Interview With a Star of “The Evil Dead”
If you’re a big fan of The Evil Dead (1982), you’ll probably recognize the name of Ellen Sandweiss, who played “Cheryl” in the first film in Sam Raimi‘s cult classic horror trilogy. Recently I talked with her about her experience twenty years ago making the film that Stephen King once called “The most ferociously original horror movie I have ever seen.”
Evil Dead started out as a project by Raimi when he was a student at Michigan State University, based on The Book of the Dead, and with that same title as a working title for the film. (Within the Woods was another early title.) Raimi went on to become a director well-known for the aforementioned trilogy, as well as his Darkman films, and most recently the Xena and Hercules TV shows and films. In 1998, he went beyond the horror film genre as director of the generally well-received A Simple Plan, starring Billy Bob Thornton, Bill Paxton, and Bridget Fonda, as well as For Love of the Game (1999), a film for true baseball fans, starring Kevin Costner and Kelly Preston.
The star of ED (as its fans call it), Bruce Campbell (who just celebrated his 42nd birthday on June 22), was a high school chum of Raimi’s. He went on to fame not only as “Ash,” the cult hero of the three Evil Dead films, but also as a “B” movie actor (he’s writing a book on that subject) and TV star, most notably in the short-lived but entertaining Adventures of Briscoe County Jr..
Others involved with the film who went on to make their marks in the business included assistant film editor Joel Coen, of the famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) Coen brothers; executive producer Rob Tapert, currently executive producer of the Xena andHercules TV shows and husband of star Lucy Lawless; actor Ted Raimi, brother of Sam, who has appeared in three dozen films since Evil Dead; original music composer Joseph LoDuca, who has won awards for his scoring of Xena and Hercules and is also known in Detroit for his music for Big Three automaker TV spots; assistant producer Gary Holt, who has worked on films in jobs ranging from gaffer to second unit director of photography; transportation captain David H. Goodman, Oscar-winner for the 1986 documentary Witness to War: Dr. Charlie Clements; actress Betsy Baker, who appeared in a TV movie and an episode of T.J. Hooker before her early retirment; and sound and lighting technician Josh Becker, now a director and screenwriter, who kept the only “written record” of the making of the film.
For college student Ellen Sandweiss (she now goes by her married name, which we are withholding for reasons of privacy), it was her first and last appearance on screen — although she has remained active on the local stage. “I went to high school with Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell,” she said, “and as far back as I can remember, from middle school, they were making 8mm films. We were all involved in drama together, and they put me in a lot of their films. So it’s no great coup that I got into this movie… I was in college, and they called me and said, ‘Do you want to take a semester off and be in our movie?'”
Ellen remembers that a trailer for the film was made the year before it was shot in the winter of 1979-80. Besides Bruce Campbell, Ellen was the only cast member with high school connections to the group, though many of the crew members were also high school friends of Raimi and Campbell. (Sam met Rob Tapert at college — a different college from Ellen’s — so her first meeting with him was during the making of the film.)
The shooting took place in an abandoned house located in the mountains near Morristown, Tennessee, beginning in November, 1979. Ellen was part of a cast and crew of 37. The tiny budget must have seemed like a lot of money to people used to making Super8 movies, and the three-week shooting schedule probably looked like a lot of time, but of course neither was quite enough.
“This was their first experience with feature films, and to them they had a lot of money,” says Ellen. “Nobody who worked on the film was over the age of 23. Rob was probably the oldest. I was 21, Sam was 20, Bruce was 21.”
“It was physically difficult because we pretty much shot it at night. We were living a vampire schedule; we slept during the day and shot at night, which for me was very difficult. Most of it was done in the winter, in an unheated cabin or outside, with the temperature in the 40s.
“Because the crew was skeletal and the money was skeletal, the time taken for setting up each shot and doing each shot involved a lot of waiting. But they were very focused. Sam was focused, and he worked us really hard. Things go wrong when you’re that low budget, and you can’t afford to have the best equipment, but they worked hard.
“For my part, I had a lot of physical challenges. I was running through the woods [a celebrated scene in which her character is assaulted by malevolent plant life], and I was getting scraped and jabbed. It took a couple of nights to shoot that particular scene. And I did most of my own stunts. When we were doing the scene where he [Ash] was supposed to kick me in the face and I’m supposed to fall back through the trap door, the first time I did it I fell back and smacked my head. They were standing down in this hole, under the trap door, with a blanket for me to fall into!
“Then there was the makeup and the masks. All the monsters had eyes that looked like just the whites, which were big, thick, plastic things. They were rather uncomfortable. Everybody was breaking out in rashes, because the makeup, the latex were lethal. Even the fog juice that they used to make the fog, breathing that stuff in all night long…” She stops to gag.
The film didn’t premiere until 1982. “It seemed like it was forever between the time we filmed it and the time it was released. I just went on with my life. I didn’t know if it was ever going to be released.” By the time the film premiered, Ellen had moved to North Carolina. “They called me and said, ‘C’mon in for the premiere.’ It was at a movie theater in Detroit… And then they had a premiere in Tennessee, and they flew me in in a helicopter from North Carolina!”
But after that, it was over. “Once we were done filming it, I was out of the picture.” She added that she was never approached about doing another film, although by the end of the first movie, her character was pretty much out of the picture, too. (Although one of the nice things about the living dead is that they can come back for unlimited sequels.)
Has she had any experiences with film cultists contacting her? “I did have a big fan, a guy who wrote me for years, a young guy. He found me through an older relative of mine who hardly even knows me.” She says those who remember the film are mostly people who were “high school and college age in the mid-to-late 80s.”
Ellen hasn’t seen most of the other cast and crew in many years, although talks to Sam and Bruce “every once in a while. My daughter interviewed Bruce by phone for a school project.” He also interviewed Ellen for his book. “Bruce is a wonderful person,” she says.
Then she offered an opinion that might find some agreement among Sam Raimi’s fans: “I do not understand why Sam is not doing more comedies. You can see the comic elements in some of this films. Some of his earlier [8mm] movies were very much comedies. They did a lot of comic detective things where Bruce was the inept detective. He and Bruce are two of the funniest people you’ll ever meet in your life. When we were in high school together, they kept me going with their humor. When we were in plays together, Sam’s goal would be to crack me up on stage. And you’d walk down the hall with Bruce, and all of a sudden he’d do a double flip in the air and fall flat on his back. He was the king of slapstick. These guys are really talented comedians. They knew every Three Stooges routine ever written.”
Finally, I asked if she’d ever thought about continuing her film career. “At the time I had no idea that Sam and Bruce and these guys were going to go on to be big Hollywood millionaires, so there was no sense of, ‘I’d better stick with these guys so I can make it on their coattails.’ I wanted to finish school and have a career; I had met my future husband, and I knew I wanted to start a family.” Ellen says that her daughter, who wants to be an actress, once asked her why she didn’t stick with them so she could be a movie star! “It didn’t really occur to me. I think by the end of making it, I was kind of fed up and ready to just be out.
“But I’m not complaining. In a lot of ways, it was really interesting. Who gets to have experiences like that?”
UPDATE: Ellen and the other two women from the film have been appearing at autograph shows and conventions. They even have their own Web site (designed by yours truly): Ladies of the Evil Dead!
Other Evil Dead and Related Web Sites
- The Army of Darkness/Evil Dead Page
- Becker films
- Bruce Campbell Online
- Dark Age Productions
- Deadites Online
- Fake Shemp Fan Site
- Interview With Ellen Sandweiss
Other classic movie interviews that you’ll enjoy.