Ash Vs. Evil Dead premieres this Halloween night on Starz. It’s hard to believe Sam Raimi’s schlocky little piece of drive-in trash has lived on for so long and that its original star is still fighting Kandarian demons 30 years on—on basic cable, nonetheless. Audiences have watched the character of Ashley Williams grow from his humble beginnings as an everyman trying to survive the night to a badass (albeit dumb, delusional, and insensitive) monster hunter over the course of two sequels. What began as the ultimate experience in grueling horror is, in 2015, a pop culture phenomenon that combines horror, gore, comedy, and action. By now most fans know that Raimi’s first love was slapstick comedy and it should come as no surprise that The Evil Dead has changed and grown from its own humble beginnings. However, as low-budget as the original Evil Dead was, the seed from whence it came was even more meager: Raimi’s short film Within The Woods.
Within The Woods is a 30-minute short that Raimi shot on 8mm alongside childhood friend Bruce Campbell and fellow Evil Dead cast member Ellen Sandweiss over “one long weekend” according to SFX artist Tom Sullivan. The short film acts as sort of a rough draft or blueprint for what would ultimately become The Evil Dead. The plot is similar enough: Bruce, his girlfriend Ellen and some friends take a couples retreat to the woods of Michigan and begin unwittingly antagonizing evil spirits, all while listening to Sister Sledge. The demons don’t take too kindly to all this tomfoolery and begin their attack on Bruce and the gang.
The short is notable in that Campbell, the hero of the Evil Dead series, plays the main Deadite, probably because he’s the only guy Raimi could trick into wearing the monster make-up all weekend. Sullivan told Cinefantastique in 1992 that “no one got any sleep,” but when Campbell did get to nap, Raimi insisted he kept the make-up on for continuity’s sake. Within The Woods can also be considered Raimi’s demo reel as hints of his filmmaking language are visible in the short film. The concept of the Deadites was born here (“Join us!”) and there is plenty of the gore that would become a staple of the Evil Dead films. There are also several scenes and shots that were lifted right from Within The Woods for Evil Dead and its sequels: the point of view of the dark spirit racing through the woods, Bruce biting off his own hand, and the reveal of the possessed Scotty, among others.
Raimi intended to use Within The Woods as a trailer to shop around to attorneys and local business around his home state of Michigan, hoping to get them to invest in a horror flick with a larger budget. That’s what budding young filmmakers needed to do before the age of Kickstarter. The film did end up playing theatrically and was booked alongside midnight movie favorite The Rocky Horror Picture Show at a local theatre. Bruce Campbell recalled in his 2002 autobiography that Michael McWilliams of The Detroit News wrote, “It will probably never be advertised alongside the glossy, big-budget horror movies of our time, but you won’t easily forget a locally produced little film called Within The Woods.” According to that 1992 issue of Cinefantastique, Raimi and the rest of his gang “literally passed the plate to friends and neighbors, as well as the local market owners and even to real estate dealers.” The micro-budgeted Within The Woods helped the team raise $90,000 “in three months, the first leg of their four-year effort to film Evil Dead.”
The clips available on YouTube are VHS dupes of what can be assumed is the original 8mm film. Despite The Evil Dead and its sequels being released and re-released countless times by companies such as Elite, Anchor Bay, and most recently Shout Factory, Within The Woods has never garnered an official release. The short has widely been bootlegged for years. It could be considered the Star Wars Holiday Special of The Evil Dead saga, except that even with a budget of $1,600—which Raimi, Campbell, and producer Rob Tapert came up with out of pocket—Within The Woods is infinitely more entertaining. While it has been suggested that securing the rights for “We Are Family” is what’s holding up an official release of Within The Woods, Raimi has mentioned that he feels the film is amateurish and unsuitable for release while Campbell has simply said that he doesn’t want to “show his pimply ass to the world.”