A Deadite's Bumpy Journey...or 'How I Stopped Complaining and Learnt to Love Bruce Campbell and The Evil Dead Again'
August 23rd, 2016 is the date that the Blu-Ray boxset of Ash Vs. Evil Dead Series One is released in U.S. Stores and I haven't been this excited for a Bruce Campbell release since I waited months and months and months for Bubba Ho-Tep to finally screen in British cinemas back when I was living in England and the internet was in its infancy.
I can date my Bruce Campbell and Evil Dead fandom back to early 1993 when I was at a boarding school in England. Boarding schools are particularly awful, tedious, nasty and unnatural places for children to inhabit (but that's a whole other article), however there were occasional glimmers in the darkness. One such glimmer was movie rental nights on Saturdays.
My boarding school was aggressively nestled in the idyllic, southern, English countryside which is filled with old, rustic, pubs, hand built stone walls, rolling hills, leafy lanes, lush woodland and so on. Our school backed on to a tiny railway station and behind that was a little station shop that doubled as a village shop. It sold assorted, essential groceries, sweets (candy), cigarettes (mostly to underage school children), newspapers for the commuters and, bizarrely had a very small video rental section. Back in 1993 VHS rentals were still doing a roaring trade and you could rent/buy movies from all sorts of weird places.
I don't know whose idea it was to rent the videos on the odd Saturday night, or how they made their choices but it was in an era where I got to see stuff like The Beastmaster, The Gods Must Be Crazy and, ultimately, Army of Darkness.
I remember, so very vividly, standing in that living room/common area at school and seeing Bruce's face on that old television spouting forth joyous and hysterical one liners and thinking "What is this? this is amazing! I need more of this! NOW". I was just thirteen.
By this time I had seen some Indiana Jones films, Labyrinth, Howard the Duck, The Muppets, Monty Python's films, some Hammer Horror films, The Never Ending Story, Lots of Disney stuff, James Bond films, Carry On films and other, fairly standard stuff for a messed-up, often unsupervised kid growing up in the 80s and 90s in Britain. I had never ever seen anything like Army of Darkness. It felt so very much like home.
By the time I got to 16 years old I had seen a lot more stuff and think that I had even seen either Evil Dead or Evil Dead 2 on one of Channel 4's many "Banned" or "Extreme" movie series. I also remember a conversation with my film course tech staff, during my first year of 6th form college (a higher education college you can go to between 16 & 18 in the U.K.), about a movie I had to see where a woman was raped by a tree. I remember laughing. (aside: This was, you must remember, at a point in history between the hysteria, insanity and over protectiveness of the "Video Nasty" era and the overly sensitive, politically correct nature of today when you could laugh at something ridiculous that happens to an actress in a fantasy/horror movie without being judged or labeled.) I also remember thinking that any movie that nuts, had to be seen. Anyway, I was definitely aware enough of the series though that when I walked into my local HMV shop and saw all three on VHS for £12, I bought them and headed home to watch all three back to back.
This was the era where Evil Dead 1 was still cut in the U.K. but that night it scared me just about as much as any film ever had up to that point, Evil Dead 2 thrilled me beyond belief and I began to realise the full scope of Bruce Campbell's genius as an actor and Army of Darkness was like a visit from an old friend who was never going to move away ever again.
In the years that followed this epic evening of incredible, bold movie making, I did whatever I could to track down all the films Bruce Campbell was in and that Sam Raimi had directed. I also never shut up about either of them to anyone good enough to listen. Just like when I was 8 it was all about Monty Python and The Beatles, by the time I was 18 it was Bruce Campbell and Tom Waits and like those other icons of my youth, I feverishly set to collecting, collecting, collecting.
I also have a weird, fuzzy memory of being at a party when I was 17 and Maniac Cop being put on the TV. While everyone else got drunk, stoned and tried to adolescently crawl into each others underwear, I was oblivious watching Bruce Campbell, Tom Atkins, Robert Z'Dar, Richard Roundtree et al in Maniac Cop.
The internet existed but it wasn't the Google/Amazon/IMDB filled behemoth that it is now and Bruce Campbell wasn't anywhere near being a household name. Finding his films on VHS in the U.K. wasn't as easy as just strolling into a high street shop and looking under Campbell. When I did find someone who knew him or his films, we became instant friends. One such fellow was Adam Parkes, already a far more experienced film collector than me, he was the one that introduced me to a world outside of Evil Dead and the film Sundown: A Vampire in Retreat.
Sundown isn't a great film. It looks good, it's shot well and it has a good idea at its core but it's not a well written film and some of the acting is just plain awful. Starting out as a Bruce Campbell fan in the mid-late 90s, though, you'd want to watch him in anything. You'd track down any film, no matter how small the part, just in the hope that he would pull an amazing face or deliver a zinger. Most of them were a little disappointing, if truth be told, with hindsight, but at the time anything would do to get my BC fix. Sundown sort of exemplifies this period perfectly. You wouldn't be watching this film at all, if it wasn't for the promise of Bruce Campbell.
Around about this time my Mum moved to Brighton, a diverse, seaside, college town on the south east English coast. There I found a couple of video shops that you could go into and ask for a certain actor or director and they would thumb through vast, dusty, paper catalogues of movies to see what they could get shipped to them. In the U.K. we also benefited from the fact that U.S. VHS would play on our machines as well as U.K. VHS, so if it existed in a mad, old, dimly lit warehouse in Minnesota and you were willing to pay, you could get your hands on it. In the case of films like Going Back, Moontrap, Mindwarp, Lunatics: A Love Story, my own copy of Sundown: A Vampire In Retreat, Assault on Dome 4 (or Chase Moran as my version was called) and so on, I got hold of these, through these amazing video shops.
Every so often there would be a Maniac Cop, Mindwarp or a Running Time where Bruce would be a lead role and really get to shine. Then there were the early TV movies Tornado!, In the Line of Duty: Blaze of Glory (one I actually remembered watching on TV before I really knew who BC was), The Love Bug and Gold Rush: An Alaskan Adventure where you would be excited because Bruce was a lead role and in the movie all the way through but they weren't exactly, memorable or even particularly good films.
I remember, one funny story, during Bruce's "leading role in Sci-Fi Channel movies" period. In the U.K. we had the Sci-Fi Channel (same logo and everything) but instead of screening a lot of their self funded movies in other territories, like the U.K., they showed weird, heavily edited, Sci-Fi themed softcore porn films, the kind that Cinemax has become famous for. When I found out that Man With A Screaming Brain wasn't going to be screening in the U.K. in favour of The Sex Files (that's a real thing), I actually wrote to the network (on paper and everything) to complain. It seemed mad that after the corporation had spent money making a film that they wouldn't want to screen it in every territory. I got a very polite letter back stating it was not their intention to screen any of the movies I requested (Screaming Brain, Terminal Invasion, Alien Apocalypse) but thank you for my feedback and blah blah blah.
Luckily the movies did well and the last two (Brain and Apocalypse) were released by the company that, at the time, seemingly made it their mission to release everything Bruce related, Anchor Bay.
Initially Sam Raimi, made a few early attempts to get Bruce in lead roles and failed (thanks studio heads!) - Yes there was a time when Reed Birney (who?! Where are they now?!) was apparently a bigger box office draw than Bruce Campbell (in the case of Crimewave) or what about the fact that Darkman was meant to be Bruce before the, let's be fair, much less suitable Liam Neeson (who looks awkward in the role) got the part. This still doesn't explain why Raimi and Tapert produced Darkman straight-to-video sequels star Arnold Vosloo and not Bruce but heigh ho.
Sam, meanwhile, rose to the top of the Hollywood director's A List with a series of fairly odd, but as it turned out, strategic and, ultimately, fairly bland directorial choices from the excellent, gonzo, spaghetti inspired western The Quick and the Dead to the tedious For The Love of the Game and the high profile but fairly forgettable The Gift. For me, as a fan, it was a difficult path to follow because with each film he seemed to be stepping further and further away from what made him a vibrant, interesting, imaginative and exciting director. With Spiderman 2 and Drag Me To Hell we saw little glimmers of a return but, honestly, for me, his heyday as an original voice in cinema ends with The Quick and the Dead.
Then, for Bruce came his crowning achievement as an actor with the damn near perfect Bubba Ho-Tep. You take any actor from the last 100 years and no one can play an 80 yr old, mummy fighting Elvis with a cancerous penis with the same energy, sincerity, emotion, humour and style as Bruce Campbell. With every repeated viewing of this gem, the nuances of his performance are more and more impressive.
I remember loading and waiting to see the trailer using dial-up internet at a friends house while at University. I remember reading what facts there were about the production scattered about the emerging world wide web and I remember waiting forever for it to make its fan pushed journey across the U.S. territory by territory until news came that not only would MGM distribute a jam-packed special edition DVD but the film would play in cinemas in London, England. Actually a review of the film on an early incarnation of this very website would appear on its official website. A proud moment for me indeed.
In 2007 I would journey across the pond, as they say, to the United States of America. There I was able to purchase the box sets of Bruce's one series wonders, The Adventures of Brisco Country Jr. and Jack of all Trades. I was also able to do the previously unthinkable and head to the Landmark Nuart Cinema in Los Angeles for a screening of My Name is Bruce with a Q & A by the man himself.
I got there so early I was second in line. It was my first time at any kind of fan-based event and was happy to learn that Bruce's fans were as friendly, weird and wonderful in person as I could've hoped for. While I was taking pictures and video and talking with the people in line, I noticed Bruce himself waiting over in the shadows, the other side of the theatre. There were a couple of fans harassing him but this, I said to myself, was my turn. I ran over to him, probably barged past a couple of people and shook his hand. I remember him saying in his documentary on fans, Fanalysis, that fans often had nothing to say. Well I was the same. I completely closed up when faced with the man. I stammered something about having come over from England and being a big fan. He very cordially made a couple of dry jokes, tolerated my gibbering and then politely said he was off to dinner with friends.
The evening was fun, the film, My Name Is Bruce, wasn't much different than his previous directorial effort Man With A Screaming Brain, it was enjoyable, it had its moments but you had to forgive it a lot and ultimately you just wished it was a bit better. The hardest thing being a Bruce Campbell fan is that throughout his career there is clear evidence that he is an incredible, nuanced, weird, physical and awesome actor. It's just most of what's out there is so close but no cigar... and some of it, isn't even that close, if we're all honest with ourselves.
While playing second fiddle on Burn Notice - which was a fun show but rarely great and felt like 7 agonising series of just wishing, wishing so hard, they'd either give Bruce more to do and, when they did, he'd put more of his back into it - Bruce started showing up at Wizard World conventions all over the country. Bruce had attended conventions since before they were what they are today. He has been at San Diego on and off since day one and has been to all the little horror and fantasy fan expos throughout America (and there is one every weekend, sometimes several every weekend of the year at this point) since Army of Darkness was released. However, once Wizard World got under way, Bruce Campbell soon became their mascot.
Between his success on Burn Notice (believe it or not it had, at one point, the highest ratings on all of cable television - until The Walking Dead) and his attendance at conventions across the country, you suddenly couldn't move for Bruce Campbell stuff. It should've been a fan's paradise. It should've been the answer to years of his relative obscurity and lots of thankless, hard work, finally coming to fruition. Yes there had been waves of BC fandom as Army of Darkness increased in cult popularity and with t-shirts, comic books, action figures and more coming out but it was still contained within his existing fanbase. Suddenly, it felt, like he became a little mainstream and that's always a tricky thing for fans. Or maybe just fans like me.
I can remember being asked back in the early 2000s whether I would like Bruce to become super famous. At the time the only reason why I would've liked that was the idea of him having his pick of roles so we could see him be in lots of big, fun, weird, awesome movies. Becoming famous doesn't really work like that anymore, Hollywood doesn't make big, fun, weird, awesome movies like they used to and while Bruce is now super famous, he's not Brad Pitt super famous.
What actually happened is the Bruce of Fanalysis days with the cheeseball Hawaiian or martini shirt and beat up sneakers who stated "he wouldn't know a Hugo Boss suit if it bit him in the ass" (or words to that effect) suddenly started showing up at conventions and Q&As in mad lounge suits and tuxedos. He went from mild mannered, happy to help, eager to meet his fans, down to earth and approachable to brash, rude sometimes and dismissive. Yes it was a schtick, yes it was occasionally funny but mostly it was grating and unappealing.
His answers to, admittedly often repetitive questions, became automatic, equally repetitive and unimaginative. I used to watch every Q&A as each fan uploaded theirs to YouTube and I saw a few in person too - In fact it's my video of his Philadelphia Comic-Con video that still resides on his official site - A hangover from when his official site was run by him, his assistant and his dedicated fans. It even used to have a forum where we'd all hang out and chat. Bruce would even, sometimes, come in and chat too. I guess twitter made that null and void - I used to think, man if I hear that same answer about naming Spiderman, defeating Spiderman and helping Spiderman again I'm going to go nuts. It was clever and funny the first 14 times. He'd crowbar in this response to ANY question about the Spiderman franchise, even decent ones.
Barely 45 minute Q&As (Wizard World always over schedules this stuff and short changes fans paying top dollar) would become 15 minute Q&As as he'd parade fans with tattoos or fans in bad costumes on stage just to ridicule them. Fun for him and that one fan maybe but, for the rest of us? I don't know about you but it wore thin with me quick.
I get it, you're doing, sometimes, 15 of these things a year and a lot of your fans have only seen a third of your output and even then don't know them as well as some of the hardcore fan base out there but still, I would routinely hear good questions get responded with either pre-rehearsed same-ol-same-ol answers or just dismissed out of hand.
A re-occurring and endlessly frustrating question that people would inexplicably ask Bruce, despite it being answered in a variety of teasing and irritating ways for 20 years was "Would there be an Evil Dead 4". I couldn't believe people kept asking it. Between Sam, Rob and Bruce in magazine articles, on DVD extras and in a myriad of Q&As the fans had heard everything from "Yes, Ivan Raimi and Sam are writing the script and it'll be Sam's next project" to "absolutely not, never, no, shut up". The answer I always loved was Rob Tapert, on one of the Evil Dead DVD extras, said that him, Sam and Bruce would love to work together again on a film, maybe not Evil Dead 4 but something new. As a fan I had resigned myself to the fact we were never really going to get an Evil Dead 4 but a new film, with Bruce in the lead, Rob producing and Sam directing... I still haven't given up hope.
Then, out of nowhere, with no one demanding it, the unthinkable happened. My worst nightmare happened. Sam, Rob and Bruce were re-uniting, to remake The Evil Dead.
If you don't know me, you haven't listened to our podcasts, if you don't regularly read this website and you don't follow me on social media, you may not know this but I downright loathe remakes.
Yes, yes I know The Thing and The Fly and Cape Fear are all remakes, I know The Maltese Falcon is a remake and I know the remake train is as old as Hollywood itself. However since, let's say 1995, there hasn't been one good remake. I'll give you The Coen Brother's True Grit (just) and Jason Statham's The Mechanic but honestly, if they didn't exist or were slightly different films with different names, would anyone notice or care? There definitely hasn't been a good horror remake in the last 20 years. Anyway, I'm not going to debate it, I hate remakes and while I suffered through favourites like Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday 13th, Dawn of the Dead and more being remade, kicking, screaming but basically able to survive, a remake of my favourite horror franchise ever, The Evil Dead? It was one step too far. Want to debate remakes, try the comments section below, I'm carrying on with the article...
Then, while still torturing myself watching convention Q&As on YouTube I heard Bruce Campbell blame us fans for the remake and that was the final straw.
There was a video from San Diego Comic Con, around the time of the Christopher Nolan Batman movies coming out, of Bruce giving a speech attacking, viciously, remakes and sequels. Skip forward to some post-Evil Dead Remake Wizard World Q&A, Bruce is of course, weirdly, wearing some snazzy, expensive suit and spouting out his "I'm not your monkey boy" retorts to fans just excited to be in a room with the man and a woman fan asked the question:
"You used to be very vocal about your dislike of Hollywood remaking everything, how come that changed with the Evil Dead remake?"
Now instead of doing his prepared answer of "we wanted to make the film with updated effects and hide the garden hose pumping blood out of the zombies cheek etc." that he'd been saying since before the remake came out - basically shitting on the original for being a scrappy, low budget effort and misunderstanding just why we all love it - and instead of explaining, in a snarky manner, that he has kids in college and needed the money (or whatever) or even, maybe, explaining that Sam and Rob were going to remake it anyway and he chose to be involved so he could try and make it as good as possible AND get paid (which is probably closer to the truth as Campbell hasn't officially been part of the Renaissance Pictures trio since Darkman), he instead barked back at the lady:
"Because of you fans. You all spent 20 years demanding more Evil Dead, so here! you got it!"
I turned the video off.
You see, as well as simply just loving the movies, I also loved what Sam, Rob and Bruce represented. Three teens/early twenty somethings who using creativity, passion, ingenuity, business sense, blood, sweat and tears made, arguably, one of the most influential horror films of the last 35 years. I loved their friendship, their story, their personalities, their ideas and I loved how open, communicative and, well, groovy Bruce was with the fans. I respected them.
I know how weird this all sounds. I know I am going on too long. I know this probably means nothing to anyone but me, however this article, up to this point, is meant to show what the journey and life of a fan can be and also how important movies and their creators can be, for right or wrong, good or bad.
It is true to say that for a very long time I couldn't watch a single one of my Bruce Campbell or Sam Raimi collection. I felt weirdly disheartened and betrayed.
This story, though, has a happy ending.
Two things happened back to back. First they announced Ash Vs Evil Dead the TV show and secondly, around the same time, I started dating a wonderful woman who happened to also be a Bruce Campbell fan. Not only did we watch the first series together but also some of his more obscure titles that she either hadn't seen or had only seen once or twice. It was like rediscovering my fandom for his work all over again.
When they first announced the TV show, of course I was skeptical. How does it work as a TV show? why only 30 mins long? what tone would it have? sidekicks? really? - the fans and I had questions.
Sam Raimi came back to direct and write the pilot which confirmed just about all I needed to know about why Evil Dead 4 was always and would've been a bad idea. There were some good bits, some bad bits and a great ending but, overall, had it been a feature film rather than a series pilot, it would've been massively disappointing. Never go back ladies and germs, never go back. As a TV Pilot though it was enough for me to a) keep watching and b) become excited for the possibilities.
As the series continued and I relaxed into the rhythm, pacing, style and formula of the show, I appreciated it more and more. Once they got to the cabin, I was standing on my couch applauding. The series isn't perfect by any means but it's a romp, a ride, imaginative, weird, wonderful, gory, gooey, funny and has better production value and writing than anyone thought possible. It also has the spirit of the first three rattling through it nicely. They need to work on the one liners for series 2 but everything else is in place and the announcement of Ted Raimi and Lee Majors joining the cast is a step in an excellent direction. Especially Ted. It's not Evil Dead without Ted.
As for Bruce's persona, suits and the rest of it, for now I can at least get behind the way he's been promoting the series and the fact that he has genuinely, happily, resigned himself to playing and selling Ash to the masses as best he can and for as long as he can.
One last story and then, I promise, I'll end this.
As you can see, I run a movie website. I've interviewed lots of genre film stars, directors, composers and more over the last few years of having this website. I haven't, however, been able to get an interview with Bruce Campbell. One day, as a lark, inspired by my delight at the TV series, with only the best, fan intentions, I started a little Twitter campaign with a hashtag and everything to get Bruce's attention and possibly get an interview. It wasn't like it took off exactly, it didn't start trending or break any records but a few of my followers retweeted the message over the course of a few hours.
This is the message I got:
Yep, a grumpy request (with a weird use of the word Dawg) to contact the Starz corporation for an interview with him. It was really just a bit of fun. I messaged him back and apologised and I contacted Starz but have heard nothing since.
It's fine, I don't care. I just know that if he was ever willing to do a serious, sit down, 45 minute, proper interview about his life and career, I could knock that out of the park. I'd ask him about films and moments I bet he's never been asked about. Anyway, I have been through my existential, Evil Dead crisis. My EDstensial crisis, if you will and come out the other side a renewed fan.
The blu ray of Ash vs Evil Dead came out today, August 23rd 2016 and last night I was giddy like a boy before Christmas.
It's nice to feel like a fan again. I have learnt my lesson in holding your heroes accountable and expecting more than we receive and instead am just really happy for what we get.
Here's hoping we get at least 8 seasons of this sucker!