On October 15, 1981, director Sam Raimi, producer Robert Tapert and actor Bruce Campbell unveiled their passion project feature debut to an audience completely unprepared for what they were about to see. Three years earlier, the very same cast and crew set out to make “Within the Woods”—a short film that would later sprout into a cult horror franchise—completely unprepared for what they were about to make. In both cases, the cause of all this disbelief was the bona fide horror classic The Evil Dead.
On that October day, at the Redford Theater in Detroit, Michigan—a childhood favorite of lead actor Bruce Campbell—The Evil Dead premiered to, in the words of Campbell himself, “a thousand curious relatives, investors and ex-high school pals [who] seemed to enjoy themselves immensely.” What was on screen at that point, and what would later become a sensation, was the result of years of hard work on the part of this trio of mad men, beginning with the precursor to The Evil Dead known as “Within the Woods.” Though it was the beginnings of a serious project, “Within the Woods” was meant more as a means of self-promotion and evidence for backers and investors than as a project of its own. As Sam Raimi stated in a 2015 interview with IGN, “Within the Woods” “wasn’t really a prototype… for [The] Evil Dead. It was really just something that we could show investors.”
As a short-form sampler, “Within the Woods” served its intended purpose. It put the incredibly creative display of effects and camerawork as well as the flair for terse and tense horror up on screen for all purveyors to see. It may not have had the moviemaking prowess that we would later see from Raimi, nor did it tap into much of the potential that he had, but this was not what “Within the Woods” was meant to. Rather than shoot for a film that could stand on its own, Raimi and co. went down the route of creating a venue to place their ideas on screen. “Within the Woods” works less like a film and more like a resume: a list of skills and attributes to deliver in hopes of getting a better job. Beyond being an “early” film, this rough, cheap and ragged 30-minute short was essentially just a pitch in order to raise the means to make a feature film that would cost almost a hundred times more.
Raimi, Tapert and Campbell shopped the film around to anyone they could, “from honest professionals who were willing to sit through [their] clumsy pitch, to… ‘I could write you a check right now for the whole amount’ blowhard[s] that deserved a slap in the face.” As Campbell states, the “unspoken rule of raising money was simple: Start with the people closest to you and branch out from there.” These three moviemakers went from friends to friends-of-friends to dentists to lawyers to relatives and even a worker at a K-Mart Photo Processing center who Raimi met by chance. Eventually, they scrounged up $90,000—just enough to be able to reach their goal: to have enough to make the feature-length production their proof-of-concept short had merely hinted at.
The loaded production history of The Evil Dead has long been considered the stuff of legend, but less considered is its slog from completion to marketing and distribution. Recently, Joel and Ethan Coen looked back on their fundraising efforts and art-imitates-life PR ploys when generating interest in their directorial debut, Blood Simple, in 1984, a year after The Evil Dead was released, and the brothers noted that their tactics were cribbed directly from Raimi’s playbook. (They also assisted in the editing process of The Evil Dead). But where the Coens’ strategy was to have their Southern-twanged slasher/noir thriller mirror actual scandals that had transpired in America at the time, Raimi’s decidedly dark fantastical film couldn’t rely on such “based on a true story” pretenses. Instead, he and his team would have to plant their feet firmly in the camp of the tight-knit horror community to earn their genre stripes, laying groundwork for The Evil Dead to transcend some of the mainstream critical misunderstanding the film’s wonky aesthetic would inevitably receive.
Progressing from their successful backyard budgeting campaign on home turf to the Cannes film market, Raimi and co. were now armed with an 85-minute forest-bound fright flick leaps and bounds beyond its sketchy prototype. As buyers’ buzz began to kick in, Raimi caught word from sales agent Irwin Shapiro that horror master Stephen King had attended a screening of The Evil Dead; years later, King would tell USA Today that his experience watching the film led him to process things he “had never seen in a movie before.” Having just completed his seminal text on the inner workings of contemporary horror fiction, Danse Macabre, in 1981, King’s critical authority on “what’s scary” was now firmly established in public consciousness. Although King would not offer a quote praising The Evil Dead straightaway per Raimi’s initial request, the notion that the film was now rewriting the rules of horror cinema laid out in the pages of his book compelled the author to write a full review in Twilight Zone magazine, which King offered as quote fodder for the film’s eventual marketing campaign. “Without that [quote],” Raimi told IGN, “the movie may have been lost, but with King’s endorsement, we were able to make our first sales.”
Thirty-five years ago today, the Evil Dead crew’s game-changing new rules of indie moviemaking, now inscribed in the proverbial “book” of DIY philosophy, continue to inspire. Yet, within this celebrated success story lurks “Within the Woods”—a reminder of the enduring power of proof-of-concept to win hearts and minds in the fight to rise your film’s idea from under the ground and into a profitable and critically resonant afterlife. MM
Featured image courtesy of Renaissance Pictures and Anchor Bay Entertainment.