Now 54, and handsome in the fashion of a 1940s cigarette commercial, the great Bruce Campbell enjoys an odd class of fame. The world, sadly, throngs with too many people who couldn’t distinguish him from any random chisel-jawed supporting player. But, as the star of Sam Raimi’s first three Evil Dead movies, Campbell is safely installed as a horror demigod. In the 30 years since The Evil Dead was released to acclaim and disgust, he has worked steadily in high-end pulp and classy television. (You can currently see him in spy romp Burn Notice .) Currently promoting a remake of The Evil Dead – the definite article has been dropped for Fede Alvarez’s decent retread – Campbell expresses no regret about the path his life has taken. Indeed, the first of his excellent memoirs is titled If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor .
“Yes, I am a B-movie actor,” he says. “I am on cable television now. That’s the B-movie of our time. Burn Notice is good. But it’s still a genre thing. It’s a dumb spy show. I am okay with low budgets. You have to work harder. But often the stories are more interesting.”
Should we be surprised that he and Raimi – both credited as producers – have put their imprimatur on the new Evil Dead ? The original project must be very close to their hearts. Schoolmates from Detroit, they knocked together the comic horror – which found five foolish students being assaulted by demons in a remote cabin – for a few nickels in 1981 and saw it go on to conquer the world. It launched Campbell into cult celebrity. It ultimately propelled Raimi towards Spider-Man and Oz the Great and Powerful .
“Well, we wanted to be careful for sure,” he says. “The fans were dubious. The Evil Dead fans are very loyal and opinionated, which we love. They are like a very tough girlfriend who you have to treat very well. This is something that fell into our lap. We weren’t sitting around thinking: how can we make some more money out of this?”
The new film has already been a hit in the US and, thus, will almost certainly spawn further sequels. This could create a very confusing situation. A month or so ago, Sam Raimi told this writer that he was open to the notion of a developing a fourth episode in the original series. So, we’re going to have two parallel franchises?
“Oh, they will be confused either way,” Bruce laughs. “They thought Evil Dead 2 was a remake of the first.”
The tale behind those groundbreaking films is worthy of a movie in itself. This was the era before affordable video cameras offered sufficient resolution for even semi-respectable amateur film-makers. Raimi and his pals were forced to hustle just to secure enough money for stock and processing. Kids today don’t know they are born.
“Oh, we were pretty industrious in high school,” Campbell confirms. “We were in different grades, but Sam and I had a few classes together. He was off making these silent films, mostly comedies. It was all, ‘this guy’s got a great projector, this guy’s got a cool splicer, this guy’s got a camera’. We worked hard. If there was a party, we were the ones filming it.”
The Evil Dead emerged to little acclaim. What really kicked it into the spotlight was the absurd furore in the UK concerning “video nasties”. True, the film does feature a class of sexual assault by possessed vegetation. But Raimi’s description of The Evil Dead as a Three Stooges film with gore still makes sense. It is difficult today to understand how it ended up on a list of shame complied by the British Home Office. (It was, of course, banned outright in Ireland. But you’d expect that.)
“It did take off in the UK,” Campbell agrees. “Palace Pictures handled it there and they did an interesting thing. They launched it like a proper Hollywood movie. They had these two enormous posters outside the Prince Charles theatre for the premiere. It was like it was The Poseidon Adventure or something. Being banned also helped. People were saying: what is this god-awful movie?”
It went on to triumph on this new-fangled home video thingummy.
“Yeah, I remember seeing the video charts for 1983 and we were at number one. The Shining was at number seven. We kicked Stanley Kubrick’s ass. Ha ha!”
Raimi and Campbell have managed to remain close friends through the decades. The director has made sure to cast Campbell in most of his mainstream films. He’s the ring announcer in Spider-Man . He’s the Gate Keeper in Oz the Great and Powerful . It’s a touchingly durable relationship. Thirty years ago they were bussing tables and driving taxis to support their film-making habit. Now Raimi and Campbell strut about grand soundstages in genuine blockbusters. Their old schoolmate Bob Tapert, now a hugely successful producer, completes the Michigan Three.
“We’ve never had a falling out, but life gets between you at times,” he says. “So, when we three are on the phone we always say we must get together. It’s funny. Sam’s this big Hollywood director, but when we are on set we’ll still crack jokes. I’ll talk back to him. He’ll talk back to me. Other people on set will look at me and think: who’s this day-player insulting the director? What’s up with this guy?”
Well, those fellows need to bone up on their Hollywood iconography. Campbell’s performance as the constantly inconvenienced Ash in The Evil Dead , The Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness is enough to guarantee him immortality. In the intervening years, he has also excelled as Elvis in the weird Bubba Ho-Tep and in supporting roles for the Coen brothers. All decent film fans perk up when they see his face.
He has clearly thought deeply about the art of being Bruce Campbell. His two books – the second is titled, hilariously, Make Love! The Bruce Campbell Way – take sideways looks at cult fame. Among his films as director, we find a twisty postmodern piece from 2007 entitled My Name is Bruce . Campbell clearly enjoys deconstructing his strange renown.
“It is strange,” he ponders. “There are a lot of tattoos out there of me. I have started collecting photos of them. I’m up to about 140 photographs.”
Well, that sounds nice. But it also sounds a bit scary. One wonders if Bruce ever worries about attracting the wrong kind of attention.
“Fans are more obsessed with guys they think they’ll never, ever get to meet – like Tom Cruise,” he says. “ They’re in that tricky position. My whole schedule is on the internet. If you want to meet me you know where to go.”
So he’s not worth stalking.
“That’s exactly it. I am just a guy who’s lucky enough to be an actor. I am not worth stalking.”