Evil Dead, the remake we hardcore horror fans didn’t want at first but it’s starting to sound really good (check out our own FamousMonster’s review from South by Southwest here), is less than a month away from its theatrical opening. According to its director Fede Alvarez, the movie is essentially a reboot of the horror trilogy that made director Sam Raimi and star Bruce Campbell (who both produced the new film) cult heroes and household names in the industry, but it takes place in the same universe and is set some years after the last time Campbell’s chainsaw-and-shotgun-wielding hero Ash took on the dreaded Deadites.
Alvarez’s film, which has withstood a full-force assault of derision from fans of the series and was originally slapped with the dreaded NC-17 rating from the Motion Picture Association of America before being edited down to an R (though if the early reviews are any indication the blood and gore content of this new Evil Dead didn’t take much of a hit), is the latest in a beloved franchise of balls-out horror-comedy extravaganzas that have spawned a mini-merchandising empire of video games, toys, T-shirts, lunch boxes, etc. But what a lot of people don’t realize is that the mayhem didn’t begin with the original Evil Dead, first released in 1982. It began with a short film shot on Super 8 film stock in the Spring of 1979 called Within the Woods.
You can watch Within the Woods in full here below.
Prior to making Within, Raimi, Campbell, and their friend and producing partner Robert Tapert, who also serves as a producer on the new Dead, were enterprising college students who had been making slapstick comedy shorts on Super 8 with a group of their close friends – including fellow filmmakers Scott Spiegel and Josh Becker – and looking forward to the day when they could become big shot Hollywood filmmakers. But they quickly discovered that in order to make their names known in the industry they would have to abandon their comfort zone of goofball hilarity and make an independently-financed feature in a more marketable genre. Based on the healthy box office profits made by movies like Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Halloween Raimi and company chose to make their motion picture debut a dark and violent horror film.
The only thing was, Raimi didn’t really care for horror movies, and neither did most of his friends and collaborators. But one of their big Super 8 comedy shorts, a mystery spoof titled It’s Murder, though it failed to find an audience on the college circuit, did have one sequence that made those who bothered to actually see it leap out of their seats: a scare scene where a person is attacked by a killer hiding in the back seat of their car. Inspired by this, Raimi hashed out a script by his university class fascinations with author H.P. Lovecraft and the Egyptian Book of the Dead, gathered up his usual gang of movie-making miscreants (many of whom would go on to work on the original Evil Dead), and on a particularly warm Spring in 1979 they all traveled out to a farm owned by Tapert’s family in Marshall, Michigan armed with a budget of $1,600 and the best filmmaking equipment their meager budget would allow to make the short feature that would ultimately lead to the launching of serious prosperous careers in cinema and television.
Campbell was the natural choice to play the lead, a curious guy named Bruce whose wanton desecration of an Indian burial ground unleashes the dark forces of evil that turn him into a murderous ghoul. Ellen Sandweiss, a friend of the boys who had also appeared in many of their Super 8 shorts, played his girlfriend and the besieged heroine of Within the Woods, with Spiegel and Mary Valenti, a Tapert family friend, cast in supporting roles. The make-up effects were provided by Tom Sullivan; Sullivan was tasked with transforming the boyishly handsome Campbell into a demonically-possessed maniac complete with dangling eyeball. For one scene requiring Spiegel’s character to be accidentally stabbed Sullivan had trouble affixing a prop knife to the actor’s hairy chest without it wiggling during filming. Duct tape proved successful in making the effect look real, but removing it from Spiegel’s bare skin was another, more painful problem.
The plot of Within was roughly what the story for The Evil Dead would be, with a few differences. Within the Woods would also give Raimi the chance to evolve his filmmaking style into what it would become by the time he made his feature directorial debut, utilizing handheld camera techniques to evoke the feeling of the unseen evil lurking in the woods advancing on its victims at top speed. Once filming wrapped Raimi would spend most of the summer editing the footage into a final cut that ran a half-hour. Tapert arranged for Within the Woods to be screened at a theater in Detroit called the Punch and Judy in August 1979, where it played before midnight showings of the cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Due to the technical limitations of Super 8 films the projector had to be moved halfway down the aisle of the theater and the actual projected image only occupied a quarter of the movie screen. Hundreds of feet of audio extension cable had to be purchased at Radio Shack in order to patch the projector amplifier into the theater’s sound system. Despite a noticeable defect in the audio audiences responded well to Raimi’s short.
Bruce Campbell, after having his arm cast by make-up effects supervisor Tom Sullivan.
The filmmakers made $11.40 in proceeds from the screening but because Within the Woods had been scored with music borrowed without permission from the soundtracks of other movies like Death Wish, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Sorcerer, and even the classic James Bond adventure On Her Majesty’s Secret Service they could not pocket the profits. So the $11.40 was donated to the American Cancer Society. Michael McWilliams, a film critic for the Detroit News, wrote a positive review of the short in which he stated that “it will probably never be advertised alongside the glossy, big-budget horror movies of our time, but you won’t easily forget a locally produced little film called Within the Woods”. McWilliams also wrote that Raimi’s microbudgeted little film easily contained more chills and thrills than more extravagant Hollywood fare like The Amityville Horror. Boosted by the enthusiastic response Raimi, Campbell, and Tapert set out to find investors willing to fund their first full-length movie, originally titled Book of the Dead, using Within the Woods as a visual aid in their presentations. In a matter of months they had amassed enough money to commence production, and they were off to a lonely cabin in the Tennessee woods with a cast and crew in tow. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Within the Woods has never been made commercially available on any of the myriad of Evil Dead DVD and Blu-ray releases most likely because of unspoken legal complications and the degradation in print quality, though a rescored and remastered copy was almost included as a bonus feature on a 2002 “Book of the Dead” edition of Dead distributed by Anchor Bay Entertainment. But it is widely available for viewing online in a variety of picture and sound qualities so you can watch the birth of a legacy of cinematic horror and witness several future filmmaking careers begin to take shape.
You can also prepare for another unleashing of bloody demonic thrills when Evil Dead opens in theaters on April 5, 2013.