How The Evil Dead's Tom Sullivan Mastered Low-Budget Effects

By David Konow

If Raimi's seminal horror debut is renowned for its low-budget production, it was Tom Sullivan who should get credit for providing those memorable scares with such limited resources.

When Sam Raimi went to college at Michigan State, he formed a tight group of filmmaking friends. Scott Spiegel, who wrote Evil Dead 2, bonded with Raimi over their mutual love of The Three Stooges. Bruce Campbell became Raimi’s square jawed leading man, and Rob Tapert would become Sam’s long time producer. Another important member of that filmmaking fraternity was Tom Sullivan, who did the make-up effects for The Evil Dead. If Raimi's seminal horror debut is renowned for its low-budget production, it was Sullivan who gets the credit for providing those memorable scares with such limited resources.

Part of what made The Evil Dead so enjoyable was its very homemade feel. It was a completely independent movie, and like the best low budget movies that break out into the mainstream, enthusiasm and spirit triumphed over whatever technical flaws the movie had. Sullivan was a major facilitator in bringing Raimi’s insane vision to life, and as a long time horror fan, I welcomed the chance to talk to him about his memories of working on The Evil Dead.

Tom Sullivan first met up with Sam Raimi because his girlfriend was attending Michigan State as the same time as the wunderkind director. Sullivan had heard about Sam’s Creative Filmmaking Society, where he would show his 8mm movies he made in junior high and high school, and charge a buck or so for admission. “Sam was surrounded by a group of friends who were all interested in filmmaking and acting,” Sullivan says. “He had his own little company.”

When Sullivan met Raimi, they immediately hit it off because Tom was fascinated with stop-motion animation, special effects, claymation, and puppets, and these were all filmmaking techniques that were right up Raimi’s alley. All were solitary pursuits for Sullivan, and now he found a filmmaker with a like mind he could collaborate with.

After making a bunch of 8mm movies, Raimi wanted to make a full-length movie that would play in theaters and drive-ins. With the incredible success of Halloween, a horror film seemed the way to go. “At the time, there were drive-ins all over the country,” Sullivan says. “There were tripe features every week, and there was a huge demand for movies. The audiences were teenagers with disposable incomes, and the plan was to make a horror movie, get it shown, and hopefully make more movies.”

Raimi originally wasn’t a fan of horror films, but he began to respect the technique and skill it took to pull off an effective, scary story. Yet Raimi could never leave his love of The Three Stooges behind, and he injected a lot of slapstick humor and comedic violence in the Evil Dead trilogy. “Since Sam had done comedies before, we weren’t really sure he would pull off a horror film,” Sullivan says. “But I had confidence in him because the kid was so gung-ho about everything. He studied film at an amazing level.” As part of Raimi’s research, he took the gang to as many horror films as he could, and in this case, the worse they were, the better.

As Sullivan explains, “The theory was, and I agree with him, is you can learn a lot from bad horror films because they come up with (good) ideas, but they don’t execute them effectively. One of Sam’s mantras was, ‘Steal from the best, just make it your own.’”

Raimi was being secretive with the Evil Dead script, so Sullivan didn’t have much time to look through it and see what he needed to put together. “For an FX guy, that’s panic time!,” he says. “I had enough time to go through the script a few times, figure out supplies, figure out how I might approach the special effects, then find the supplies I thought I needed, search for them, and order them. Fortunately, other than the foam latex, pretty much everything else was available through hobby stores, hardware stores, or supermarkets.”

The blood in Evil Dead started with the usual formula, corn syrup and food coloring, but with coffee as an added ingredient. Sullivan also got his foam latex from R&D, the same company make-up wizards Tom Savini and Dick Smith used as well. “It was simple to use,” Sullivan says. “Just whip it up like cake mix and bake it.”

Sullivan saw Evil Dead as a great opportunity to show what he was capable of, “so I was doing everything I could do to enhance what was in the script, even though Sam wasn’t asking for it,” he says. “The most obvious example was the Book of the Dead. In the script it was described as having some kind of animal skin, which I took to be leather, and a few letters from an ancient alphabet on the cover. I said, ‘Sam, is this a book of evil? It should be something that looks so evil, you don’t even want to pick it up.’” (Sullivan’s Book of the Dead was inspired by the legend of Ilsa, the She Wolf of the SS, who used to make book covers, curtains, and lamp-shades out of human prisoner skin.)

As for the famous Shaky-Cam, which became one of Evil Dead’s greatest trademarks, Sullivan recalled that Raimi “told us to lie about how it was shot. He wanted us to tell a story that we created the Shaki-Cam footage with a motorcycle, Sam was on the handlebars, that we smashed through the doors, ran into Bruce and broke his arm, a leg, and one of his ribs! That was Sam. Even on the set he was trying to help build the myth of the making of the film.”

Another effect that was tough to pull off were the blank white eyes on the Evil Dead girls. This was not in the days of soft lenses, and it was like putting a silver dollar under your eyelids. All the sterile solution went quickly, and since they didn’t have clean water on the set, they used coffee instead. The girls were blind when they wore their blank white contacts, and they were doing some pretty wild stunts while they were visually impaired, “But they were all troopers,” Sullivan said. “Everyone played along like it was nothing.”

Like many who had to put on heavy make-up for the first time, the actresses got claustrophobic underneath it, and there was what Sullivan called “the latex point.” “Make-up is a lot of fun for the first hour, then it’s kind of annoying,” he explains. “Then after fourteen hours, you’re reaching ‘the latext point’ where you want to rip the stuff off even though you know you can’t!”

The Evil Dead shoot was famously grueling, and as Sullivan recalls, there were “no days off, the food wasn’t the greatest, you can only go on macaroni and cheese for so many days, but everybody was really focused on what they were doing.” Sullivan recalled he was running on just a few hours of sleep a night. “I was the last guy to bed, and the first guy to get up,” he says. “Almost all the make-ups were build up every day by scratch. I’d wake the actors up, grab ‘em, bring them into the make-up section, lay them down on the cot, let them go back to sleep, and dab latex paints on their face for the next four or five hours. Then we’d wake them up, and they’d go act.”

The first Evil Dead movie cost about $350,000, and as for the make-up budget, there probably isn’t an exact number anyone can recall today, but Sullivan doesn’t believe he spent more than $400 for supplies. He once asked Rob Tapert if they ever added up a budget for FX, and Tapert replied, “What budget?” Sullivan recalls that on Evil Dead 2 he had an FX budget of $2,000.

Once Sullivan finally saw the finished movie, “I was astounded. It was scary, it was a riot, it was a lot of fun to watch, everything worked in it. I couldn’t have been more proud of what we had done, and it was really gratifying.” Raimi and Sullivan learned how to make movies and create FX through trial and error, and as Sullivan says today, “Necessity is the mother of invention, and it forces you think about what you need to do with the resources at hand. I would highly recommend starting out like that. Film school is essential, but I would do that at a later stage. I would just jump in, start making movies, and figure it out for yourself.”

Sullivan is now the subject of a new documentary, called Invaluable, and looking back on his Evil Dead days, he realizes it was really a special experience that could never be repeated. “I feel like I used up all my good luck on Evil Dead,” he says. “I’ll never win the Lottery now!”