recruited a young team of special effects artists. They would work on creating the psychedelic and insane gore-fest that the trio was envisioning. The hires included Mark Shostrom, Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero, and Howard Berger. All of these people have since gone on to become some of the very best visual effects artists in the industry. Effects artist Verne Hyde created the now legendary chainsaw for Ash, which could slip right onto the stump where his hand used to be.
Filming of Evil Dead II took place in and around Wadesboro, North Carolina. Coincidently, this was in close proximity to the production offices for De Laurentiis, located in Wilmington, Deleware, and only a few hours away. De Laurentiis had wanted Raimi and his team to relocate and shoot the film in his upscale studio space. Raimi, however, rejected this idea as they didn’t want De Laurentiis to be too hands-on during the grueling production. Steven Spielberg had recently completed filming The Color Purple (1985) in Wadesboro. The farmhouse in Spielberg’s film would become the production office for Raimi and his crew.
The production team hoped to use J.R. Faison Junior High School as a soundstage. Campbell met with the school board, and a deal was made. As an additional benefit, many members of the school board also had businesses that would be able to assist in the production of the film. They were able to rent the entire school for $500 a month. The school’s gym was where the main sets were built. This included the interior of the cabin and the infamous fruit cellar. The cabin was built on two levels with the fruit cellar on the ground level and the cabin located above. Several classrooms were turned into special effects workshops. As has now become the stuff of legend, the interior of the cabin was built to be significantly larger on the inside than on the outside, almost comically so. The windows and door frames were also constructed slightly askew to give off a surreal effect when things begin to go off the rails.
Unlike the first film, the production of Evil Dead II went fairly smoothly. There were still some issues, however. In this case, it was the costume of Sam Raimi’s younger brother, Ted. Portraying the demon-possessed Henrietta, Ted had to wear a full-body latex suit and crawl around in the cellar, at one point being levitated and spun around in the air. With the hot temperatures reaching 100 degrees and the gym flooded with Tungsten lighting, Raimi became overheated. In fact, he was sweating so profusely that when watching Evil Dead II you can see water pouring out of the leg and head portions of the costume.
Campbell had an intensive workout regime, pumping iron six days a week. This lasted throughout the physically demanding three-month shoot. A majority of the gravity-defying stunts were performed by Campbell. This included being launched through the forest via the Sam Raimi trademarked Sam-o-Cam, a cast iron X that Campbell was mounted to. This was then connected to a motorized rig and hitched onto the back of a truck. Filmed on a mile stretch of a deserted road, you can see the overhanging tree limbs smacking Campbell in the face as the truck drives slowly along. The speed of the camera is cranked up a bit so that when slowed down to 24 frames per second, Campbell would appear to be traveling at high speeds.
Post-Production and Release
Post-production on Evil Dead II took place in Michigan. This included numerous reshoots that needed to be done. Many of these post-production shoots would take place in a warehouse in Dearborn. Some of the now iconic scenes created here included the headless Linda attacking Ash with a chainsaw, the film’s ending involving the time vortex sequence, and the ‘blood flood’ scenes. Bobby Jo’s vine attack was also reshot in woods near the Dearborn warehouse as well as additional exposition voice-over work. Composer Joe LoDuca was hired toward the end of production and he had less than a month to lay down a soundtrack. Also, unlike the first film, LoDuca’s score needed to be the perfect blend of horror and comedy.
One of the biggest battles with regard to getting Evil Dead IIin theaters would be with the MPAA. Raimi’s film, despite all of his attempts at editing, was most likely doomed to get an ‘X’ rating. Further, the director was breaking the terms of his contract with De Laurentiis. This is because Raimi was obligated to deliver a film that was rated R. As a result, De Laurentiis decided not to submit the film for a rating review and was not given on-screen credit. What De Laurentiis did do, however, is create a shell company named Rosebud Releasing Corporation. This would allow the film to be shown in the US unrated. The Rosebud logo, a time-lapsed rose blooming against a painted sky, was designed and shot by Raimi.
Evil Dead II opened theatrically on Friday the 13th, of March 1987. The initial release fared poorly, with a weekend take of just over $800,000. This was due to the film’s limited release. Ultimately Raimi’s sequel would go on to gross almost $6 million worldwide, doing particularly well in Italy and Japan. The World premiere of the film was at the Mann Westwood 4 Theater in Los Angeles (now a Whole Foods Market) and the cast signed autographs before the show. Many fans of the original film were there, some dressed up like something out of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). Both films have followed a similar trajectory and have attained a cult-like status and a particular love from the college circuit. Bruce Campbell spoke with Consequence in 2018 about how he feels about the horror genre after decades as one of its icons:
“…I respect horror for what it can do. Aside from comedy, it’s one of the few genres that can make someone actually have a visceral experience with the movie, like shouting and screaming, talking back to it, or jumping or lurching in their seats. It’s just really one of the few genres that can get you physically agitated…”
Unlike Campbell’s action-hero contemporaries of the 1980s, the character of Ash was more Willis than Schwarzenegger. In Evil Dead II, Ash comes across as a self-deprecating regular guy who you can’t help but love and root for. Even if he is an idiot. With his ever-faithful chainsaw and boom stick (shotgun), Campbell dominates the screen in one of the signature horror performances over the last thirty-five years. You can see why Sam Raimi bristled when the studio rejected his choice of Campbell to play the lead in Crimewave. Perhaps with final cut and artistic control, that film could have been saved. Still, it took the debacle of Crimewave to create the seminal masterpiece that is Evil Dead II.
Evil Dead IIdidn’t have the big budget and pedigree of a Christopher Nolan or James Cameron film. It didn’t need to. There’s a reason Raimi’s masterpiece has stayed so relevant for more than three decades. It took the small amount of money that it had to spend and threw it all up on the screen. Vibrant colors. Stunning and psychedelic imagery. Inventive and atmospheric music and sound effects. Over-the-top acting and cartoonish amounts of blood and gore. Blend all of this together and add The Three Stooges brand of slapstick comedy and you get something that had never been done before. Something…groovy.
If You Enjoyed This Article We Recommend:
THE EVIL DEAD – A 40th Anniversary Retrospective (Click Here)
Universal Monsters: A Legacy in Horror (Click Here)
Founded in 2021, Cinema Scholars is a movie site by movie fans, for movie fans. Disclosure Information: Some of the organizations with products on our site may pay us a referral fee or affiliate commission when you click to apply for those products.