Whether or not writer-director Fede Alvarez’s upcoming remake of Sam Raimi’s groundbreaking scare machine The Evil Dead is – as its poster boasts – “the most terrifying film you will ever experience”, I’ve little doubt, upon visiting the film’s set near Auckland, New Zealand , that Alvarez, his cast, and his crew are determined to return the Dead saga to its roots. For although Bruce Campbell’s Ash became an iconic figure of splatter comedy in the hilarious Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness, the series owes its initial success to the lean, low-budget 1981 original that took the fright business seriously.
Not that there isn’t some room for visual gags, as prosthetics designer Roger Murray explains when he gives me and my fellow gorehound journos a behind-the-scenes look at some of Evil Dead 2013’s effects.
“In one of our first meetings with Fede,” explains Murray, “one of the things that he said he wanted to do was to do as much in-camera make-up effects as possible. We also wanted everything to look as realistic as possible, so the effects had to have a sense of realism to them. We wanted the gags to be… not full-on gags. We have one of the scenes with one of the girls where her hand gets infected and her arm starts rotting off and she decides to cut it off with a kitchen knife.”
Murray’s colleague, make-up and hair designer Jane O'Kane adds, “There comes a point where if you go too far with the make-up it becomes funny and that's not what we were going for at all. Sometimes less is more.”
Rest assured, the new Evil Dead will still offer chainsaws, demons, and hapless teens trapped in a cabin from Hell (which, when we see it on its soundstage, looks even more nightmarish and bloodier than the original’s). This time around, however, the beleaguered protagonist is Mia (Suburgatory’s Jane Levy), a former drug addict trying to recover while on a vacation with her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) and their friends (played by Cloverfield’s Jessica Lucas, Carriers’ Lou Taylor Pucci, and Legend of the Seeker’s Elizabeth Blackmore). It’s these hapless teens who encounter the Book of the Dead.
"Our idea,” production designer Robert Gillies explains as he shows us the infamous tome, “is that the book has been around since maybe the 15th century; and as the centuries go on, the book would be passed around. So there's notes in all different kinds of languages. As we approached the 20th century, you can see that perhaps the writing got a bit more disrespectful because of the people whose hands it fell into."
"The thing with the original book is that the cover has the face on it and that's a copyright issue. So because of that, we’re just comfortable with the idea of having a skin cover on ours and it being something original. We stayed as far away from that original iconic face, while still being faithful to the spirit of the book, as we possibly could."
Gillies tells us that three books were made for the film, as I touch the silicone cover of the volume in front of me, and admire the faux aged pages with pieces of hair sewn in. Each page, explains the designer, is hand-detailed.
The same level of craftsmanship is applied to the cabin itself, almost Rube Goldberg-like in its layout, with rooms that can move to suit the requirements of filming.
"The most challenging effect, or aspect [of production], has been creating the cabin and creating what we needed in order to make it work shooting inside of it, and doing all of it practically. But once we cracked this idea of the ceiling going up and down and all the stuff with the basement and the rooms moving, that really allowed us to accomplish everything we've wanted to accomplish on this."
Gillies says that the new Evil Dead producers – Raimi and his partner, original Dead producer Robert G. Tapert – were involved in all the major decisions of production.
"Yes,” he says, “there are classic re-creations of those key moments from the original Evil Dead but they won't be exactly like you'd be expecting them."
After checking out the effects workshop we sit down to chat with Alvarez, Tapert and their cast. The director – who hails from Uruguray and is now making his feature film debut – describes how he was brought on board.
“One day I get a call saying, ‘Hey, it seems like Sam wants you to remake Evil Dead for him.’ ‘What?!’ I tried to figure out what to do. On the same day I talked to Sam and I was like, ‘Do you have a script? Do you have an idea?’ He was like, ‘Hell no. Do you?" I said, "Well, how about this…" And we pitched something to him. 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 twelve. I watched Evil Dead when I was twelve 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.’ I was like, ‘What? It looks like a porn movie.’ It wasn't a very fancy edition of the movie.
“I remember [the cover featured] Shelley in the basement. It was something that seemed horrific. And it still is. We were talking about this the other day… When we got to that moment it kind of happened in a similar way. We had to do a deadite in the cellar. It was kind of a flashback, 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. Of course when you're twelve [it's scary]. 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 twelve and it was something I shouldn't have done. I should have been way older. What we pitched to Sam then was the story and that same tone. We thought it was violent, it was horrific and it was pretty cool at the same time, because you're watching something you're not supposed to watch. And Sam said yes right away.”
Tappert shares his thoughts on going back to his Dead roots.
“Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness, we loved them, but they never really worked for a wider audience. DVD-wise, download-wise, Evil Dead 1 still outpaces those movies in terms of people who watch it. So even though Drag Me to Hell was its own thing and had that borderline tone at times, I think the audience never knew exactly how to react. I think straightforward horror [works]. I mean [the comedic elements can play] for film fans, but The Cabin in The Woods didn't translate into a huge audience at the end of the day. We wanted straightforward horror and that's what [Fede did].”
Alvarez says that fans will see the original Dead’s car (Raimi’s beloved “Classic” model, which featured in both sequels), as well as some of the zooms and Dutch-angle shots that have come to be associated with The Evil Dead. He also explains his decision to feature a new protagonist in his script (which underwent a minor rewrite at the hands of Diablo Cody).
“I've been a fan of this forever and I'm not going to touch Ash,” he says simply. “That's something you don't do.”
Levy, Alvarez’s redheaded heroine, chimes in. “We're doing everything that you see. I don't know how much I'm allowed to give away, but at one point I vomit all over somebody. A lot of vomit. Like, a shit-ton of fluid. I had a tube practically down my throat, and I'm on top of this girl and vomiting all over her. 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, it felt so bad. I was shaking.
“It got up her nose, it was coming out of everywhere, and she stood right up and was like, ‘Yep, let's do it again!’ and I was in the corner crying. It's really violent. When we were in the audition room, Bruce [Campbell, who’s returning as producer,] was like, ‘Do you know what it's like to be buried alive? Do you know what it feels like?’ And, of course, I wanted the job, so I was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, bring it on!’ Then you do it, it's hard. But like I said, you'll see it in the movie. I think it'll reflect in our performances. It's as real as you can get without actually hurting each other.”
“Bruce was trying to scare everybody,” laughs Alvarez, “’Have you ever done this kind of make-up? You're going to be miserable’ ‘I haven't, but I'm ready to try!’ ‘You're not going to like it.’”
Tapert explains the producers’ once controversial decision to pursue a remake.
“It was interesting that it was Sam who was most for it. I was relatively indifferent, and Bruce was kind of dead-set against it. And that kind of drifted on for a number of years. We were working with Fede on another project called ‘Panic Attack.’ And as it became very apparent that there were other movies that had similar storylines that were gonna get to theaters beforehand… We really like Fede and he’s a smart guy, and we had enjoyed this experience. 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 this or ‘Oh, let’s make Ash into this or do that.’ None of those were the right thing that were gonna get it made. And it was that Fede actually brought that linchpin to getting the project made, saying, ‘We’re not gonna deal with that, we’re gonna go in a different direction.’
Horror fans everywhere will have a chance to experience that direction for themselves when the new Evil Dead opens on April 12th.