Thirty-three years ago a small independent picture hit theaters and changed the history of horror cinema forever. The movie was called “The Evil Dead” and like it or not, it would become one of the most influential horror movies to ever grace the silver screen. Tom Sullivan, was in charge of the special make-up effects for the movie, and a legacy was born. Sullivan also worked on “Evil Dead 2”, “Army of Darkness” and “The Fly 2”, but his original work on the movie “The Evil Dead” is a testament to the art of special effects.
Sullivan gives an exclusive interview to iHorror. From insights to his craft, exclusive stories about things that went on behind the scenes, and a few photos from his private collection, the artist stays humble about making one of the most revered movies in horror history.
With an original script by a then unknown director Sam Raimi and a capricious performance by a young actor named Bruce Campbell, “The Evil Dead” broke the mold of horror cinema and let the blood and bile flow freely through the darkness of a terrified movie theater. In order to make the magic of “The Evil Dead” happen, Sullivan would draw from his childhood inspirations to capture the mystique of film making once more. Immortalized on every source of entertainment media, his masterpieces of craft are some of the most disturbing and whimsical visuals to ever illuminate the cultural cinema.
Sullivan does not think his work on “The Evil Dead” can be described as changing the landscape of modern cinema as his idol Ray Harryhausen did. Rather, Sullivan suggests that “The Evil Dead” was more influenced by other artists and their works, “I think the Three Stooges and Robert Wise’s, The Haunting had more influence on Evil Dead than anything. But when I think of films possibly influenced by Evil Dead I think of The Re-animator, From Dusk Til Dawn, Jackson’s Braindead and Bava’s Demons. And more recently maybe Gulager’s Feast films may have been influenced by Evil Dead but I don’t see a landscape change.” He said.
As humble as Sullivan is, if you search the internet for “Best of” horror movie lists, “The Evil Dead” is usually listed near the top. In fact, Rotten Tomatoes gives “The Evil Dead” a 96% certified fresh rating. In the 80’s horror movies were everywhere, and only a handful were revered as being artistic masterpieces of gore and special effects: “An American Werewolf in London”, “The Thing”, and yes, “The Evil Dead”.
Although the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) was extremely strict about the use of gore and violence in the media in the 80’s, Sullivan says that he rarely gave it any thought; he even thinks Raimi was oblivious to which rating the film might receive, “As far as MPAA ratings, I recall not giving it much of a thought during production. I’m sure Sam and I didn’t discuss a rating to go for. I was a bit concerned about the amount of blood being vomited and spilt during The Evil Dead shoot so I came up with the different colored biles that Linda spits out. But that also was my way of suggesting that the possession of the Deadites changed their biology a bit.”
Thirty years ago, “The Evil Dead” pushed envelopes, the real-time special effects, and stop-motion photography are the cornerstones of the Raimi film. I asked Sullivan if there were any ideas Raimi proposed that appeared to be impossible at first:
“Sam had an idea for the finale that seemed a bit difficult. He wanted me to make balloon deadites of Cheryl and Scotty and have them leak smoke out as they disintegrated. I felt that for all the gore we’d produced during the film, the finale should be a blood bath. I suggested to Sam a stop motion meltdown sequence using clay animation of the characters decomposing like the Morlock in George Pal’s, The Time Machine did towards the end of his film. I did some storyboards and convinced Sam I could do it. Sam knew Bart Pierce, a solid camera operator and stop motion enthusiasts and Bart and I took three and a half months to complete the finale sequence.”
One unforgettable scene in the film is the savage raping of Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) by the surrounding woodlands. Sullivan says that scene was never in the script; Raimi made that up on-the-spot, “There was no tree rape in the script. Cheryl is attacked by vines but no rape is described. Sam came up with that. I suggested they wrap the vines around Cheryl’s legs and pull them away and print the film in reverse but they may have figured that one out already. The tree rape goes pretty far. I know Sam has said he’d do that scene differently today.”
Sullivan is also responsible for the creation of one of the most iconic movie props in history, The Naturom Demonto, or Book of the Dead. He has an interesting story about how that historic property came to be, and its unusual cover, “It was cast from Hal Delrich’s face mold. Then slush molded with liquid latex for 6 or 7 layers and glued onto the corrugated cardboard book cover. Instant movie prop.”
With a movie like “The Evil Dead” being made on such a small budget and in such close quarters, I asked Mr. Sullivan if he could give iHorror readers an exclusive behind-the-scenes story about the making of the movie; an anecdote from the set. He was happy to oblige:
“I do remember prepping for Shelly’s hand chop scene being done at Sam Raimi’s parent’s garage. I had been stuffing real meat down Shelly’s fake rubber arm along with a blood tube. I set the fake arm down on the raised floor set in the garage and later I couldn’t find it. Montgomery, Sam’s family bulldog had pulled the arm to the street in the front yard and was munching on the arm in front of a horrified neighbor when I found him. I had to tug the arm away from Sam’s beautiful dog to the horror of the neighbor. The things we do for art.”
Sullivan says he is very supportive of the 2013 remake of “The Evil Dead” and in some ways the re-imagining retains the intention of the original, but also stands alone as an independant work, “Fede’s Evil Dead scared the crud out of me. It was hardcore and worked for me. I saw it as a different set of people dealing with a slightly different aspect of the Deadite phenomena. I really liked that their book was from a different, European, post middle age culture. It was how to fight the Deadite curses where as my book was a cookbook on how to make the curses and evil forces come about.”
One might argue that the recent news of a Starz reboot of the characters in Evil Dead is a testament to Sullivan’s influence; the incredible effects of the original are an important component of that film’s success. When a fan is given news about a possible “Evil Dead” continuation, or remake, they are looking forward to intense gore and repulsive demonic possessions. “Ash vs. The Evil Dead”, Sullivan says, will be a love letter to the fans, “I will be an avid fan and supporter regardless of any involvement of mine. Didn’t my Book get burnt up in the fireplace?”
With Sam Raimi being so busy in the industry, the effects wizard says they are rarely in contact, but he and Campbell still see each other at least once a year, “Bruce, I fortunately get to see every year or so and he is also a kind and generous person and I admire all his work as well. I am also in Michigan and those guys live on the West Coast.”
In recent years, there have been many horror film makers who are taking the genre to great new levels, he says there are a few directors that he has his eye on, “I am seeing extraordinary new talent out there all the time The Spierig Brothers (Undead, Daybreakers) come to mind. I like the fresh ideas they bring to a tired genre. Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Godzilla 2) makes satisfying and well made films too. I’m also looking forward to Fede Alvarez’s (Evil Dead) next film too.”
Sullivan is still keeping busy. The effects master is hard at work giving tribute to his fans and endorsing those that were forever moved by the film:
“I and some talented friends are making replicas of my props and other fun items. My official Bookbinder of the Dead, Patrick Reese is back producing the handstitched Book of the Dead replicas and we have a long waiting list for the Books. And my moldmaker surpreme, Steve Diruggirero is casting daggers, mini-Books of the Dead as well as the covers for our Book replicas. And more is on the way.” Sullivan adds that there is a documentary available which chronicles his life and career, “Gung ho film maker, Ryan Meade has made a highly entertaining and informative documentary about my life, career and work on the Evil Dead films called INVALUABLE. It is available here along with some of Ryan’s other films. I acted in a couple of them.”
Tom Sullivan may believe that “The Evil Dead” did not change the landscape of cinema. But the truth is, the film started a following and still remains strong among the genre 33 years later. Plenty of aspiring artists are in the business today because of his work on “The Evil Dead” and in an industry where a genre can be killed by the plague of redundancy, “The Evil Dead” and its special effects, are reminders that ingenuity and risk can be the first step for a finding an effective cure.