..What Sir Laurence Olivier and Bruce Campbell do have in common, though, is that both their breakthrough roles had them working with skulls. Similarities pretty much end there.
Imagine the pantheon of classic film as a beautiful, vaulted cathedral. Its gently lit interior is neatly populated with marble statuary representing famous movie characters. There is Marlon Brando as leather-jacketed Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, a performance which drew on Brando’s own deeply-mined personal pain. There is Laurence Olivier playing Hamlet, holding aloft a skull and soliloquizing on the brevity of life. And over here we have Bruce Campbell with a chainsaw for a hand.
Campbell’s big screen debut did not feature a murmuring thespian maestro entrancing us with a nuanced parsing of the human condition. Campbell’s onscreen parsing was done with a power tool, and it was a tummy-emptying splatter fest. What Olivier and Campbell do have in common, though, is that both their breakthrough roles had them working with skulls. Similarities pretty much end there.
Campbell will be holding court and discussing his new jam-packed memoir, the humbly titled Hail to the Chin at Santa Barbara’s own Metro Entertainment on October 21. The uninitiated will have the usual questions. Who is this Bruce Campbell? How did he come by his globe-encircling fame? And would a talking severed head in a vice really fling that much attitude?
To understand Bruce Campbell, you’ll need to understand the art-house monster movie that launched him as a young man, and his most famous role as Hell’s favorite piñata.
“This new book is about me maturing,” Campbell told me recently, seemingly without irony, then guffawed. “Oh, and another weird fact is that I’m still making B movies!”
It Came From Wylie E. Groves High School
In 1981 a little movie called Evil Dead hit the theaters—arriving just in time to re-animate moviegoers weary of films made in good taste and with a modicum of skill. The film’s disgustingly inventive kitchen sink horror and screw-the-rules gore had audiences alternately clutching each other in terror and blowing popcorn out of their noses in adrenal spasms of ass-clenching hilarity.
In the years since its difficult release, Evil Dead has been decreed a bona fide classic, and Bruce Campbell a pop-culture icon. So where’d the movie come from?
It came from Detroit’s Wylie E. Groves High School, and a gang of brilliant teen ne’er-do-wells there—a joshing group of chums steeped in irony, crazy about movies, and desperate to jump into filmmaking, come what may.
The ragged collective of buffs, tech nerds, camera geeks and Three Stooges enthusiasts half-jokingly called themselves the Metropolitan Film Group, and included, among others, future powerhouse director Sam Raimi [Darkman, the Spiderman Trilogy, The Quick and the Dead, and so much more], and Raimi’s laconic pal, Bruce Campbell; a handsome, smirking jokester whose immense Dudley Do-Right jawline, sardonic eyebrows, and wildly panicked acting style made him America’s answer to Hell’s churlish legions. As Evil Dead’s deathless leading man, the variously strutting/histrionically screaming Ash Williams, Campbell set the stage for a career that really has no equal.
Teen Dreamers Fling Open Gates of Hell
Evil Dead (The Little Horror Movie That Became a Cult Legend), took 12 weeks to shoot in the Tennessee woods, and four numbing years to complete. From editing (aided by a fledgling filmmaker named Joel Coen), to marketing, to post-production audio and visual effects (the disgusting “flesh being mutilated” sounds in the film were largely produced by hacking at uncooked chicken), the movie was a gauntlet of wet, freezing nights on backwoods sets, seat-of-the-pants tech torments, ill and injured cast members, and “what do we do next?” freaking on the job; a slog whose miseries are detailed with wry delight in Campbell’s first memoir, If Chins Could Kill.
The cast sometimes slept overnight on the freezing floor of the hellish swampland cabin that is the movie’s main (only) set, just to keep the shooting schedule hopping. Produced on a genuinely shoestring budget—$150,000 wheedled and begged out of family members, hesitant investors, and unwary passerby—the splashy little horror flick, once heaved into the public eye, would be met with some critical glee here in the States, but limp box office.
Then a showing in Cannes and the giddy endorsement of a certain Stephen King would give the film overnight mojo, and the controlled explosion of “buzz”. Evil Dead would conquer Europe and return stateside to a “We loved you all along!” movie establishment embrace.
The Many Faces of Bruce
Bruce Campbell is today an amused “international superstar” of sorts, his All-American Wheaties box face and viscera-draped beginnings conferring on him a celebrity status unlike that of, say, Colin Firth. It all started with he and his pals just wanting to get a movie off the ground and onto a big screen.
“We didn’t know anybody in Michigan who’d ever made a movie,” the kid from Detroit laughs. The guy on the phone is an approachable, but busy, Everyman (“…you get 15 minutes. 20 if your questions don’t suck,” he offers with a pleased chortle). He is self-deprecating and still amazed at the way things have played out. “We were just glad we were able to get into the business. That’s all we wanted. It was all a big mysterious thing to us.“
Evil Dead’s eventual success lead to three sequels—Evil Dead II; the production value-swollen Army of Darkness; and 2013’s cleverly titled feature film reboot…Evil Dead.
The franchise’s success has provided Campbell many show businesses opportunities, his weird star continuing to rise in a firmament of his own making. He is, of course, a staple of Comic Con and other cosplay mega-gatherings.
Since his gore-caked debut, Campbell has had an unpredictable selection of roles in the original Spiderman Trilogy, the Coen Brothers’Hudsucker Proxy, Jim Carrey’s dramatic bombshell The Majestic and, yeah, two Disney projects, to name but a few of his unbloodied appearances in your local theater.
Campbell has written four books—he will be in Santa Barbara touring his most recent, an anecdotal treasure chest called Hail to the Chins—and his TV work includes Lois and Clark-The New Adventures of Superman, Hercules, Xena: Warrior Princess, Homicide: Life on the Street, and an X-Files Episode called “Terms of Endearment”. For seven seasons, Campbell played the cocktail-quaffing, semi-retired spy Sam Axe on USA Network’s Burn Notice. This is a shortlist. Campbell has made it, but got his start in a muddy panic.
“Evil Dead is the only handmade movie I ever did. And I mean REALLY handmade! We did the ads, we cut the trailer. I had to go to print shops to figure out what (show business trade magazine) Variety’s display ad dimensions were! We didn’t know any of that shit. No one else was gonna do it for us, right? It gives you great background.”
Ash to Ashes?
On Halloween night 2013, the Starz TV network launched Ash vs Evil Dead, in which Campbell reprises his Ash Williams character, more than 30 years after the guy was introduced to horror fans and put through the zombie ringer. Should we interpret Ash vs Evil Dead as full circle closure? Is Campbell signaling the last chapter in his Evil Dead career arc?
“It very well could be!” Campbell laughs.
“We finished shooting season three and we’re waiting for a season 4 pickup. We’re going to New York Comic Con (Oct. 5 – 8 as I write this) to sell our wares. We’ll see what the savages think. This is a project that Sam and I and Ron Tapert (longtime Evil Dead producer and Wylie E. Groves alum) really wanted to happen, and we’re really grateful to Starz. If they nuke us after three seasons, we’ll still feel lucky that we had a chance to revisit [Evil Dead] and apply all of our big boy skills. That’s what I like the most. I can revisit Ash and know what I’m doing!”
It can’t be easy to write a season three Ash vs. Evil Dead finale that can stand as both possible show-closer and cliff-hanger. Can it? The difficulty did not escape the show’s creators.
“I’ll just say the way we ended season three is, hopefully, not only jaw-dropping, but will also allow the audience to go ‘Okay. I’m good’.” Campbell goes on to compare and contrast with another televised blood-letter.
“We’re trying to avoid that Dexter-type twist.…my son was so pissed off at the Dexter finale that he won’t even recommend the show anymore. You just…you gotta be careful. The fans have been very good to us and you can’t screw ‘em. You have to give them what they want.”
Life, Love and Flying Guts
Many will see in Bruce Campbell’s strange trajectory a standard rags-to-riches tale of the sort that seasons much of movie lore. Some will see something more. Photos of Bruce and future film giant Sam Raimi back in the Day at Wylie E. Groves High School in Detroit could be yearbook “goof shots” of young, fresh-faced smartasses at any high school anywhere. Moviegoers who remember the first time they saw Evil Dead will recall the claustrophobic, mist-shrouded horror of the cabin and the woods, the darkness and stomach-churning special effects.
But it might be more instructive to couple the “Evil Dead Experience” with an image of a bunch of young peeps (likely in bell-bottoms) laughing their asses off and high-fiving in full sunlight. I mention to Campbell that the memoirs are almost an instruction manual on how a throng of secretly brilliant high school clowns can parlay their inside jokes and group wit into an empire. Campbell chuckles appreciatively.
“Well, a very humble empire at that. Mostly it’s been guys like you who point it out. For us it’s been so normal for so long that we don’t really think about it. But high school was mid-seventies. I met Sam (Raimi) in ‘75. So, yeah, it’s coming up on 40-some-odd years.” I ask what, if anything, the years in the business have done to his and Sam Raimi’s relationship?
“Only downside these days is that either he is working all the time or I’m working all the time. You don’t have the face time that you used to have. I finally dragged Sam up to Oregon where I live now. We went river rafting. We both have families, you know. Sam has, like, 42 kids. When he’s not working he’s at home. It just gets tougher. None of my pals are hanging out in Oregon. It just changes things.”
Can Campbell say how and where he had the revelation that he might want to be, of all things, an actor? Yeah, he can. “My dad wanted to be a painter, and his dad, my grandfather, worked for Alcoa Aluminum. He said to my dad ‘Nah. You’re not gonna be a painter. You’re gonna go to school and get a job.’ So my dad went into advertising.” Campbell Sr. eventually found his creative outlet moonlighting in local theater.
“I saw my dad in a play, in summer stock. He’s the one who got me started. He was in a production of the Pajama Game. I was about 8. I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing up there. My dad played one of the lead characters and he was singing and dancing, and with women who weren’t my mother! People in the audience were laughing and clapping. And I thought ‘What. The hell. Is this?!’” Campbell was smitten. “I knew I needed some of that. And I knew my dad would be open to it.” Campbell pauses.
“Parental support is really important. I know a lot of people who didn’t go into the arts because their parents said ‘No. No freaking way.’ My parents, God bless them, were the first investors in Evil Dead. First money up. They were right there all along the way.” How did they react when his career took off? “My dad would be the first guy I’d call. ‘Dad, I got this thing! We’re shooting this movie’ and this and that. And he would say ‘Wow, Bruce! That sounds great!’ He’d always be the guy that you would tell first.”
Fans of Bruce Campbell’s famously gruesome debut film may be interested to know how his mom responded to his success.
“It felt good to vindicate my parent’s support,” he says. “It took a long time—Evil Dead took about six years to break even. But my mom,” Campbell chortles, pauses. “…she got an Evil Dead check one time and said ‘Great! Now I can do all new Anderson windows!’” Campbell laughs (it must be said) warmly. It comes right through the telephone line. This nemesis of the Undead is clearly among the Living.
“That was what Evil Dead meant to my mom at that moment. Luxury double-paned windows.”