Within the Woods was the short film used to convince investors to fund the first Evil Dead film. The 32-minute short was inspired by a literature assignment Sam Raimi was assigned at MSU. The project required Sam to study the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a collection of spells and rituals used by ancient Egyptians to ensure the safe passage of the dead in the afterlife. After doing some research, he decided to write a script for a film centered on a fictional book of the dead, the Kandarian Necronomicon. As the script took shape Raimi would also borrow from the ancient Sumerian Book of the Dead, a series of scrolls about burial rites, funerary incantations, and passages explaining the trip to the netherworld.
Sam, with his friends Bruce Campbell and Robert Tapert, formed a motion picture company called Renaissance Pictures to film his script. Unfortunately, they had too much script and too little cash, so Sam shaved the story down to seven pages. With a shortened script and around $1,600, Raimi and company set out to shoot this short version of Evil Dead in hopes of snagging potential investors for the longer film. Their plan was to create a thirty-minute “senseless gore flick” with the help of special effects artist Tom Sullivan.
Equipped with molds prepared ahead of time and on-the-set makeup, Sullivan was able to provide the frightening effects for Within the Woods. Most of the work involved taking casts of Bruce’s arm, applying scars and a pop-out eye. As a result, Bruce had to spend hundreds of hours in stifling latex and gooey gore. After so many hours in makeup, at the end of a long work day Bruce improvised by gnawing the latex skin off his body rather than waiting for Tom to remove it.
Within the Woods was shot on Rob Tapert’s family farm during the cold winter of 1978. Bruce, of course, was given the main role and Ellen Sandweiss, a college friend, played his girlfriend of the same name. She would later star with Bruce in the first Evil Dead as Cheryl, his sister. Scott Spiegal also played a self-titled character in the film with an unknown actress by the name of Mary Valenti playing Shelly.
The plot of Within the Woods is straight and to the point with Bruce and Ellen venturing out for a romantic picnic in the woods while their friends Scotty and Shelly hang back at the family cottage. Bruce tries to scare Ellen into his arms by telling her that the spot they are picnicking on was once an Indian burial ground. Ellen refuses to believe Bruce’s tall tales and goes out to gather firewood while Bruce digs a pit for the campfire. Digging enthusiastically, Bruce mistakenly unearths a grave and finds an ancient sacrificial knife. When Ellen returns Bruce shows her his prize, but she is unimpressed and they both bed down for the evening. Ellen awakens in the middle of the night to find that Bruce has disappeared without a trace. She goes in search of her paramour only to find his dead and mutilated body amidst the undergrowth.
When she discovers the body, the newly awakened Evil Force chases Ellen back to the cottage, where Scotty and Shelly are playing a rousing game of Monopoly (copyright infringement anyone?). With nail-biting suspense, Ellen pounds on the glass and fumbles with the key to the back door of the cabin, as the demonic force gains on her. She narrowly escapes when Scotty lets her in after making a leisurely trip to the fridge for a beer. A breathless and shaken Ellen describes her discovery of Bruce’s mangled corpse to Scotty and Shelly, but the couple doesn’t believe her.
The intrepid Scotty goes in search of Bruce, but when he doesn’t come back right away Shelly decides to go out and look for the two men despite Ellen’s protests. As Shelly opens the front door, Bruce bursts in and brutally murders her as Ellen watches in terror. The possessed Bruce then goes after Ellen, who comes at him with some knives from the kitchen. Scotty returns in the midst of this struggle and accidentally gets the business end of Ellen’s knife. Scotty instructs Ellen to get the gun from the cellar, but when she returns she notices an open window. Suddenly confronted by the reanimated corpse of her former better-half, she takes the sacrificial blade and nearly slices his hand off, but not quite. The hand dangles by a string of bloody tendon and Bruce chews it off to retrieve the knife. Unwilling to succumb to the evil that has transformed her boyfriend into a monster, Ellen continues to fight until Bruce is reduced to a pile of gore and body parts.
The film was first shown to friends and relatives at a screening in the backyard of the Tapert family home. Within the Woods premiered to the public in August 1979 at a Detroit cinema known as The Punch and Judy. It opened before The Rocky Horror Picture Show on consecutive Saturdays via a Super 8mm projector that showed the film on only a quarter of the screen!