Thirty years ago, the original 'Evil Dead' - Sam Raimi's “ultimate experience in grueling terror” — grossed just $100,000 in its opening weekend, going on to make a total of $600,000 at the US box office. Despite a significantly higher profile, the sequel grossed less than $1 million in its opening weekend; the next film in the series, 'Army Of Darkness', cost $13 million to make and earned $2 million less than that domestically. And that, for any other film franchise, would be that.
But for 'Evil Dead', box office receipts have never told the full story. The original was one of the first films to receive considerably greater notoriety on VHS than it did in cinemas, and the sequels followed its lead. It's the ultimate cult horror franchise. More than scares, though, its fans love it for its rough-hewn quirks; for Raimi's slapstick sensibility and leading man Bruce Campbell's square-jawed charms. It's impossible to imagine anyone else remaking it, or attempting to do so without Campbell in the lead role.
So that, ofcourse, is exactly what Ghost House Pictures has done.
“If I was reading about them remaking 'The Evil Dead', I'd be like, 'F*ck Hollywood',” laughs director Fede Alvarez, the man tasked with remaking 'The Evil Dead'. “But I'm an insider and I know the way it works. It's not the Hollywood machine trying to make money. It's way more personal than that.”
He's right. Unlike other horror franchises owned by studios — think 'A Nightmare On Elm St' or 'Friday The 13th' — the rights to 'Evil Dead' are owned by the producer, director and star of the original film. “This is one of those strange horror movies where it's a huge title for horror but it's owned by Rob Tapert, Sam Raimi and Mr Bruce Campbell,” Alvarez elaborates. “Here we have the big studio backing us up, but creatively, it is all up to these guys.”
If an anonymous studio exec had been calling the shots, it's unlikely Alvarez — with no feature film credits to his name — would have been picked for this high-profile gig. But Raimi hand-picked him after seeing his short film, 'Ataque de Panico!' (aka 'Panic Attack'), on Youtube. Knowing that this was his moment, Alvarez didn't just take a seat in the director's chair - he asked if he could write the script, too. “At first, it wasn't exactly the story he wanted,” Alvarez admits. “The tone was right but the story itself changed. We were coming up with more of a sequel. So Sam said, 'we want to do a remake.'”
(Indeed, the question of whether this 'Evil Dead' is technically a remake or a sequel is a murky one - Alvarez sees the film as taking place 30 years after the original, in the same cabin, which the Book of the Dead has somehow found its way back to after the events of the original trilogy. Still, Alvarez says there are too many similarities between what happens in his film and the original for it to work as a “continuous storyline”. It's best not to think about it.)
After Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues turned in their draft, celebrated screenwriter Diablo Cody ('Juno', 'Young Adult') was called in to doctor it. Ultimately, so much of Alvarez and Sayagues' script — and so few of Cody's changes — were used that the Writers Guild of America ruled against crediting her for her work. Alvarez prefers to look back on the process fondly. “We did a treatment and they loved it,” he remembers, “we wrote a draft and then a second draft and they loved it. Sam is a pretty awesome guy as a producer because he's a director, so he's always supporting the director.”
Aside from the fact English isn't Alvarez' first language, re-imagining such a beloved film came with its own set of challenges. For instance, how could you possibly re-cast Ash, the protagonist of the original trilogy associated so closely with actor Bruce Campbell? Ultimately, the decision was made not to.
“I never wanted to mess with those iconic elements that are impossible to remake,” Alvarez explains. “We didn't want to put an actor in that position, and those were the kind of ideas where we really connected with Sam (Raimi) and Bruce (Campbell).” Instead, the protagonist of Alvarez' 'Evil Dead' is Mia (Jane Levy), whose friends take her to the secluded cabin to help her detox from an opiate addiction.
The next challenge was the tone of the film. While Raimi's approach to horror had as much in common with The Three Stooges as it did with Wes Craven, Alvarez opted to take a grimmer approach, delivering the gruelling terror promised by the tagline of the original. In a sense, Alvarez has opted to remake the fright-fest he remembers from his impressionable youth, rather than the slightly silly film that actually existed.
“It was the scariest movie I ever saw when I was 12,” Alvarez admits. “I went to the video store and asked for something really scary and the clerk looked around and put down the VHS on the counter. I still remember that iconic image of the girl in the cellar. Cut to last week and we did exactly the same shot, it was awesome.”
Alvarez' brutal approach to the material has obviously paid dividends. As well as receiving positive reviews, the film has done the unthinkable and made franchise history by actually having a successful theatrical run. Costing $17 million to make, it raked in $26 million in its opening weekend alone, placing it atop the US box office.
Of course, diehard fans will always prefer the original. And Alvarez is okay with that. “The original is still going to be there,” he promises. “It's not going to disappear because we do a new one.”
The Gold Coast Film Festival will host The Australian Premiere Of 'Evil Dead' on Sunday April 28.