How fandom, practical effects, & a Tool side project brought Evil Dead Rise to life
In August 2022, filmmaker Lee Cronin received an important phone call. Warner Bros. Pictures decided they would release the movie he wrote and directed for them in theaters, rather than on HBO Max as expected. That film was Evil Dead Rise, the newest entry in the illustrious Evil Dead horror franchise, which is out now in theaters.
When Cronin received this call, it offered a strange feeling of vindication. “I always maintained faith that when we finished this movie, we'd still have a shot at bringing it to the big screen,” Cronin tells Alternative Press, “and luckily, that happened.”
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As it turns out (and Evil Dead legend Bruce Campbell himself actually revealed several years ago), original franchise boss Sam Raimi had seen Cronin’s directorial debut, 2019’s The Hole in the Ground, and contacted the young Irish director for a chance at revitalizing the series. As a lifelong fan of the horror movies, taking on the offer allowed him to honor its past and future. But don’t mistake it for a legacy sequel: The new film follows an entirely new cast of characters residing in a Los Angeles apartment building, and the franchise’s bumbling hero, Ash Williams (Campbell), is completely absent.
“I trusted my tonal abilities and the vision I had in my love for the movies to bring the spirit in the appropriate way,” Cronin says. “This wasn't about me coming along and trying to break the guys in half. They were like, ‘Lee, we're looking to you because we feel like you're the sort of filmmaker that can do something really, really different with what Evil Dead is.’”
[Alyssa Sutherland in Evil Dead Rise / Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures]
Needless to say, the up-and-coming director did just that. Viewers with varying levels of familiarity with the franchise are sure to laugh and scream at how the nefarious spirits of the Book of the Dead destroy what is meant to be a nice family reunion. And they'll definitely be glad they get to watch the movie in the cinema with an amped up crowd — because spoilers aside, that cheese-grating trailer is just the tip of the iceberg.
“[Seeing the movie's SXSW premiere], I was like, ‘Oh, I get it now,’ because I’ve had a hard time watching horror,” says Evil Dead Rise star Alyssa Sutherland, who tells AP that her overactive imagination previously deterred her from the genre. “I've been forcing myself into the cinema to watch horror films, and I go on a Friday or a Saturday night so I can get a packed cinema. And I'm like, ‘I get it. I get why people do this. This is so awesome.’ It's like being on a roller coaster.”
Sutherland’s character, Ellie, is the tragically demonic center of the film. The beginning of the film sees her greeted by her estranged sister Beth, played by actress and self-proclaimed horror fanatic Lily Sullivan, who is seeking her advice and comfort after an unexpected life shift. Like other entries in the Evil Dead franchise, this sisterly bond is desecrated by Deadite forces, but that didn’t mean the two had a similar experience with each other in real life. As they tell AP, their connection was instantaneous, likely due to both being raised in the Australian city of Brisbane and their similar commitment to their art.
“I can be a little slow to warm up and a little guarded until I figure someone out, but Lily is so open and warm,” recalls Sutherland. “When I first met her, we were doing family boot camp, and Lily was just like, ‘Oh my god!’ And just like came up and gave me a hug. I was like ‘She’s lovely!’ And we just got on from there.”
From then on, the two began developing their characters starting with their shared bond. Sullivan says that they worked together to develop an off-screen sisterly relationship that audiences could sense, but never actually see, making Ellie’s eventual possession feel like a terrifying gut punch.
“We will just create that well within ourselves, which we did quite a lot of, and then you let it all go, which is the best feeling ever,” she says. “You do the work, and then you let it go.”
[Alyssa Sutherland in Evil Dead Rise / Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures]
Cronin felt the same way. He made the conscious decision to maintain the franchise’s siblinghood motif — the 1981 original introduced audiences to Ash Williams (Campbell) and his persistent trauma over the possession of his sister Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), while Fede Álvarez’s 2013 reboot focused on the duo of Mia (Jane Levy) and David Allen (Shiloh Fernandez). However, while this motif remains central to Evil Dead Rise, Cronin decided to utilize it in a new, heartbreaking way.
“As characters, [Beth and Ellie have] got this dynamic, where you can't always just run home when you need it,” he explains. “But you can also see the love between these people. Sometimes the best way to reveal the love between two people is actually to show them in a little bit of conflict because you understand why their feelings matter to each other, and that was really, really important.”
While Sullivan and Sutherland underwent “family boot camp” with their younger costars (Morgan Davies, Gabrielle Echols, and Nell Fisher), the two had their own separate preparation processes. For Sullivan, hers involved spending 45 minutes each morning doing physical training for the brutal-looking stunts she does throughout the film. From wielding a real chainsaw (“They just removed the chain,” she reassures) to wading through a pool’s worth of fake blood, she prepared for it all by utilizing a non-stop mindset for as much of the shoot as possible without burning out.
“Every Evil Dead film takes place over 14 hours,” she says. “There's no cute coffee break when a character wakes up and goes, ‘Woah, did something happen last night? Was that real?’ Really, there is no time for reflection. The film just does not stop and you have to stay in that energy space.”
[Lily Sullivan in Evil Dead Rise / Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures]
Meanwhile, Sutherland had quite a different preparation process for her demonic, persona-shifting character. Taking inspiration from everything from Jim Carrey in The Mask to Looney Tunes’ Tasmanian Devil, she also created an intense playlist including songs like “Rev 22:20” by Puscifer, Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan's side project, to help her get into the headspace of a previously loving mother turned into a demonic creature.
“Something about that song that really hits me in a dark place,” she says.
As for what inspired Cronin the most during production, it was the thing that put the franchise on the map in the first place: blood. Evil Dead Rise is a watershed, or rather, bloodshed, moment for special effects in mainstream horror. What makes it so memorable is that these effects feel startlingly real, which was exactly what the director was going for.
“My kind of M.O. as a filmmaker to date in my career with the type of stories that I've told, it's like, I love all aspects of visual effect technology, but I love practical effects,” he explains. “So as much as I possibly could, I use practical effects in this movie.”
The practical effects are noticeable for all the right reasons. For example, Sutherland spent the most production time in full Deadite makeup in the franchise’s history — which is no small feat, considering the gnarliness of the possession victims in the past films. However, there are certain parts of the movie that couldn’t have worked without a bit of computer-generated help. Just don’t expect them to overtake the rest of the film.
“When it comes to digital effects, how I always operate is that I use them to enhance, but not to define,” says Cronin. “I more use digital effects to knit little things together, to extend things slightly, to add a little bit, and to polish. But the spirit of every single effect done to [the] moment in this film was practical.”
Without giving anything away, there are more than a few effects that deserve to be seen on the biggest screen possible. While they could probably work well on a TV screen as the film was originally intended, what Cronin and the team pulled off here is blockbuster horror excellence — the perfect way to make a franchise become undead.