Butcher Block is a weekly series celebrating horror’s most extreme films and the minds behind them. Dedicated to graphic gore and splatter, each week will explore the dark, the disturbed, and the depraved in horror, and the blood and guts involved. For the films that use special effects of gore as an art form, and the fans that revel in the carnage, this series is for you.
It’s been a couple of weeks since the finale of “Ash vs. Evil Dead” aired, bringing Ash full circle to where we left him 25 years ago. Well, where we left him in the alternate ending favored by Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell anyway. Regardless of its conclusion, the three-season run on Starz was a gift to fans that managed to seamless weave in original trilogy mythologies and characters while branching out into fun new directions. Above all, it gave fans so much glorious splatstick humor and gore. With the loss of the series still raw, it only seems appropriate to revisit the film that started it all and set the precedent for the torture poor Ashley Joanna Williams/Bruce Campbell would endure for the decades that followed.
The Evil Dead, one of horror’s most beloved classics, has been extensively documented in the decades since release. Much has already been said about Raimi’s determination and ingenuity in production, spearheading production at the young age of 20. That this was a fierce passion project between Raimi, Campbell, and all the friends and family they roped into helping with production. Raimi’s philosophy of torturing his actors in order to capture their pain and anger, believing that it would translate into horror as well. Or even Campbell’s injuries on set due to the sheer physicality his role required. To say the film was a career-launching project for Raimi, Campbell, and producer Rob Tapert is now well known. What’s not as thoroughly discussed, however, are the major contributions by the film’s makeup and effects artist Tom Sullivan.
Sullivan met Raimi through Michigan State University, where his girlfriend was attending at the same time as the budding director. Sullivan and Raimi hit it off immediately over a shared love of stop-motion animation, special effects, and puppetry. The common interests made Sullivan a perfect fit for Raimi’s ambitious endeavor.
With a minuscule budget, estimated around $350,000-400,000, very little of that was designated for special effects. Most of the supplies for the special effects came from hobby stores, hardware stores, and even grocery stores with corn syrup, food coloring, and coffee being major staples for fake blood production. The gruesome melting finale also makes use of Madagascar cockroaches, some mashed up some live, that the team took from the college, snakes, marshmallows, and even oatmeal. Props and prosthetics were often crafted in Raimi’s parents’ garage; stuffing real meat in a fake arm for the scene in which Shelly gets her hand cut off was likely a sight for the neighbors. The bloodbath finale, featuring a stop-motion animated meltdown of Claymation decomposition took three and a half months for Sullivan and his team to complete.
Sullivan is also responsible for designing the Book of the Dead. Raimi’s script described it as having animal skin binding, but Sullivan felt it should look downright evil and drew inspiration from the human skin book covers told in legends of Ilsa, the She Wolf of the SS. So the now iconic staple of the series can be attributed to Sullivan’s input.
Sullivan and Raimi went at the viscera and gore without much thought to what the MPAA might rate the final film, though Sullivan did alter the color of the vomit and bodily fluids the possessed spewed to indicate that they weren’t quite human anymore. But between the amount of demon gore and the blood-soaked deaths and injuries, the MPAA had issues with the content. Considered the most violent film at the time, it earned the moniker “number one nasty” for its status as both a Video Nasty and a top-selling release. The Evil Dead remained banned in many countries for decades for its excessive gore.
The makeup and effects employed on The Evil Dead aren’t game-changing, and by today’s standards, they’re a bit dated. Yet, Sullivan and team did a fantastic job unleashing Raimi’s no holds barred vision of gory punishment inflicted upon the poor souls that entered that fateful cabin in the woods. The demon’s guts are gross, even more so knowing the mashed-up bits that contributed to them. The sheer volume of blood and entrails is not only admirable for its meager budget but for setting the bar high in a fun series that followed.