Interview: The Evil Dead Director Fede Alvarez Shares all the Gory Details Behind Remaking a Horror Classic
In the new issue of Revolver--on newsstands everywhere tomorrow and available online right here--our "Splatter Matters" columnist Jovanka Vuckovic interviews Fede Alvarez, director of this spring's highly controversial and highly anticipated remake of The Evil Dead. Due to space constraints, we were unable to print their entire chat. But here, we can share the director's cut, so to speak, uncensored and in all it's gory glory. For more info on Vuckovic, visit jovankavuckovic.com and follow her at @JovankaVuckovic on Twitter.
When horror fans first heard that Sam Raimi was behind a remake of his own 1981 cult classic The Evil Dead, the Internet exploded with outrage. The fact that he’d hired an unknown first-time director who hadn’t made any horror films didn’t help, either. That is, until that fantastically gore-drenched, balls-deep, ultraviolent red band trailer (below) was released online and suddenly everyone wanted to know who Fede Alvarez was. The unlikely director’s popularity was further increased when it was announced that he’d chosen to avoid the use of CGI in the film in favour of practical effects--a cinematic art form horror aficionados deeply appreciate and long to see return in such a capacity.
Love it or hate it, a brand new Evil Dead is coming to theaters, complete with totally different characters and a zillion insider nods to the original--including a cameo of sorts from Raimi’s classic Delta ’88. But what makes us most excited about this remake is that it’s not coming from a studio (who tend to botch every story they retell). Rather, it’s an independent movie produced by Raimi, who oversaw the production and encouraged the novice filmmaker to make a hard horror film that pulls no punches. And that, dear readers, is what Alvarez has delivered.
Revolver sits down with 35-year-old Uruguayan filmmaker Fede Alvarez to find out how he got the job remaking one of the genre’s most beloved cult films, why old-school gore gags are better, and, of course, why Bruce Campbell won’t be getting down and dirty with the Deadites in his remake.
REVOLVER This is your first feature film after making a name for yourself with short comedies and, of course, your exceptional YouTube sci-fi short Panic Attack. How on earth did you get the job remaking one of the most iconic American horror films is history?
FEDE ALVAREZ I met Sam Raimi through Panic Attack. In fact, he was one of the first people to see it after I posted it on YouTube. He contacted me and we developed a relationship and we discussed me doing my first film as a feature version of the short--an alien invasion movie. While we were working on that he asked me if I would be interested in remaking The Evil Dead. So it was his idea.
Are you a horror fan? Could you comprehend the gravity of such an offer? Were you intimidated to take it on?
I wouldn’t call myself a horror fan because that would offend horror fans, you know? If I call myself a Star Wars fan and someone calls themselves a Star Wars fan but is not really a Star Wars fan, it would piss me off. It’s the same with horror fans, which I’m not. I’m not looking for the next horror movie all the time. I rarely go to the theater to watch horror movies. I’m not that guy who goes to see every horror movie--and that’s what I believe is a horror fan.
That would be me.
Yes, that would be you, exactly. But for me, I’ll go see the good ones. When I hear there’s a really good horror movie, I’m always intrigued and I’ll go after it, but I’m not a chaser of horror. You know, when I found out about Martyrs, I went and saw it because it was supposed to be new and great and part of that new wave of French horror that came out. The problem is, it’s very hard to find good horror movies. So when you ask if I am a fan, I cannot honestly say yes because I don’t watch everything that comes out.
Interesting. Sometimes it is the non-horror film directors that make the best horror films. Sam Raimi, in fact, does not define himself as a horror fan or a horror filmmaker for that matter. Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter, Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf and more recently Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In immediately spring to mind.
Yes, definitely. And Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later really changed the whole zombie genre, too. I watching the Hitchcock movie the other day, what is it called?
It’s just called Hitchcock.
Yes, exactly. His pitch to get people to make Psycho was exactly that. The studio wasn’t enthusiastic about horror in general and Alfred Hitchcock said to them, “Yes, but what if a good director made a horror film?” And this has something to do with what you are saying--if you are not into genre, you have more opportunity to make something fresh, maybe.
Well, I think you are just being modest because you seem to know what you are talking about when it comes to horror. You seem to also understand what the fans want when it comes to a remake of Evil Dead. Either you instinctively know this or you got some guidance from Sam Raimi because the film is excessively violent and packed with practical make-up effects. These are things the fans want.
Because CGI takes you out of the movie. And it’s just not scary. I remember the last really scary movie experience for me was 28 Days Later. I saw it alone in the theater and it scared the crap out of me. And a little while later, I Am Legend came out and they didn’t show you the zombies in the trailer and I went to see it and there were CGI zombies and I was like, What the fuck is this?!
Don’t get me started on I Am Legend. That movie’s a travesty.
Yeah, exactly, a travesty. Besides all the story problems it has, the bottom line is, no one is scared of a CG graphic! Your mind knows it’s not real. So from the beginning, I decided I did not want CGI in the film. It was a big decision because I knew it was going to make things difficult for everyone. A lot of the stuff that I was reading on the page was impossible to imagine how we were going to do that for real. But that’s the magic and the challenge of film-making. That was the best part of making this movie: sitting down with the team, with every department, reading the line from the script and going, “How the fuck are we going to do this?” And the director is saying, “I don’t want any CGI” so everyone is looking at each other going, “So…how do we do it then?”
So how did you?
I like illusion and magic. I do magic tricks at bars that my girlfriend probably wishes I didn’t do because I’m not good at it. But I really love it. We really researched trick illusions, optical effects to make something look like it has disappeared. Basically a lot of illusion work. We managed to do a lot of the crazy mutilation gags in the movie for real because that’s my personal taste. A lot of people say to me, “You come from a short film that is 100% CGI. Your superpower is to be able to do all that shit.” And it’s exactly that. CG is an area of expertise for me so I spot it right away when I watch movies. So that doesn’t help me enjoy some movies because I know what is CG and what is not.
How did Sam Raimi feel about it?
The best advice Sam gave was: “You have to make the movie that would die to watch in the theater.” So the movie that I would die to see in the theater is a movie that has no CGI.
You were very blessed to have had that kind of support on an independent film. In a studio scenario, it would have probably turned out much different.
Maybe. I don’t know, I haven’t been through the experience of making a film with a studio yet. The truth is, no one wants to make a bad film, not even a studio. They’re usually trying to save a film when they put CGI over something.
Well, that’s debatable.
OK, true. But the practical effects have to great. It has to be very impressive otherwise they will always jump to cover it with CGI. The audience has a love/hate relationship with it. They see a movie because they saw something that shocked them in the trailer--and usually it’s a monster that was done with CGI.
The most convincing film monsters in history were done with practical effects.
And technology in the craft of make-up effects today is way more advanced so you can do even better stuff today. There is a tongue that we kept that was made from an actress’ tongue and we used it in the scene to be sure that it matched her face. And when we see it in the film and it looks like it should be there. That’s how we did all the effects shots.
So are you saying that there aren’t even any enhancements, wire/rig removal, or any kind of 2D visual effects shots at all?
Yeah, but that’s different.
I see. So the gore gags--the important stuff--is practical, but with enhancements.
Yes. There are two different things and I guess a lot of people get confused about them. I was reading some stuff online and one person said, “But I saw some stuff coming out of a girl’s mouth in the trailer and that’s definitely CGI.” I’ll tell you: that’s not CGI. That’s compositing. When you are compositing in a computer, it means that you are combining real elements together into one scene. Real on real. CGI is computer-generated imagery. Completely fake. A 3D mesh render. That’s the stuff that looks fake. Erasing a wire is not CGI because Hollywood’s been erasing wires since way before the advent of computers. In the original Star Wars, when you see the X-Wing attack the Death Star, there’s no CGI. It’s all real elements composited together.
Well, it was all done on an optical printer, right?
Exactly. Scale models, optical perspective tricks. You paint on glass and you put it in front of the camera...
An effect used famously in the original King Kong.
Yeah and it looked fucking great because everything you see is real. It’s always a trick at the end, obviously, because that scene doesn’t actually exist. That's moviemaking. So there’s a lot of that in this movie. We used the computer to erase stuff sometimes, but that’s completely different than putting a monster into the film that is computer generated. Nothing was created using software. That’s what people hate in general.
Your film appears to be quite bloody and serious. Did you get an R-rating?
It was actually NC-17 when we first submitted the film to the MPAA.
[Laughs] Thank you. I would have been offended if my film didn’t get an NC-17. We really intended to make the most obscene, violent, gory film we could. If I went into it with that spirit and I got an R, I’d feel like I hadn’t done my job. So I really was happy we got an NC-17 right away. But of course you cannot release an NC-17 movie. Theaters won’t play it. Thankfully, the MPAA was very nice to us and were very specific about the things that concerned them. There were five scenes in the movie they wanted us to work on to make them happy. In the end, it’s almost the same film. We just made some things shorter--but they are still there! That’s what will turn an NC-17 movie into an R, a few seconds. It’s really ridiculous. Thankfully [producers] Sam, Bruce [Campbell] and Rob [Tapert] have been through this before and know how to deal with it. The NC-17 version will end up on DVD anyway.
I see that this story has completely different characters that exist within the Evil Dead mythos. Is it a sequel?
That’s an interesting question because the Evil Dead is a tricky trilogy in a way. Evil Dead is one movie. Then Evil Dead 2 is kind of a reboot--the same story retold from scratch. This time Ash goes to the cabin with his girlfriend instead of four friends. There are a lot of ideas in Evil Dead 2 that were in the first film but it’s completely different. Sam, Bruce and Rob, they wanted a remake of the original film, so we approached it that way. But the truth is there are different characters and the story is completely different. You will find a lot of similarities with the original in the events that occur, almost in the same order, for the first half of the movie. At the midpoint, it goes in a completely different direction. So the first half will feel familiar, only the setup is completely different. I think it’s up to the audience. If you want to imagine it as a sequel--something that happened 30 years later in the same place, I think you can do that. In fact, you will find a hundred little tips. If you are a real fan, you will find them.
Care to share a few now?
Sure. For example, there is a deck of cards thrown into the corner of the room and every card that is facing up is the same card that the character in the original [Cheryl], who is about to get possessed, starts naming: “Two of Spades! Jack of Diamonds! Jack of Clubs!” There is no close-up of it but it’s there. So there are a lot of hints. If you imagine the second movie never existed, those five friends went there and everybody died and the Necronomicon was never burned. You see the book on fire but you never see it being consumed.
Fans have noticed the characters names spell out the word D-E-M-O-N. Nice touch.
[Laughs] I was hoping they’d figure that out, but they did it much faster than I’d expected!
How do you respond to those people who say that there can be no Evil Dead without Bruce Campbell?
It’s funny, the reason we are making this movie is because Ash is not in it. I don’t think any of the producers wanted to make a movie in which they had to remake Ash, especially Bruce. He’s an iconic character. Ash is Bruce and Bruce is Ash. It’s something that’s so iconic and so beloved. That would have been terrifying. You were asking me in the beginning if I was scared to take on this movie. I never was worried because I knew I wasn’t remaking that character. If I had to do that, I would be scared. That’s a character that just happened organically. Nobody intended to create Ash. I don’t think even Sam Raimi intended to create Ash. It’s just something that happened over the course of the film. Ash is trying to survive and they way he kicks the hell out of his girlfriend. She starts laughing hysterically and he walks over and starts slapping the shit out of her. It’s like, “What the fuck? He is beating the hell out of his girlfriend because she won’t stop laughing!” It’s insane. So that persona happened based on Bruce’s performance and his decisions in the moment. It wasn’t written on the page. Of course in Evil Dead 2, they embrace the craziness of that character. So you can’t just write a guy who’s a little bit goofy and try to cast it. That’s a fool’s errand. It wouldn’t work and it wasn’t necessary.
So you never intended to recast Ash from the beginning?
No. In fact, I think out of all the pitches the producers got for this remake, mine was the only one that did not include Ash. I was the only one who went in saying, “If you’re going to do this, you can’t put Ash in the movie.” You can tell a new story in the Evil Dead universe, but you can’t have a new Ash in it. That would be ridiculous. They loved that approach.
It’s a wise choice, I think. As a woman, I’ve always liked The Evil Dead because it is a film about women torturing men and the reluctant male hero who fails to save them. This is an inversion of genre convention. You don’t see that too often in horror films. Did you decide to preserve this unique aspect of the film in your remake?
Oh yeah. It’s very true. I have said that a lot. That’s what makes Evil Dead completely different. In my personal life, I’ve felt very attacked by women--so I noticed that in the original. It’s like you said: Most horror films are all about the girl being chased by the guy with the knife or whatever. It is the quintessential idea in horror movies. The helpless girl being chased by some big dude. With Evil Dead, it’s about a guy that is completely tormented by women. And this not just some woman, it’s your girlfriend. You can’t just kill her, that would be so wrong. With the big dude, it’s easier on the audience to go and kill the big dude attacking the helpless girl. In fact, you root for her. You want the Jason or the Michael Myers to die because he’s big and aggressive and kind of retarded. In Evil Dead, it is the girlfriends who go bad. They are loved ones. And they are not zombies. Zombies are already dead so there’s less sadness in killing them. But a Deadite is a more sophisticated creature. It’s a possessed person so there’s still hope that the person is still in there--which makes them harder to kill. Those women have immense power because they can torment you, they can drive you crazy, they can hurt you and there’s nothing you can do because you don’t really want to kill them. You want to find a way to save them. And you will find that in this film.
Besides the original Evil Dead, were there any other cinematic influences on your film?
Yes, definitely. 28 Days Later: How to make a fantasy creature like a zombie look real? That’s something that movie did in a great way. So it was an influence. In terms of the way I shot it, Coppola’s Dracula was a huge influence. I probably ripped off a lot of things from that movie. It has a lot of old-school camera tricks. You will see walls moving--that’s some dude actually pushing the wall towards the camera. It creates a very claustrophobic feeling. The camera is upside down so liquid drips eerily upwards. They played with shadows in a way that was unsettling. I really enjoy those tricks and we did a lot of that on this movie. You will see walls moving, a lot of weird camera angles and lenses. At the end of the day, it’s just about five people in a cabin so you need to do everything you can to make that cabin feel unsettling.
One last question: That’s not Sam Raimi’s actual Delta ’88 Oldsmobile in the trailer, is it?
The one you see in the first trailer is not actually Sam’s car, no. He still has it in his garage. We wanted to ship it to the set, but because I wanted it to be completely rusted, having sat around at the cabin for 30 years, I didn’t want to fuck up Sam’s car! So I had to use a car that we could destroy.
Like a stunt double?
[Laughs]. Yes, exactly. I couldn’t do the movie without putting that car in it.