Bruce Campbell can still feel the oppressive cling of fake blood pulling at his skin after shooting the particularly gory scenes in his first movie, 1981's The Evil Dead. "I'd walk into a hot shower with my clothes on after a shoot because they were stuck to my body," he says. "The blood would pull all my hair off." The film was so over-the-top in its gruesome depiction of twentysomethings becoming possessed by evil spirits – after fiddling with an ancient Sumerian text (bound in human flesh, of course) that they'd found in the basement of a creepy cabin – that first-time filmmaker Sam Raimi didn't flinch when dubbing the low-budget flick "the ultimate experience in grueling horror." Ultimately, it became a cult hit; Stephen King called it "ferociously original" and Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson later said he found it inspiring.
Now Campbell, a 57-year-old, square-jawed, self-described "B-movie actor" is returning to the world of Evil Dead. "The blood is still stickier than hell and it's horrible, horrible, horrible," he says, affecting a matter-of-fact snark that's not unlike his character's. Following two sequels and a reboot, the franchise will get a fifth life on Halloween, when Starz debuts the TV series Ash vs. Evil Dead.
The show, which kicks off with a Raimi-directed premiere, finds Campbell resuming the saga of Ash Williams, Dead's beleaguered deadbeat who once again accidentally (read: "while high") summons the "Deadites" — those sinister spirits who turn unwitting people and inanimate objects into wise-cracking killing machines. Williams must find a way to put the "genie back in the bottle," as Campbell puts it, or face world destruction. The cast also features franchise newbies Lucy Lawless, Mimi Rogers and Jill Marie Jones, among others, while retaining the series' hilarious, Three Stooges–inspired "splat-tick" humor — making for a viewing experience that's less Walking Dead and more "mocking dead."
The way the actor tells it, fans have been relentlessly clamoring for a new Evil Dead film ever since the release of the series' second sequel, 1992's Army of Darkness. "I'm always surprised by the demand, because the first Evil Dead was financed by dentists and doctors," he says. "It wasn't even an indie darling. It clawed its way from nowhere to where it is today, which is still a mom-and-pop operation. We're just glad that, after all this hard work, people want more."
Campbell, who regularly attends horror conventions, has seen first-hand how the film series became a cult hit. By his own estimation, he's autographed around 50 chainsaws ("They have to make sure they're not working before entering," he says) and "a lot" of shotguns, and he has witnessed first-hand just how far fans will go to show their love. "I saw an Iraq war veteran who had the entire poster of Army of Darkness [tattooed] on his back in color," Campbell says. "It must have taken 40-plus hours. Another guy had my initials on his stomach. Try to explain that to your girlfriend."
Trying to meet the demand, Campbell and Raimi produced a generally well-received 2013 reboot of the original, directed by Fede Alvarez, but while fans dug it, they told Campbell they didn't like it as much as the real thing. After doing seven seasons of USA Network's spy show Burn Notice, he felt TV might be an interesting way to raise the Dead, so he and producer Rob Tapert "dragged Sam into it," figuring out a way to pick up the plot close to a quarter of a century after Ash's last adventure. They chose Starz as the series' home since it was the only network to allow them to do anything they wanted — a necessity, given that our chainsaw-handed hero experiences gore galore in his befuddled attempt to salvage humanity.
"This guy's going to save the world?" Campbell says with a laugh. "This guy wasn't qualified 25 years ago when we did Army of Darkness. What makes you think he's going to be qualified now?"
For the actor, the biggest challenge of reentering the land of the Dead is the physicality. "I'm not as limber as I used to be," he says. "So it's getting up in the morning, putting Bengay on, lots of Icy Hot, hot rubs, hot baths." To carry the character's chainsaw, Campbell does lots of stretching and isometrics, and he holds weights out in front of his body with both arms because, as he realized, a shotgun is about just as heavy as a chainsaw.
He achieves Williams' mindset a little easier. Since the character is still content being a stock boy at an electronics store at the beginning of the season, decades after battling demons in the original films' cabin in the woods, he lives a largely Dionysian lifestyle. "I just appeal to my lowest base instincts," Campbell says, then proceeds with a hypothetical. "You wake up in the morning and go, 'Should I drink at 10 o'clock in the morning?' Your normal instinct would go, 'Nah, that's probably not a good idea.' Ash would go, 'Have a beer for breakfast. What's the big deal?' He's a bad employee, a bad boyfriend — a very, very flawed hero."
"This show has reminded me how much I hate fake blood."
So, considering the show's plot sidesteps the Medieval mayhem of Army of Darkness, has the Williams character changed much at all in the three decades since the events in Evil Dead 2? "Not at all," Campbell says resoundingly. "That's the awesome part. Everything is basically thrust upon this socially inept guy."
But while Williams is incompetent, Campbell must keep it together – especially on set when doing battle with his own personal mortal enemy: imitation bodily fluids. "This show has reminded me how much I hate fake blood," he says bluntly. "I forgot. I haven't really been covered in blood in years."
When he was filming a scene a few days before speaking with Rolling Stone, Campbell says he went blind because one of the "blood delivery systems" got him right in the eye. "They were using a seed spreader with a hand crank and a bucket, with this little blade runner on it that would toss seeds out as if you're going to reseed your lawn, and we just put blood in there," he says. "It made the greatest old-school spray and it blinded me. I had to say lines of dialogue, and I could not see because my eyes were so full of blood." (As far as modern blood-delivery systems go, Campbell extols the invention of a "blood mortar, for if we really need to pump blood," based on an air mortar, and a modified beer keg "for spray.")
"In another fight sequence," he continues, "I basically cut a guy's head off with a broken bottle – don't do that at home – and my mouth was full of blood. I basically had to spit it out and keep going with the take, because I was gagging."
Campbell's biggest disappointment, regarding the pseudo-plasma, is just how little it's changed since he and Raimi made the first movie. "The 'real blood' that we use for close-up work is still sticky and it has a sweet base," he says. "I'm not sure why. I need to develop and patent my own blood."
Another thing that remains virtually the same is the prop Necronomicon – the Sumerian book of the dead – that Williams uses to summon the Deadites. Even though he's made several movies with them, Campbell won't hang onto the prop as a souvenir. "They smell like a locker room," he says. "They're all made out of weird rubber, strange fiberglass material. They don't age well either. They're not designed to last 100 years. Even the ones you can get, those DVDs the special editions of Evil Dead come in, they're all falling apart because they were made in Malaysia."
Despite the slippery drawbacks of returning to such a viscous world, Campbell says he had fun filming the series and working again with Raimi and Lawless — the latter of whom he knew from guest-starring on Xena: The Warrior Princess, — and refers to them as the "devils that I do know." Regarding Raimi in particular, the actor calls the director "even more dangerous" and "more experienced" than when he last worked with him. "He is a much more professional director and I'm a much more professional actor," Campbell says. "It's great that we can do the same thing again and nothing has changed." The actor also has enjoyed having a say in the role of Ash Williams. "This is the only show where I can now take full control over what my character says," he exclaims. "That's important. I'll listen to Sam but nobody else."
The first season of the show will feature 10 half-hour episodes of events getting worse and worse for Williams as he tries to contain the evil Deadites. "We'll see where it takes up beyond that," Campbell says, teasing a continuation of the plot into a second season. "I think fans are gonna get their money's worth," he says. "We're not pushing our way through this. We're taking it very seriously. We know what the fans demand — and we're giving them exactly what they demand."