CLIFF: Tell us your history with the Evil Dead productions.
TOM: Unfortunately, the excerpt from Josh’s diary does not begin to explain the situation. But I’ll try. Ever since I met the Detroit filmmakers of Michigan State–Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert, Bruce Campbell, Scott Spiegel, Josh Becker, Mike Ditz, and John Cameron–I knew they were going Somewhere, if for no other reason than the sheer volume of films they had made. They are all equally talented in filmmaking, with their own interests, specialties, and personalities, and they are the greatest group of friends I’ve seen.
TOM: I had been making my own films, doing my masks, and special effects experiments by myself in Marshall, Michigan and I was willing to do anything to help them get there so that I could get there too. I started by doing water-dripping noises, a sound effect I can do with my mouth. It’s one of those useful things you learn to do as you go through life. Real talent. Belloooop! This was for a feature-length Super 8 comedy directed by Sam and produced by Rob and stars everybody called “It’s Murder!” The shooting had been almost completed when I met them. We hit it off by showing each other our movies. I think I showed them everything I had, including my stop motion dinosaur epic super 8 short called “Time Eater” a high school project I’d done at Wheaton North in Wheaton, Ill.
Anyway, Sam invited me to do the sounds. I also did a poster to promote the premiere of “I.M.!” and title graphics for a short “Psycho/Stalker Super 8 of Sam’s called “Clockwork.” Then I did the fairly elaborate special effects and make-up for “Within the Woods,” a half-hour horror film that’s basically a sketch of Evil Dead. With “W.T.W.” The guys raised 80 grand over the next year to film for six weeks shooting “The Book of the Dead” (Evil Dead). I took a six-week leave from my job to work on the film.
CLIFF: Why did you leave?
TOM: My wife, Penny, and I was living in East Lansing, Mich. She was studying at M.S.U. and we had no money. While I agreed to and worked another week at the Tennessee location, at the time of Josh’s diary entry, I had to get back if I was going to keep my job, on which Penny’s education depended. Ren. Pics. was out of money so I agreed to wait for a later bonus. About six years later, as I recall, this is shown business and the show must go on.
CLIFF: Josh said that you left SPFX work unfinished?
TOM: Filming began in Tennessee in the first week of Nov. 1979 and continued for seven weeks for me and I had to leave. Everybody but Rob, Sam, Josh, Bruce, and a few others left soon after me. If you double-check the journal you’ll see lots of people left when I did. That’s what happens when you contract for a term and the term ends. I was desperately broke and had to work. I missed the “guerrilla filmmaking” and would have loved to finish the other three or four weeks bonding with the guys. I am an Eagle Scout and I was used to camping about 50 nights a year. I love roughing it. And there was no way, that I was going to ditch a golden ticket to stardom.
Also, I had given my word that I would see the project through. This is commitment was made very clear to all of us because that was the only way, Ren. Pics. could be assured we’d pull through a grueling shoot so the film could get finished. Had it not been for college, Penny would have been my assistant for free in Tennessee. I could have used an assistant, and the production could have used Penny. The problem was that Penny was having a very hard time living alone on M.S.U. campus. She was terrified walking around campus at night. And she had been in a car accident. I was worried about her from the phone calls I was getting. And I couldn’t afford to lose my job back in Lansing. However, I did lose a week’s paid vacation because I left to work on “Evil Dead” a few weeks before I would have received it. As for what was left undone at the Tennessee location. The only thing I recall was the wriggling body parts shots of Scotty’s girlfriend that were done by the cold and uncomfortable technique of pulling out the floorboards and having “Shemps” lie in the December cold, icky, fine Tennessee dirt. The soil had been acting like a coffee filter for cow urine. And it’s a shame they don’t give Oscars for lying in dung. Or best Producer either.
If I had been there, I’m quite sure as the “Creator of Special Makeup Effects” I wouldn’t have been under the floor making my glorious spot in movie history, but behind the scenes pouring Karo syrup blood on people twitching in holes in the floor. Another unfinished Effect was the Scotty eye-gouging shot. However, I had fully prepared that shot for “action and gouge,” before I left. They did a great job, which is nice because the retake would have been done back in Detroit. A hassle, but possible. Remember these guys are craftsmen first.
And they are going to get it as right as they can within the limits the real world will allow. I’ve always been impressed by their incredibly long work hours and that’s the same effort I and everyone involved in all Renaissance Pictures Productions since then make. From what I hear. That’s how infectiously likable and creatively challenging Rob, Sam, and Bruce are to work with.
After the Tennessee shoot, everybody came back exhausted, but I kept in touch with Sam and saw a screening a month or so later of a “Book of the Dead” trailer at their offices in Ferndale, Michigan. In May 1980 I prepared for and fully participated in the 2-week shoot south of Marshall, Michigan. Then from the first week of Aug. 1980 to the day before Thanksgiving 1980, I moved to live in Detroit with Bart, His wife Carol, and two very young sons’ Bret and Drew.
I had to live away from Penny for an average of six days a week. For a couple of weeks, I worked straight through, toward the end. All that time doing more pick-up shots, but primarily the animation meltdown sequence with my cameraman and partner in animation, Bart Pierce. I lived in his basement as well as Bruce Campbell’s family basement for a while. All very warm and generous hosts, by the way. The interesting irony to the perception perhaps left by the Evil Dead diary entry is that Ren. Pics. had run out of money, so I have never been paid for that three and a half months’ work. Nothing. Hardly the thing you do if you are quitting a show. The guys were broke and I was willing to do what I had to do, to help them get the film made. Although at the time LA stop motion artists could make $500.00 a day.
I guess the guys valued my work at $0.00 a day. And yet they used my work. I’ve won awards for it, My stop motion work is featured in Neil Pettigrew’s “The Stop Motion Filmography” and I was invited to promote the Evil Dead all around the world. Curious isn’t it, as well as very hurtful. Another shock with the payment thing was that I was told a month after I had finished the effects work that there was no money for me. This was three days before Christmas (violins fade in) and while Bart Pierce also was not paid he did get some rent for housing me. Penny and I couldn’t make house payments, or, have much of a Christmas. But we got through. There was talk of payment when they made money, but nothing on paper and nothing ever arrived.