Set Visit: Evil Dead (Part One)

The pitch: Want to go to New Zealand for three days to hang out on the set of EVIL DEAD? The obvious answer: Hell yes I do! The issue: I'm based in New York City, which means I'll first have to travel approximately six hours to L.A., chill out there for another few hours, then prepare body and soul for a 13-hour flight to Auckland. That's almost an entire day devoted to traveling for what would amount to three brief days in New Zealand, then do it all over again. Frodo had it easier.

Of course, I still said yes almost immediately. Three free days in New Zealand on the set of EVIL DEAD is three free days. And of all the remakes we're constantly faced with, this new vision of Sam Raimi's crazed 1980 classic has to be the most intriguing. It's not difficult to imagine a FRIDAY THE 13th or TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE update - the basic rules of the slasher movie are as alive and well today as they've ever been - but this is a different matter. What would a 21st Century version of a gore-soaked, gleefully frenzied - and generally plotless - do-it-yourself indie number like EVIL DEAD look like?

The remake has been in development for several years, with Raimi and his producing partner Rob Tapert admittedly long anxious to reimagine the movie that put them both on the map. (Raimi's feeling has been that a new generation of horror fans deserved a fresh telling of the twisted tale.) They found their man to helm it in the form of Fede Alvarez, who impressed Hollywood a handful of years ago with his imaginative short film PANIC ATTACK! Alvarez signed a contract with Raimi's Ghost House Pictures and soon found himself pitching the producers his idea for an EVIL DEAD remake, which is actually quite close to the original. They responded, and the rest is splatter history.

I'll spare you the particulars of my trek to NZ (so scary it'll keep you up nights) and move right along to the set. (Incidentally, if you're wondering why New Zealand, it's because Ghost House has studio space there, where they've shot many of their films, including BOOGEYMAN and 30 DAYS OF NIGHT.) The first stop for me and my fellow web journalists was Woodhill Forest, about an hour outside of Auckland and a perfectly creepy setting for the film's notorious cabin, which was built from scratch on location. The trees are crooked and surreal; these aren't the same old Vancouver woods we've seen in a million movies. Near the cabin was a recognizable Oldsmobile, broken and decayed. (It's a reference for fans of Raimi's films, but we're told it doesn't play any significant role in the film.) Also near the cabin is a doghouse; its occupant, "Grumpy," is nowhere to be seen, but there's blood everywhere so Grumpy is presumably gone for good. On the porch of the cabin is a bloody shovel. Cobwebs cover its corners; the wood is moldy and worn. Not an ideal vacation spot.

A stone's throw away from the cabin is a large mess of vines; imposing-looking things that are, of course, the culprits in one of the film's most horrific scenes. (Are you pleased to hear that there will be tree rape?) Apparently, the production added some thorns to the vines in order to make them extra frightening, but they look freaky enough on their own. Near the vines is another car, sunk into a pond, signifying that escape from this intimidating landscape is not in the cards. A stone well sits nearby, a board weighed down with a large rock covering its opening.

Inside the cabin is a recreation of the more elaborate set which was built in a studio in Auckland, not necessarily being used for actual shooting. In the livingroom there's a hatch in the floor, a piano, a couch, some pictures on the wall, little else of note.

It's not long before we travel to the studio where we can get a real look inside the cabin. The large warehouse (not originally meant for productions but transformed into one after being purchased by Ghost House) has everything the EVIL DEAD team needs: plenty of offices for the costume and make-up departments and a gigantic open soundstage where they've built an impressive rendering of the interior of the lethal abode. The entire cabin set breaks apart and rolls away, which makes things very easy for the filmmakers, enabling them to shoot from any number of angles and fit lights in wherever they want. Covering a large area of the soundstage is a fake woods set, which sits in front of a painted background created to mimic foreboding trees. (It doesn't seem likely that this false landscape will actually make it into the final cut.) A separate structure that acts as a recreation of the film's cellar, a crucial location in any EVIL DEAD flick, can also be seen taking up a big chunk of space.

The journalists are given the day's call sheet, which calls for a shotgun, gasoline, flames, a shard of glass (if you've seen the trailer, you already know how that fits in), a blood-stained hallway. The "gore prosthetics" want a "nailed" leg and torso, slashed arm wounds, neck wounds, a smashed hand, a stabbed hand, mouth blood and "evil eye" contact lenses. Another day requires a crowbar, a chainsaw and demon-bitten arm. Looking this sheet over, the first true excitement for the EVIL DEAD remake creeps in. It's clear that this movie will be pulling no punches (the fact that it will be rated "hard R" has already been mentioned to us); there seems to be little question that everything and body residing in the cabin will be draped in red liquid at one point or another. Is it possible that our cautious optimism is going to pay off?

Fede Alvarez, an enthusiastic young man, all smiles, at one point leads us through the basement set after the entire stage has been bathed in darkness. We're all carrying flashlights; he wants us to experience the set the way the characters do. The cellar is a dire place indeed; animals are hanging from the ceiling, decaying on the ends of ropes. The cabin evidently was being used for something else entirely before our five leads show up. I'm expecting someone to pop out from behind a small rock wall in the corner, but the moment doesn't come. I'm unsure if I'm glad or relieved.

We also were fortunate to see a couple of scenes being filmed. Be warned that some SPOILERS follow, so if you don't want to know who gets possessed, skip on ahead. (Although let's be real, everyone is likely to be possessed at one point or another.) We're toward the end of them film - the production has been, for the most part, shooting sequentially - and David (played by Shiloh Fernandez) is telling Mia (Jane Levy) to get out of the cabin. They're apparently the only two left alive, and the cabin is about to be set ablaze. Once Mia is pushed out the door, she screams her head off. It's a damn impressive display; Ms. Levy's credentials as a "scream queen" are instantly secured. Soon Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) walks in, possessed. His face is disgusting, his eyes are bulging and inhuman. He murmurs to David, "He's coming for you." Alvarez then makes him say a couple of different lines, including "One more soul to rise" and "Join us!" It remains to be seen which is used, but obviously us EVIL DEAD fans know the "join us" refrain pretty well, so let's keep our fingers crossed for that one. Alvarez's camera swoops up and down Eric's body, catching his distorted face in unusual angles. It's pretty obvious that the remake's camera is going to be a wild and frenetic observer to the madness, inspired by Raimi's brilliant photography in the original.

It's unfortunate I couldn't spend more time on the set; I've been on plenty of entertaining set visits before, but this one was possibly the most fun. The movie looks very faithful, and designed to appeal directly to horror movie nerds. Naturally, we hadn't seen the trailers at that point, and those two beauties have since confirmed my feeling that this remake is going to be something special.

Other tidbits of note that I picked up along the way:

- Alvarez is a fanboy just like the rest of us; he noted that he used to be the one commenting on all of the big movie sites, and now he's the one being commented upon.
- Cinematographer Aaron Morton, who has worked with Raimi and Tapert on their "Spartacus" series, has devised a plethora of ingenious camera tricks for the movie, including riding along a zipline during one of the chase scenes. (No cameras strapped to 2x4s, however.)
- The film has been given a "timeless" look; the filmmakers didn't want it to contain any references to when it's actually taking place.
- They used an almost limitless amount of stage blood for this movie; one scene alone utilized 50,000 gallons of the stuff. No, that's not a typo.
- Got a peek at a prop chainsaw. As a lifelong EVIL DEAD fan, this was a big moment. We were told that the chainsaw plays a fairly large role in the film. As it damn well should!
- The clock from the original EVIL DEAD appears in the remake.
- One character, in a desperate attempt to kill herself, takes a nailgun to her own face. The results are messy.
- It seems like the big finale (SPOILER ALERT) pits Mia against "Evil Mia," a demonic version of herself. Not entirely positive how this abomination is born, but Evil Mia seems to be the key villain. Their final confrontation takes place outside the cabin as blood literally rains from the sky. Evil Mia at one point says, "I'll swallow your soul!"
- Alvarez noted that most of the other remakes we see are studio-owned, so there's obviously a ton of different cooks in the kitchen. What differentiates EVIL DEAD is that it's owned by Raimi and Tapert who, along with Bruce Campbell, are calling the shots. Hence, we should feel pretty good about the movie's chances of being the real deal.

Stay tuned for the second part of my set visit report, which will have direct quotes from the cast and filmmakers!

Finally, that's my ugly mug lurking in the shadows on the cabin porch below! (Fede Alvarez is on the bottom row, second from the right.)

Extra Tidbit: EVIL DEAD opens on April 12th from TriStar.

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