The makeup and special effects artists that create our nightmares are often Hollywood’s unsung heroes. But one local artist is getting some time in the spotlight for special effects in the 1980s horror franchise The Evil Dead.
The documentary Invaluable by Marshall filmmaker Ryan Meade looks at the work of fellow Marshall native Tom Sullivan. The movie will premiere Friday at 6:30 p.m. at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema.
When The Evil Dead came out in the 1980s, it made just under $2.5 million dollars at the box office—not even enough to cover advertising. But now Tom Sullivan says it has a cult following of at least 6 million fans around the world. There’s even an Evil Dead musical.
Meade says the title for his documentary comes from a review in horror film magazine Fangoria.
“Bob Martin had said Sullivan’s artistic talent, you know, made him invaluable when it came to making The Evil Dead," says Meade. "And it’s true.”
The gore in The Evil Dead is over-the-top--with different colored goo, ghoulish complexions, gushing blood. The violence isn’t very realistic, but Sullivan says it wasn’t supposed to be.
“There have been some films like Last House on the Left and others that just basically are there to assault you. To rub your face in the brutal nature of humans and that’s not what we were trying to do," says Sullivan. "We were actually trying to make a little funhouse ride.”
Sullivan says the movie was just a fun project for he and his Michigan State friends like director Sam Raimi, producer Rob Tapert, and actor Bruce Campbell.
“We started out with no money. And we were down in Tennessee thinking that that would be a mild winter cause we had to shoot in late fall—actually during winter. And it wound up being the coldest winter in Tennessee and interestingly the mildest winter in Michigan in a hundred years,” says Sullivan.
“But it was like a summer camp without adult supervision,” he says.
Documentary filmmaker Ryan Meade says Sullivan’s work on The Evil Dead paved the way for horror films to come. Before there were computer generated monsters, Sullivan used stop motion animation in a way that very few had done before. Sullivan describes how he made The Evil Dead’s finale:
“There’s something called a ‘split screen matte’ where you can block off a portion of the frame. This is in the old days when we used film. And we could film the hair and scalp pulling down live action and have bile dripping on the sides. And then, we would matte out the face so that would be all black. Then we would change the matte so the hair, which has already been filmed, is all blacked out. Rewind the film to the first start point and then clay animate the face disintegrating. So you’d have live action hair and bile with clay animation face.”
Sullivan says fans like filmmaker Ryan Meade have helped to sustain the cast and crew’s careers. As a kid Sullivan was inspired by Willis O’Brien, the stop motion animator for the original King Kong. Now he says he gets to be someone else’s hero.
“Hardly a show goes by where some artist or filmmaker doesn’t come up and say ‘Well I’m an artist now or a filmmaker doing special effects ‘cause I saw your work on Evil Dead and I had to do that.’ I think that’s as close as you get to real immortality," Sullivan says.
"And long after they forget who I am, there will be people passing it along with crazy things they’ve done and that inspire other people. And I think that’s the coolest thing about it.”