Art of splatstick

Or how I learned to stop worrying and laugh at all the blood

Bruce Campbell at ease

Bruce Campbell at ease

In Stephen Frears’ modern commitment comedy movie High Fidelity, the former girlfriend of record store owner Rob (John Cusack) tells him that she has not “yet” had sex with her new beau. Perturbed by the ambiguity of the statement, Rob rhetorically asks his clerk Barry (Jack Black), a sort of walking archive of pop culture, how he would feel if he found out “I haven’t seen Evil Dead 2 ‘yet.’ “

“I’d think you are a cinematic idiot and I’d feel sorry for you,” says Barry.

Those are rather elitist words. But Barry is not alone in polishing Evil Dead‘s cultic crown. A real-life legion of devout fans has elevated the shock-a-rama trilogy and the careers of star Bruce Campbell and director Sam Raimi from American success story to international phenomenon.

The history of the Dead series can be traced to suburban 1970s Detroit, where several kids armed themselves with Super-8 cameras, shot numerous film shorts, and merged forces in high school to sling pies at each other and drive cars through cardboard-box barricades.

Campbell was one of these fledgling filmmakers. As a Boy Scout-looking adolescent, he seemed to be preparing for a future drift into mayhem and the macabre. He would inflict revenge on aggressive mosquitoes by pinching his skin on both sides of their stingers and applying enough pressure to force-feed the pests until they blew up. He once watched a bloated dead dog decompose in the woods over a three-month period, and impaled his brother’s wrist with a screwdriver (an act of self-defense, he says). He fired bottle rockets and a BB gun at neighbors, launched homemade UFOs, and spent nights “copping a perv” (attempting to peep into the windows of unsuspecting women).

Now cut to January 1979. Campbell has dropped out of college, spent time as a self-described cliché on wheels (a cab-driving thespian) and worked for a company that produces commercials. He and two other Motor City-area filmmakers (Raimi and Rob Tapert) have decided to conquer Hollywood by having nothing to do with the finicky Dream Factory. With numerous amateur hours of comedy and mystery in the can (including such titles as “The Great Bogus Monkey Pignut Swindle,” “I’ll Never Heil Again,” and “It’s Murder!"), the trio begins researching the low-budget feature film market.

Soon the teens decide that the movie genre to pursue first is horror, even though Campbell is not a slice-and-dice fan. “It was an economic decision,” Campbell said in a recent phone interview, “based on how many genres would be accepted and purchased without any main actors or with a very low budget. Horror is about the only forgiving genre in that respect. With low-budget horror movies you can have a whole bunch of no-name actors like Jamie Lee Curtis running around. No one knew who Jamie Lee Curtis was in Halloween. The same with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead. You didn’t know any of those people and it didn’t matter because it’s really about the movie.”

Looking slightly more agitated in <i>Evil Dead 2 </i>(above).

With Raimi as director, Tapert as producer and Campbell as male lead, they put together a $1,600 stalker short as a prototype to lure investors into their full-length feature dreams. Within the Woods had all the familiar ingredients of the horror genre: a female in jeopardy, a micro-budget, a no-name cast and a first-time feature director, with Campbell playing an innocuous boyfriend who becomes a possessed killer.

The filmmakers’ contribution to contemporary cinema was to use canned cherry cobbler as vomit. “Titanic can have all of its fancy computer graphics,” says Campbell in his book, If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor. “I’ll take a good off-brand pie filling any day.” Raimi conjured up an impressive level of tension and scares, Campbell experimented with monster makeup, the woods came alive with the sound of screaming, and they managed to solicit enough front money to get started on their first feature.

The idea for Book of the Dead (released as The Evil Dead in 1982) was to connect Sumerian religion, rites and incantations to the netherworld and some grisly, high-impact carnage. The thin plot has five clean-cut teens visit a rural cabin and unleash a supernatural force that invades the body and minds of humans with gut-churning results. The objective was to make a film so sensational that the names of Raimi, Campbell and Tapert would never be forgotten.

Raimi borrowed the term “Necronomicon” from H.P. Lovecraft for the film. He developed such contraptions as the Ram-O-Cam (used to smash “The Force” through windows), Sam-O-Cam (for swooping through a swamp), and Vas-O-Cam (for smoothgliding shots in cramped quarters). This allowed Raimi to engorge the film with imaginative, hyperkinetic camerawork, and raise the bar on gore-infested chills.

Raimi also broke rank from similar splatter films by planting a male (co-producer Campbell as the cowardly Ash) rather than a female victim at the center of the action. The Dead team agreed it would be more horrific if a man was tormented and butchered, and doing all the high-pitched hollering and fleeing for a change. Most audiences that could stomach all the accompanying bile, decapitations and supermarket meat doubling as rendered human flesh seemed to agree. The film, which was marred by unintentional laughs, didn’t make much money, but it did carve out a name for its creators.

“The first one, we were just trying to figure out what’s going on,” says Campbell. “It was a melodrama performed by 21-year-olds. With Evil Dead 2 (1987) we got a little more sophisticated. We were a little more aware of what was happening and were able to sort of manipulate the audience more. By Army of Darkness (1993), we were just trying to keep ourselves amused.”

They also amused a new wave of audiences as the Ash character then evolved from whimpering moron to flawed, comic hero in a torn shirt for Dead 2 (Ash returning to the haunted cabin) and Army of Darkness (Ash transported to the medieval ages). Just as Jackie Chan expanded the fan base of martial arts films with his agile, comic stunt work, Campbell tweaked his smug posturing, constant punishment, arrogance and stupidity for some huge grins. An increase in gruesome, Three Stooges-like mayhem (the blood coming from wall sockets and a light bulb that fills with blood are adapted from the Stooges’ A Plumbing We Will Go) won over new male and female fans alike who steered clear of pure splatter. Hardcore gore fans of the original episode began to fall off the Dead radar.

Campbell’s latest incarnation as horror hero may be worth the wait. Phantasm veteran Don Coscarelli directs Bubba Ho-Tep, in which Campbell plays the legendary and now 68-year-old Elvis. It’s an oddball, freaky redemptive story set in an East Texas nursing home in which Elvis crosses paths with an elderly African-American (Ossie Davis) who thinks he is President John F. Kennedy. “Davis is convinced that there’s a mummy who is sucking the soul out of the old people in this rest-home at night,” says Campbell, “so Elvis teams up with him and they kick that mummy’s ass.”

Fans not wanting to wait for that film’s release can catch Campbell at a book-signing and screening of Evil Dead 2 at the Crest Theatre August 19. If you ask about a possible Evil Dead 4 (or maybe an Army of Darkness 2), expect an answer such as: “Yes! When monkeys fly out of my butt!” The guy is funny even when not wallowing in lurid violence, replacing a missing lower arm with a chainsaw, getting bitten by a decapitated head or wrestling with his own disembodied hand.

Campbell will also screen his 20-minute film, Fanalysis. It’s a “kooky documentary of mine,” he says, “filmed at three different conventions where we ran around and talked to fans. We got a woman who legally changed her name to Xena and did $10,000 worth of plastic surgery to make herself look more like Xena. Even if I hadn’t worked on Xena, I would find that interesting. But they’re not all scary like that. One guy was a paramedic. His little diversion was building Boba Fett outfits from scratch for him and his son. So, like, OK. Go for it." After all, everybody’s got to have a hobby.