Much has been written over the years about Tom Sullivan's involvement on The Evil Dead, and not all of it accurate. A number of quotes have been mis-attributed to Tom and some facts are simply incorrect. Unfortunately, much of this is continually regurgitated verbatim without ever being checked. This piece was written in collaboration with & checked by Tom personally.
Tom Sullivan was learning as he went, and building on the knowledge gained from his work on Within the Woods. His original contract was for 6 weeks, but because of scheduling over-runs, a second agreement was drawn up covering an extra week, which also stipulated that he would retain the ownership & copyright of any props he manufactured. Sam was very secretive about the story, Tom remembers getting questions that gave him hints of what was to come, such as "Can you do makeup on a girl so her face is on fire and she is still talking?". They discussed dummy heads and articulation through cables, and about a year or so later, that was how the Shelly on fire sequence was achieved. Tom only got to see the finished script about three weeks before shooting began, so only really had enough time to gather all the supplies he needed, and do the bare minimum of preparation work. Some materials were shipped ahead to Tennessee, such as some R&D foam rubber, a simple and reliable mixture he used for the Linda's leg and Shelly arms. Before and during the shoot, Tom made facial castings of Ellen, Theresa, Betsy & Rich, but no casting was ever made of Bruce. The mould making process was somewhat primitive using Plaster Of Paris directly on to skin.
During a moulding of Betsy Baker, he coated her face with Vaseline, and then poured on plaster of Paris, which heats up as it hardens. She was given a piece of paper to write on if necessary, and kept writing "getting very light-headed" as the plaster was heating up. He had great trouble removing the cast, and when it finally did come loose, it left her eyelashes stuck in the plaster and her face bright red. The make-up testing continued in the same vain, resulting in raw limbs from excessive heat and unwanted hair removal.
Prior to leaving he completed the Kandarian Dagger, and its creation was surprisingly quick & simple. He bought some 1" wide flat stock of aluminium from an East Lansing hardware store, then cut it to a point with a hacksaw, and grinding the edges with a power tool. For the hilt of bones, he took a few handfuls of a papier-mâché product called Celluclay and shaped a thick curved handle over the blade. He stuck dried chicken bones and twelve-inch skeleton model kit parts into the Celluclay, and let it dry. Lastly he painted it with some acrylic paint. Above and beyond what Sam had called for the dagger to do, Tom also drilled a hole through the Celluclay & miniature skull on the hilt, so tubing could be connected and blood could flow out of the skull's mouth. Tom also made a start on the Book of the Dead. Already having the facial casts, he brushed about ten layers of liquid latex into some of the moulds, and used contact cement to glue these 'skins' onto a piece of corrugated cardboard. He made the pages out of office store bought parchment, bound together with paper from a grocery bag. The pages were left blank for the time being.
Incidentally, its worth noting that a number of the props featured in The Evil Dead were also used in other films. Tom recycled & remodelled his dagger into the version seen in Evil Dead II, which also featured the same cabin clock, and both the clock and the shotgun were featured in Thou Shalt Not Kill... Except. Bruce has stated that the original shotgun now resides with his brother Don Campbell, and the Evil Dead II Kandarian Dagger has prized place in Tom's travelling Evil Dead museum along with both Books of the Dead, the magnifying glass pendant necklace, and various other Evil Dead related items.
Leaving around noon heading south on highway 75, Tom rode down in a car with Josh Becker, Tim Philo & John Mason, taking with him various supplies including a gallon of liquid latex rubber, a bag of Hydrocal plaster, food colouring, white clown grease paint, crepe hair, acrylic paints, brushes, buckets, bowls, an electric cake mixer, sketch pads, pencils, heavy-duty aluminium foil, modelling clay and all the issues of Cinemagic, (Don Dohler’s super 8mm Special Effects for Armatures magazine) he had at the time. They talked about film the whole drive down, and pulled into Morristown, Tennessee, with everyone else in the convoy in the early morning of Sunday, November 11, 1979. They called the local film commission and assistant producer Gary Holt to lead them to their accommodation. With thirteen people in the six bedroom house which served as their combined production offices & living quarters, space was tight.
Tom initially slept in the living room with some of the other guys, but after a few weeks he could no longer bear their snoring, and started sleeping in the laundry room. He set up his special effects workshop on the basement, and used the kitchen when he needed to bake foam latex mouldings. Incomplete before arriving in Tennessee, The Book Of The Dead was illustrated & completed at the kitchen table, where he usually chatted to Josh Becker about films.
Generally, Tom woke up any actors that needed make-up or facial appliances, 3 to 5 hours before the morning call. As there was no time for making prosthetics beforehand, most of the masks we created on the actors as they continued to sleep. After each day's shoot, he would to stay up late and prepare the next days effects, then try to catch an hour or so sleep, before to start the make-up process again early the next morning. To save time, make-up & appliances were re-used from the previous day where possible. After Tom left, Rich had to wear his evil Scott make up for another whole day, before leaving himself shortly after.
Tom collected a grocery bag of turkey bones left over from the thanksgiving dinner at Gary Holt's mother-in-law's home. By that point, the Kandarian dagger was already complete, but he took them in case they may have come in useful for something else. As it turned out, they were never used, and were left behind when Tom returned back to Michigan. A while later, people noticed a horrible smell emanating out of the laundry room, which was finally traced to the bones which by that time had begun to rot.
Bart Pierce came up with an ingenious system to manufacture home-made blood bags; Saran Wrap to cover a blood filled Styrofoam cup, with fishing line attached to a construction staple using a rubber band and string. With one of the bags taped to his own arm, Bart inadvertently pulled the line and promptly stapled himself producing the real thing.
The scene where Ash kills Linda, utilised so called 'It's Murder beams'. These are wood effect lightweight Styrofoam 'beams' normally used to create a rustic look in mobile homes, which were used in It's Murder, hence the name. Rather than wear the lenses, Betsy opted to keep her eyes shut with her eyelids painted white, so she had no way of knowing exactly what was going to happen. For her close-up, Bruce & Sam stood either side of the camera in order to get the maximum number of hits without stopping to reset. Upon calling action, Bruce swung his beam, then Sam would whack her as hard as he could, which would send Betsy into a rage. Sam apologized, they set up for another take, and he did the exact same thing. After the third take Betsy spewed milk in every direction, but mostly on to the camera operated by Tim Philo. This pissed him off no end, and meant they had to stop shooting and thoroughly clean the camera.
Tom made a mould of Betsy Baker’s foot and lower leg for the shot where Cheryl stabs a pencil into Linda's leg. He placed a dowel rod down the center of the mould before pouring in the foam rubber to make the fake leg more rigid, and then baked the whole thing in the kitchen oven till it was cured. He painted the casting with acrylic paints and hollowed out the off-camera side of the fake ankle to make room for a blood balloon. For the shot itself, Tom held the leg while Ellen stabbed it, but the pencil blocked the blood hole so Sam yelled, 'Grind it around and make it hurt!', and the shot was done in one take.
The blood recipe used was 1 large bottle of Karo corn syrup, 1 bottle red food colouring, 1 drop of blue food colouring, then 1/2 cup of instant coffee & water mixed to a creamy paste and stirred into the syrup, to make the blood opaque.
Within weeks, they had cleaned out every Karo syrup supplier in the area. This blood became Bruce's nemesis, as it got everywhere and then made everything sticky. After filming each day, he'd walk straight into the shower back at the house, fully clothed, which was the best way to dissolve the blood he was covered in. At one point during a break between shots, Bruce hung his blood soaked shirt in front of a space heater to dry out, but upon thrusting his arm into the shirt a little later on, the whole sleeve broke off, and he tossed the rest of it into the fire.
Four out of the five actors needed to wear white Scleral contact lenses, something they had been fitted for, and had to get used to before leaving Detroit. This lead to strained eyes from numerous attempts to wear them. Covering the entire eye, they essentially made the actor blind. Additionally and were very uncomfortable to wear, and could only be in for fifteen minutes, five times per day. Bruce was responsible for fitting & removing them, a task which required clean lenses & hands, unfortunately, the only source of hot water in the cabin was the instant coffee machine, which had to serve for both hand washing & lens cleaning.
Because most of the cast & crew left around the same time, this only left Ellen requiring make-up, and her appliance and colouring was fairly straightforward at that point. A lot special effects were left to be shot back in to Detroit, but some were still done on location such as the shot of the pencil stabbing into Linda's ankle, and Shelly falling into the fireplace, then severing her hand. Before leaving on Saturday, December 29th, 1979, Tom pre-prepared the eye gouging head of Scott, and a number of other effects. The shot in which we see Shelly's dismembered corpse twitching on the floor was done after he left. The parts are just real limbs dressed & covered in blood. Rob and Teresa were both under the house, with Teresa's head, and Rob's leg & arm coming through holes in the floorboards. The shot took several hours to set up & shoot and they became horribly uncomfortable.
Below you can watch a 5m 54s segment of a local Detroit TV show aired circa 1983, in which Tom Sullivan is interviewed about the film in general, the special effects he created, and shows some of his props. While it's in 480p DVD resolution, it was transferred from VHS and isn't exactly Blu-Ray quality, but this the only way anyone out there will likely see it.
Sam had unrealistically expected that they could shoot the meltdown scene in a couple of hours on location at the cabin, He asked Tom to replicated Cheryl & Scott's bodies out of balloons filled with smoke, then they could be deflated on cue producing a meltdown effect. Tom mentioned that if someone in the theatre audience started blowing raspberries at that point, then it would end the finale with a big laugh, and could even catch on, becoming a race to see which audience member could do it first. After talking it through, Tom suggested using stop-motion clay animation instead, putting forward the animated Morlock decomposition from the Time Machine as a good example of what they might achieve. Tom quickly sketched out some storyboards outlining how Cheryl and Scotty could disintegrate into the puddle of bile on the floor that had already been filmed. Sam went for it and they resolved to leave it until they were back in Detroit, where they could extend the sequence and invest more time in it.
Between February and October of 1980, a lot of new footage was shot. Parts of Shelly's dismemberment sequence were shot in Sam's parents' garage. The shot of the hand being chopped off was shot on a raised platform dressed to look like the floor of the cabin. A slot was made in the fake floor and a young woman fed her hand through hole. Tom attached a foam rubber arm with a tube for blood. Sam wanted the axe to cut as near to the wrist as possible, so chose to swing the axe himself in case of any possible accidents, but they got it in one take without any mishaps.
Tom and Bart Pierce were in charge of almost all of the meltdown sequence. Sam showed them a rough cut of the film, and took them through what he wanted; a the tour de force ending which would be more violent than all the rest of the picture, while matching the style, with fast & rapid motion, never a still moment in the frame. Although getting along well, they disagreed over whether they should use stop-motion animation or live mechanical effects. Tom was a big fan of Ray Harryhausen and felt that even animation which wasn't the best, would still lend a certain air to the picture. Bart was more in favour of real-time mechanical and fluid effects. They finally resolved to combine both, hoping one would play off the other and create a better result than either technique used alone. As they found out over the following weeks & months, combining mechanical effects & stop frame animation was not easy.
In the first week of August 1980, while Sam was away in New York, Tom & Bart began planning the sequence. Tom had sketched out a number of concept drawings, which he then expanded about thirty storyboards. They were given full control over the action, camera movement, lighting and special effects. Working in Bart's basement & garage, Tom started producing the armatures, moulding & stop-motion animation, while Bart Pierce was responsible for the camera work and technical supervision. Tom was living away from home an average of six days a week, sleeping on a camp bed in Bart's basement.
Shooting with a 16mm Mitchell camera, Bart assembled a 3ft x 4ft glass frame with a sturdy stand. It had to be on such a large scale as it needed to be as close to the animation as possible to keep both elements in sharp focus. They drew the matte line with a crayon, one guiding the other through camera's viewfinder, then that section of the glass frame would be painted a solid black with latex paint to blank it off from the film. Once they'd shot the sequence, they would then blank off the opposite part of the glass and shoot the second pass to complete the finished animation & mechanical mix. Incidentally, the source of this technique was Ray Harryhausen, who used the same method on his pictures too. No shot in the sequence had more than two passes, and all of them were matte shots.
In order to smooth out the animation, they decided to double-expose each frame. This meant half-exposing two frames at a time, then rewinding the film by one frame and doing the same again producing fully exposed frames. Although this method is somewhat trickier than just straight single frame animation, to his credit Bart never over-exposed a single frame. All this made for slow going, and some shots took up to two days to set up and another day to film. With the exception of one shot which had to be done twice, they had an excellent success rate and got everything first time. One shot of Scott's head still has a slight shift between the mattes. This was because Tom lent on the table as he was animating, moving the matte. Bart pointed it out to him, and he moved it back, but the shift can still be seen in the finished film. A sound effect was added over the top to provide a distraction, rather than trying to cover it up.
While working through the 30 storyboards, Tom would put a red check on the each one when they had completed that shot successfully and got it back from the lab. Tim Philo meanwhile had the completed film clips over a little rewind spindle and viewer, so he could cut the shots together over on the side producing an rough cut of the whole sequence. Sam had asked for this, as if Tom & Sam were just handed a pile of footage to edit they wouldn't know in what order to cut it all together. They would regularly send the footage off to Sam in New York, and he would message back to keep sending more.
Both Bruce and Scott Spiegel lent a hand where they could, and various girlfriends were 'volunteered' to double for other unavailable actresses in the picture.
Working Walnut Lake Market in West Bloomfield, Michigan, Scott was able to supply various pieces of meat, to use when the demon hands pop out of Cheryl & Scott. Ted Raimi played the hands, and the meat really started to stink after a few hours in the hot lights. The stop-frame animation shot where veins spider-web out on possessed Linda's leg was also shot in Bart's basement, using Cheryl Guttridge as Linda's stand-in. The animation was shot over 96 frames and took about 90 minutes to complete. In order to keep it perfectly still, her leg had to be clamped down, and it had gone to sleep long before the 90 minutes were up. Although they didn't know it, she was in a fair amount of pain, and when her leg was released she rolled over and vomited for five or so minutes, making all involved feel very guilty.
For the climax of the sequence, bugs and snakes were supposed to pour from the melting bodies of Cheryl & Scott, although Sam thought this effect too extreme, and left it out. The footage does still exist, but it's doubtful it will ever see the light of day. Even so, everyone connected with the movie mentions the huge Madagascar cockroaches that hissed when picked up.
Towards the end, Tom & Bart were turning out a shot every other day or so. In total, shooting the optical and mechanical effects took three and a half months. Tom started on the film in October 1979, & finished November 22, 1980, working on The Evil Dead for seven months in total. Tom filled a number of crew roles on the picture, but only received a single entry in the end credits. Rob & Sam later explained to him that if he was credited for all the jobs he actually did, it would look like a low-budget film!
The partners were very happy with Tom's work, and conceded that if they had granted anyone a Production Designer credit, it would have gone to Tom as they simply could not have done the film without him. Even so, while Tom felt that while he did the best he could within the time and budgetary constraints placed on him, he felt the entire job was too rushed, and would have achieved an even better result if he had been allowed more time.