"Evil Dead": How a First-Time Uruguayan Filmmaker Reinvented an American Horror Classic

Fede Alvarez made several short films. In 2009, he released the effects-heavy sci-fi short Panic Attack!

Not Available Lead
Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

Not Available Lead

Twenty-three years ago, Fede Alvarez, a 12-year-old movie fanatic living in Montevideo, Uruguay, never could've guessed that he would one day write and direct one of the strongest horror movie remakes of all time.

Back then, all Alvarez wanted to do was watch as many films as humanly possible, which meant frequent trips to thee local video store. During one particular visit to the tape shop, the adventurous young cinephile approached the counter with an agenda: He wanted to scare the crap out of himself. "I went to the video store trying to find the scariest movie ever," recalls Alvarez, now 35. "The guy who worked there gave me The Evil Dead. I watched it as soon as I got home, and it really did terrify me more than anything I'd seen before then." The experience was so visceral that he unconsciously blocked it from his memory, moving forward. "I'm part of a generation who fell in love with [The Evil Dead writer-director] Sam Raimi's movies when Darkman came out. Darkman came out, and then Army of Darkness, so I started reading up on Sam's earlier movies. And that's when I realized I'd seen The Evil Dead back when I was 12, and I got scared all over again."

If unaware filmgoers from today's generation were to give The Evil Dead a look, chances are the same traumatic reaction wouldn't take place. That's not a knock against Raimi and his film school buddies—it's just a matter of the film's age. Made for somewhere between $350,000 and $400,000, The Evil Dead (which premiered in October 1981) was a labor of love for the Royal Oak, Michigan-born Raimi (only 22 at the time), along with his longtime friend Bruce Campbell (the movie's star) and his Michigan State University pal Rob Tapert (co-producer).

The film's story was simple: Five friends (led by Campbell's now-iconic character, Ash) unwittingly summon a hell-storm of demonic possessions and gore-soaked anarchy after reading from the "Naturon Demonto" a mysterious book they find in the basement of an isolated cabin in the woods. Though its plot was bare-bones, The Evil Dead's visual sensibilities—with kinetic camerawork, giddily shot scenes of liquid nastiness pouring out of multiple human orifices, and balls-to-the-wall energy—were incredibly ambitious and effective.

Having accrued an enormous cult following over the years, as well as spawning two similarly beloved sequels (Evil Dead 2, 1987; Army of Darkness, 1992), The Evil Dead also launched three major careers: Raimi directed the Tobey Maguire-led Spider-Man trilogy and last month's box office hit Oz the Great and Powerful, Campbell is a genre icon and co-stars on the popular USA Network series Burn Notice, and Tapert's TV producing credits include Xena: Warrior Princess, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, and Spartacus: War of the Damned.

For hardcore Evil Dead followers, an all-new Campbell-led sequel has been dreamed about and wished upon for upwards of a decade now. But a remake made by someone other than Sam Raimi, and starring a cast of fresh-faced young actors? For many of those followers, that was a blasphemous notion—until now. Riding a major wave of buzz following its triumphant worldwide premiere at last month's SXSW Film Festival, the 2013 Evil Dead—produced and completely cosigned by Raimi, Campbell, and Tapert—is finally here to prove the skeptics wrong, one severed arm, blood/vomit-covered face, and sliced tongue at a time.

The plot is slightly modified: Instead of heading into the woods to party, four of film's protagonists (Shiloh Fernandez, Lou Taylor Pucci, Jessica Lucas, and Elizabeth Blackmore) check into the creepy cabin to stage an intervention for their friend, Mia (Jane Levy), who's addicted to drugs. But then comes that damned "Naturon Demento," bringing forth insanely gruesome and in-your-face horror.

The man responsible for both coming up with the new Evil Dead's elaborate demonologies and directing it without any inhibitions? Fede Alvarez, who's out to give modern-day moviegoers the same unbelievably terrifying experience that he had when he was 12-years-old. And so far, he's on the right track. During one of the film's pre-release buzz screenings, held in Phoenix, AZ, in late March, one audience member couldn't handle it. "A guy actually fainted while trying to leave the theater during the movie," says Alvarez, with the audible glee of a kid discussing Christmas morning. "He didn't even make it all the way to the exit."

How exactly did an unknown directorial newcomer from Uruguay land such a high-profile debut project? Complex got all of the behind-the-scenes info straight from Alvarez, Campbell, and Tapert. And don't worry, no words from the "Naturon Demento" were used in the making of this feature.

RELATED: The 15 Best Horror-Comedies of All Time
RELATED: The 30 Greatest Directorial Debuts
RELATED: Jessica Lucas: The "Hot Complex" Interview, Photo Gallery, and Video
RELATED: Green Label - Green Label Studios Open Call

Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

Fede Alvarez

Not Available Interstitial

Three years before Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead screened for the first time, Federico Alvarez was born in Montevideo, Uruguay—into a household where movies were everything.

Fede Alvarez: "My father [Dr. Luciano Alvarez] is a big film lover, and a big fan of genre movies. He wrote books on TV and film, and he'd appear on TV shows that talked about films, to give his insight. That's how the whole thing started. I was completely overexposed to movies while I was growing up—not many cartoons, just a lot of movies.

"When a lot of other dads were showing their kids cartoons, my dad was showing me live-action movies. We had a VHS player and there were three movies that I would watch over and over again every time I'd come home from school: The Crimson Pirate (1952), with Burt Lancaster; The Mark of Zorro (1940); and Young Frankenstein, by Mel Brook—for me that was a scary movie! You know, I was just a kid, so I didn't realize that it was such an amazing comedy. It was so tense and unbearable for me, but I loved it. Young Frankenstein was a huge influence on me. I'd literally watch that VHS everyday.

"Naturally, I started doing things at a very young age. My dad had a VHS camera, the one you had to connect to the VHS player. I had a chance to use that camera when he was away at work; I'd take the camera, shoot stuff, and sneak it back in before he got home, because I would never be allowed to use it otherwise as a 7-year-old. I had a stash of VHS homemade little films hidden in my room. One day, my father found it, and I thought he was going to be so pissed, but he was actually like, 'Wow, did you do all of this? This is great!'

"It didn't make me realize I wanted to do this as a living at first; it was just something I did for fun. When I was a kid, I was being trained to become a classic piano player. That was what my career was going to be; I'd be in piano class everyday. Shooting was a hobby.

"Once I finished high school, that was the first time I thought, 'Maybe I can have a career out of this.' But in Uruguay, it's a small industry. There are two movies a year, and back then, during the '90s, there were no movies being made. It was impossible to think about this as a career, so I'd do it just for the fun and pleasure of shooting shorts and music videos.

"I went to university, but I went for computer engineering because I wanted to design games. I went for two years but then I quit. I was always shooting stuff, so I decided that I wanted to go to film school. My father was like, 'OK, you're not going to have a career out of it, but go ahead and knock yourself out.' [Laughs.]"

"Panic Attack!"

Not Available Interstitial

"Panic Attack!" Hits Hollywood

Not Available Interstitial

The Remake Becomes a Reality

Not Available Interstitial

Even though the Panic Attack! feature-length project stalled, Sam Raimi's fondness for Fede Alvarez inspired him to give the young filmmaker an even riskier assignment.

Rob Tapert: "We were getting serious about doing [an Evil Dead remake] as we saw remake after remake come out that we didn't think was as good as the original material. Still, [Evil Dead] was never really going to happen until a project that Panic Attack! started to crumble and Sam said, 'Oh, I like him. Let's get him involved in the Evil Dead remake.'

"We knew that it was something that needed a vision from the start. We talked about trying to find a writer first, and there were names we talked about once we had Fede on. But after his Panic Attack! experience, he convinced us to let him try and write a draft. He felt very strongly that he and his partner, Rodo, would do a great job. They found a very simple hook for why people would go to the cabin that's very this century instead of last century. It wasn't a situation anymore where people were going to a cabin to party down; they were going to have an intervention. He had the right take for a very simple story.

"In the beginning, I thought there were so many roadblocks, and I thought that Sam would be reticent to let it go, but, oddly enough, Sam [pictured above, right, alongside Bruce Campbell during their original Evil Dead days] was the one who was the most eager to do a remake out of all of us. Bruce had a much closer relationship to the fandom, so he didn't want to see somebody try to recreate the character of Ash, which is all we could conceive of. He thought people would hate that, and he didn't really want to see that."

Bruce Campbell: "I was fine with a new Evil Dead if Sam was good. Rob and I never pressured Sam. The word 'remake' was never really in our vocabulary, mostly because we always talked about doing another straight-up sequel. A remake was a whole new concept that came up between Sam and Fede while Fede was pitching some ideas. And then we thought, 'Well, we might be able to accomplish both things. We can leave some wiggle room to allow the Ash character to show up in a new story, but let's give the Evil Dead fans what they want, which is another Evil Dead movie.'

"I don't even call this a "remake"—I prefer to just call this a "new Evil Dead movie." I hate all of those labels. It's another Evil Dead movie that doesn't have the Ash character and has a completely different story. We were really glad when Fede didn't pitch [a new version of Ash]. He pitched us a non-Ash story and that made us more interested ourselves. That was definitely a selling point to us. It's a great thing because, this way, audiences who don't know the older Evil Dead won't even know the difference and audiences who love those movies will appreciate the fact that we're saving Ash for our own series.

"I didn't interact with Fede during the Panic Attack! period. I got to know Fede when he was stuck in Miami. I was in Miami shooting Burn Notice, and Fede was supposed to fly back to Uruguay but there was a volcano that went off in Peru and he was stranded here for four days. So I put him up here at my house and took him to the Burn Notice set to show him how American television is shot, and as a filmmaker I think he was mortified by how fast we do this. We did three different locations and five different scenes all in one day. It was a ridiculous say of shooting. But that's when I got to know him. We rode bikes and lived the Floridian life for a few days.

"And then we spent a lot of time together during the casting process. I got to see how he worked with actors, and that was a big relief. There's a lot of directors who don't know what to say to actors to motivate them and get good performances out of them. Fede was able to do that during the casting period, and that's when I said, 'OK, we're good.' And then I got involved in the post-production process because Burn Notice was done. I had to sort of work around my Burn Notice day job.

"It was important for me to work closely with him throughout the whole process. We're the producers—our names are on this film. We wanted fans to know that we were totally onboard with everything surrounding this project. The first three movies were very hand-made; they were not made by anybody else but the three of us. So for this Evil Dead, we wanted to make sure that the fans got what we felt they deserve, which is as much as we could possibly give them."

Writing a Worthwhile Script

Not Available Interstitial

Teaming up with his longtime friend Rodo Sayagues, Fede Alvarez got to work on the Evil Dead script. The first order of business: come up with a story worthwhile enough to offset the extreme violence and gore. And then go all NC-17 on the page.

Fede Alvarez: "The script took some time. It wasn't easy to reinvent such a classic story. Why would five friends go to a creepy house in the woods together? Rodo [Sayagues, Evil Dead's co-writer] and I wanted to put every idea from the original movie to the test and make sure they were all still relevant and made sense for a new audience.

"It would be pointless to make this movie if it's not relevant for a new audience. Kids who are 18 are going to walk into this film and not care that it comes from an '80s horror classic. When I was a kid watching David Cronenberg's The Fly, I never knew that it was based on a cult classic from the '50s. A lot of those '80s horror movies were remakes of classics from the '50s, but as a kid I didn't care about that. So I knew that a lot of kids would watch this movie with that same frame of mind. We couldn't depend on today's audiences having seen the original.

"The challenge while we were writing was, How are we going to write this story so that fans of the original respect it but new fans will be excited about it and it'll make sense to them? That was the big challenge. The only thing we knew immediately was, like the film's poster says, we wanted to make the most terrifying film that today's audience has ever experienced. Because for me, when I first saw the original Evil Dead, it was by far the most terrifying experience I'd ever had as a 12-year-old. That was the spirit we wanted to capture with this film."

Bruce Campbell: "He did a couple drafts, and we gave him some notes. We weren't really worried about the horror elements at that point; we were more concerned about the story and the characters. It wasn't like we were forcing him to put more gore in or take some of the gore out."

Fede Alvarez: "Sam, Rob, and Bruce gave us that freedom. There were no constraints or rules for things they wanted us to do. At first, they were giving us notes to help keep it an R-rated movie. At one point, I said to Rob, Sam, and Bruce, 'No, no, let's write an NC-17 movie. Let's write the craziest movie that we can, and then we can dial it back from there if we have to,' and they were cool with that idea.

"In 2004, Rodo [Sayagues] and I got our Master's degrees in screenwriting through the Binger Filmlab program. We moved to Amsterdam and wrote our first script together. One lesson from that program really resonated for me when we started writing Evil Dead. The Zucker brothers, who wrote Airplane! and a lot of spoof comedy movies, said that the way they write their comedies was, they would come up with the story first and they'd never write a joke until the story was solid. They wanted to make sure that the story made sense, had character arcs, and everything was there to give it some weight. It wasn't until they had the perfect story, one that they could hit with a sledgehammer and the story would hold together, and then they would start writing jokes. The jokes were always the last part.

"That's how we approached Evil Dead. We wrote the actual story first, and once we felt that the story was solid, strong, and didn't leak, that's when we started focusing on the gore, the fun, and the pain moments. Everything came after we had a strong story. That's the right way to do it. You can get overly excited about bringing all of the crazy horror shit into the mix and forget about the story, but that would be bad."

Jane Levy

Not Available Interstitial

With the screenplay in order, and the production ready to begin, the time had come to find Evil Dead's brave, potential horror-icon-in-the-making leading lady—not the female Ash, but a whole new badass hero.

Fede Alvarez: "Every young actress in Hollywood read for the role of Mia. When I was at SXSW [for the worldwide Evil Dead premiere on March 8], it was amazing because I stayed there for the whole week after the premiere to watch movies—I was watching four movies a day, and having a blast. I'd bump into people I met during the opening night premiere and they'd say, 'Wow, you're still here?' I'd say, 'Of course! I have a film badge and I'm going to use it!' [Laughs.]

"Watching all those movies at SXSW, I noticed that, if there was a young actress in the movie, they read for the Mia character in Evil Dead. A lot of people read for that role and a lot of people wanted it, but Jane Levy [star of the ABC sitcom Suburgatory] did the best job. It's funny, she read for the role, did a great job, left the room, but then came back and apologized because she thought she did such a shitty job. She apologized to Bruce and I, saying that she was embarrassed. That showed us that she very talented but also very humble, and that she was going to be somebody who'd be a trooper during the shooting of the movie."

Bruce Campbell: "We were talking to another actress [Lily Collins, Mirror, Mirror] who thankfully did not do it. Jane just turned out to be right person. There was pressure to use someone who has more of a name than Jane Levy, and we're thankful we didn't go down that road. These movies are special as far as the physical hardships, so you have to cast somebody who's tough. We were fortunate that, A, she can act, and, B, she's tough. She has to play three parts: a junkie, a demon, and a hero. Any one of those would have been plenty for an actor to handle, and she had to do all three."

Fede Alvarez: "Usually with these kinds of movies, the studio has a list of actresses they want you to go after without having them read, and Lily Collins was on that list. She came in, read for the role, and things were looking good, but then she decided she didn't want to do such a crazy horror, genre film."

Bruce Campbell: "I warned all of the actors. I sent them an email to warn them about what was coming, specifically the actors who were going to also play demons. 'Don't party too much, and you're going to have to be the most patient you've ever been because the makeup takes a long time to put on.'

"Everybody talks about how long it takes to put the makeup on, but it also takes an hour to take it off. It's three hours to put this monster shit on and then another to take if off, so that's four hours that you're not even on set, and then you're going to shoot for 12 hours, so welcome to a 16-hour day. It's a combination of physical exertion, acting, and memorizing. This is not My Dinner with Andre—it's just not.

"And Jane was ready for it all. We're all very thankful for Jane Levy—she was sent from heaven to do a story about hell. I just hope she's ready for the iconic stature that can come from a role like this, especially in an Evil Dead movie. I said to her, 'Hey, baby, are you ready to get your face tattooed on people's arms, legs, and asses?' [Laughs.] She gave me this look, like, what are you talking about? I said, 'Yeah, stick around.' I have this collection of about 130 photographs of Evil Dead tattoos, every kind imaginable. I see them every time I go to a convention, which is often."

Practical Effects Over CGI

Not Available Interstitial


Not Available Interstitial

Changing the Naysayers' Minds

Not Available Interstitial

Finally completing a new Evil Dead movie is one thing—convincing the millions of horror fanatics and Evil Dead die-hards that they can stop being angry about the project was a whole other challenge. The first step on the road to changed opinions: NY Comic-Con, October 13, 2012, where Fede Alvarez, Bruce Campbell, and Jane Levy premiered the red band teaser trailer. Fans lost it.

Fede Alvarez: "I was very nervous before NY Comic-Con. I knew that [Evil Dead] was going to deliver on the horror side, but the challenge was proving to people that it's not just another horror movie. The original Evil Dead wasn't just a simple horror movie—it's an insane, over-the-top experience. There's no way you can 100% show that kind of experience in a trailer, and we knew that it's a really scary, over-the-top movie. For a lot of people, the original is a mix of horror and slapstick comedy, and they think that's what makes it unique.

"And even after Comic-Con, a lot of people said, "Oh, they got it wrong—they just made a gritty horror movie, and that's not the point." And that's not what our movie is about. There's a lot of weird switches in tone, and you think it's OK to laugh and then suddenly it's very dark again. I think we had a lot of fun playing with the expectations of that. After Comic-Con, I knew there was a lot of people we had to turn, and now that the movie is being shown and people are writing reviews and talking about it, people are really getting excited to hear that we've been faithful to the spirit of the original Evil Dead movies."

The next step: embracing that confidence on the film's theatrical poster with the audacious tagline, "The most terrifying film you will ever experience."

Fede Alvarez: "The most terrifying film I ever experienced as a kid was The Evil Dead, and when we set up to make the film with Sam, we said, 'If we're really going to do this film, we have to set out to make the scariest film ever—otherwise, what's the point? Why make a horror movie if there are going to be others that exist already that are scarier?'

"The idea to put that on the poster came from the producers, which was flattering. I showed them my original cut, and once they saw that they were like, 'Yeah, this has to be the poster's tagline.' You can't put that on every horror movie's poster, of course, because people won't believe it every time. This is something you can really only do once."

Bruce Campbell: "That poster is completely audacious. But what are you going to say? 'The most mediocre horror movie ever made'? That would be awful. If you're going to make a bold statement on a poster, you might as well completely go for it.

Audience Expectations

Not Available Interstitial

Now, it's up to audiences to decide Evil Dead's fate. They just better be ready for more blood, mayhem, dismemberments, and demonism than they've probably ever witnessed in a movie theater before. And get this: There are already plans for a new Evil Dead trilogy. Get used to the rainshowers of blood. 

Fede Alvarez: "We wanted to play with the horror fan's expectations. If you're a moviegoer and you watch a lot of these films, there are a lot of conventions that, even if you don't know them immediately, you're used to them. When somebody gets dragged under the bed, usually you get a cut to some other character finding some article of clothing or scratches near the bed—we didn't want to do that. This is all about showing and playing with expectations. When Natalie [Elizabeth Blackmore} gets pulled into the cellar, and when Eric [Lou Taylor Pucci] is trapped in the bathroom, we show what happens to them next, without looking away. That was so important for us. People think we're going to cut away to a different scene, but when we stick with the scene and show what's happening to them, people are terrified by that. It's not what they're used to seeing. That usual level of safety is gone.

"For this generation, you have to think that the broad audience for a movie like this is 18-25, right? Think about a guy who is 20-years-old—what was the last movie that came out in thousands of theaters that was so brutal, disturbing, and graphic and also had a psychological aspect of demons telling you all of these horrible things? When was the last one? When I asked myself that same question, I couldn't even answer it.

"For me, the last truly scary movie was 28 Days Later…, but that movie is 11-years-old now. So, again, think about that guy who's 20-years-old—he was eight when that movie came out. For that generation, this Evil Dead really could be the most terrifying movie they've ever seen in a theater. There's a whole generation of young people who've only been exposed to PG-13 ghost stories over the last 10 years. Maybe they've rented some of the classic horror movies and watched them at home, but they've never been able to see a truly scary movie in a theater. Nothing you can rent will ever recreate the experience of seeing a scary movie for the first time in a theater. I really think we've delivered a movie that will fulfill that."

Bruce Campbell: "It feels right. Evil Dead is a very unexplored horror series, if you think about it. The last one we made was way back in 1991. That was a long time ago. People haven't seen an Evil Dead movie for 20-plus years. I want men who grew up loving the original to take their 18-year-old sons to see this Evil Dead. I want some bonding going on. I want groups of women, all girlfriends, to go see this movie and freak out together. Fede really worked his ass off to deliver the scariest, most intense, and brutal horror movie he could, and I know that Sam, Rob, and myself really believe that he delivered the goods."

Latest in Pop Culture