There was a moment midway through the hilarious and gore-soaked production of Evil Dead: The Musical that I realized something, if not profound, then perhaps a little humbling. That quasi-epiphany was this: the Evil Dead phenomenon; a franchise so dear to my heart (and indeed, the hearts of horror fans the world over) has morphed into such a deeply-rooted aspect of popular culture that it has become more about the spirit of the idea than anything to do with the films themselves. Evil Dead has transcended the genre. Hell, it has transcended film altogether. There I was, surrounded by young and old, rich and poor, guys and gals, all collectively jittery with excitement, their eyes twinkling with that familiar spark of gleeful anticipation. They have done the unthinkable, I thought. One of the most imaginative and revered underground films of all time has been made into a stage musical. A musical for shit’s sake! But then again looking around at the packed theatre before me, it was hardly unthinkable. Frankly, it was pure unadulterated genius.
It’s important to expand and mention that the musical itself has become an underground phenomenon, like Evil Dead has looped back onto its cult-self in a bizarre, yet fitting twist – indeed, the entire concept has emerged from obscurity and arisen from the grave as a new, perhaps even undead incarnation; a Deadite, if you will. And it shows no signs of slowing down – the production I was lucky enough to have seen in Calgary was extended a full two weeks on top of its original run, playing to packed audiences every night.
I think that the musical’s success, in a nutshell, rests on that ‘undead’ concept. The genius isn’t in the adaptation necessarily, but in its ability to poke fun at itself, the audience, and hell, even small theatre production – to breathe new life into an otherwise dead concept. And, just like the film trilogy, the stage performance’s brilliance is in its willingness to blend camp with low-budget (and deadly earnest) panache, winking and nudging its way into our hearts in the finest DIY style…but with enough new ideas to keep us wanting more. That unique Evil Dead spirit has certainly not been lost in its transition to the stage.
I’ll get into the details of my experience in a sec, but first a little background…
Evil Dead: The Musical is adapted from all three ED films, so here’s some stuff you probably already know, but are fun facts anyway:
- The Evil Dead (1981) was shot for less than $375,000 and grossed more than 2.4 million at the box office;
- Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987) cost $3 million and made almost $6 million;
- Army of Darkness (1993) had a budget of $11 million and barely made this back with just over $11.5 million at the box office;
- The worldwide box office gross is almost $60 million for the franchise.
With the approval of both Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, a musical version of the film was staged, enjoying a successful workshop in Toronto and performances at the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal in 2004. The New York off-Broadway production started previews on October 2, 2006. The Official Opening Night performance was November 1, 2006 and it ran, performing 8 times per week at the New World Stages, until February 17, 2007. Evil Dead: The Musical has recently started production in Toronto starting from May 1, 2007 with the run extended from June 23, 2007 to August 4, 2007. A successful return from Feb 14, 2008 to May was extended until September 6, 2008.
During the Northeast Blackout of 2003, the intransigent cast and crew performed the show on the front lawn of the Tranzac club in Toronto. The band played acoustic instruments and cast members provided sound effects from backstage. As the evening wore on, flashlights and car headlights were used to illuminate the actors.
Fans enjoy the "splatter zone" -- the first three rows of the theater where patrons can count on a good blood-soaking. Ticket buyers in the Splatter Zone are advised to dress down. In fact, Toronto fans began wearing white t-shirts to take home later as bloody souvenirs which inspired the show's marketing team to start selling "I Survived the Splatter Zone" souvenirs. Ryan Ward, who stars as Ash in the musical, described it as being "unlike any theater show you've ever been to. One word I would describe it as is 'raucous.' It's like a rock concert." (source: wikipedia)
And so it was that the fabled production of Evil Dead: The Musical was within reaching distance. It would be an epic road trip, some three hundred kilometres from our home town of Edmonton, Alberta directly south to Calgary on the precarious strip of highway that is the # 2. Three hours of pock-marked asphalt, dreary Albertan radio and the warm prairie breeze filtering in through the truck’s tinted windows. And all on a Wednesday work night, no less. The group in question consisted of myself, some fellow theatre cronies and a sprinkling of friends and dragged-along family members, each of us an Evil Deadite in some way, shape or form.
The Vertigo Theatre rests at the foot (really inside the foot) of the Calgary Tower, one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks, making navigation fairly easy in a downtown that can get labyrinthine at the best of times (if you’ve never had the pleasure of driving around a downtown core in a Canadian city, it’s quite the treat). Once settled and parked, pre-drinks were had at a conveniently-located pub across the hall and we were ready to hit the lobby and the line-up at the merch table.
First, though, I must mention the crowd which had gathered. It was truly a festive atmosphere. There were elaborately-costumed zombies milling about (including one young guy who was probably 12 or 13 with his similarly-undead father), some punks, preps, scantily-clad young ladies, parents and even grandparents. But the most remarkable thing that I noticed was the amount of return customers. Most of these folks were dressed completely in white – to soak up as much of the twenty or so liters of fake blood as possible that was dumped on the audience each night (more on that in a moment). One stand-out couple (to me they looked to be in their mid-40’s or 50’s) were clad in full-on O.R. scrubs, with goggles, surgical masks and even splash guards over their faces; adding a mad scientist feel to the already diverse gathering. All in all, the mood was jovial to say the least.
So, merchandise. Working in a theatre myself, I know that merch for live performances is not always readily available, especially with smaller productions, so although the choices were relatively meager it was a welcome sight nonetheless. A few t-shirts and hoodies were available (most notably a fun S-Mart bowling-style shirt), as well as a couple of posters and some of those giant foam fingers…except the ‘finger’ was a chainsaw. Get it?
The bells in the lobby began to ring, bidding us to take our seats as the performance was about to begin.
Alright, so…the Splatter Zone. If you’ve ever been to a Gwar concert, then you are probably familiar with the concept. If not, here we go. The Vertigo Theatre interior is not huge, with an audience capacity of 340 or so. The first four rows, A-D respectively, were the designated Splatter Zone. As you can probably surmise, this meant buckets of demon blood and guts were going to make their way in-and-onto the audience in this general area (ticket holders were warned beforehand and indeed, many purchased tickets with the express purpose of being drenched). The seats and floors here were covered with plastic, and as I took a short jaunt down to check it out, I noticed the floor was sticking to my feet like a cheap carnival ride. Corn syrup perhaps? Highly likely. Then I noticed the ushers handing out plastic ponchos to the folks in and around the zone. This was going to be quite the interesting time indeed.
Lights down. A gigantic flesh-bound necronomicon graces the stage, bathed in a single yellow spotlight. A deep, commanding voiceover gives us the abridged history of the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, then deepens and cracks as the narrator’s voice devolves into the familiar demonic chant of “Join us!”
Thus it begins…
As mentioned, the musical is based on all three films of the Evil Dead canon, but the majority of the performance takes place inside the cabin in the woods that is closest to the second film. There are all the requisite touches – the trapdoor in the floor, the talking moose head trophy on the wall, and the various spinning and dancing appliances that come alive during the films. Much of the story of Army of Darkness is lost in this translation, but it becomes very apparent that the bulk of Ash’s memorable one-liners are from AoD, and most of them are exploited here. The best and most exciting moments for myself was shouting along with such great lines as “good, bad, I’m the one with the gun,” and “this is my BOOMSTICK!” especially for a big fan such as myself. And hence, all three films really do have an influence on the production. Of course, the adaptation does have its own additions, albeit only minor plot changes and tweaks.
The first thing you notice about the production is how it lovingly embraces its low budget and DIY roots. Instead of trying to hide its stage shortcomings, much about the set and design revel in a sort of delightful over-the-top nonsensicality. The infamous bridge, for example, which you’ll no doubt remember from the movies – the one that basically disappears, forcing Ash and his crew to stay at the cabin – is a miniature on this set, about four feet long and a couple high. When the bridge goes out, all the crew does is wrap yellow caution tape around it. The whole idea makes for some hilarious jokes.
There are a few other really great pokes at the films as well. One in particular involves Jake, who you’ll remember has a girlfriend, Bobbie Joe, from the second film. When we meet Jake in the musical one of his first lines describes how he has a girlfriend, except that she doesn’t show up in this adaptation. The reason? In the film, Bobbie Joe is attacked by the trees…which has already happened to Cheryl (she was raped by the trees in the first film, remember?). So Jake explains that Bobbie Joe would essentially be redundant. A number of inside jokes slip there way in, which was great as a fan of the trilogy. There’s also the trapdoor which obviously does not lock. The teensy bridge, and lots more.
Of course, I’ll have to talk a bit about the idea of the show as a musical adaptation. I was hesitant at first as I am not exactly a fan of musicals in general, stage or otherwise. But I am pleased to say that all the songs were all in good fun – at their best hysterical, at worst merely amusing plot exposition (which were still well-executed and certainly not boring). Which brings me to one of the few gripes we all had with the performance – the sound quality was way off, and a number of times the music drowned out the singing altogether. But this was not exactly distracting as much as a minor annoyance, as the only flaw was that sometimes the lyrics were hard to make out. But really, with song titles like “Ode To An Accidental Stabbing” and “All the Men In My Life Keep Getting Killed by Candarian Demons!” how can one go wrong? Of all the numbers, the final broadway-ish zombie dance-off, “Do the Necronomicon” was the most impressive and ambitious. All in all the tunes certainly added a certain amount of classy camp to the whole performance.
The actors were all very good – with an acceptable range of voices and personalities. They take a few liberties with a couple of the cast members – especially Jake, who in the film is a fairly porky guy. This Jake is skinny as a rake (played by Bruce Horak), but has a demented gleam in his eye that is perfect for the role. His character was one of the best and most memorable in the show. And, while I had obvious difficulty accepting anyone could replace Bruce Campbell in the lead role of Ash, after a little while Tyler Rive grew on me…even though his big lines just didn’t have that Campbell ‘oomph’ they so needed. Still, though, it was a really inspired performance.
And throughout it all, yes, there were buckets of demon blood a-spatterin’. Not only from the stage (there was a great scene with a blast of blood from beneath the open trapdoor that peppered the audience), but during the second act the actors came out into the audience with bladders, soaking those hapless folks in the Splatter Zone, as well as sprinklers from the ceiling that poured blood directly onto the poncho-clad folks gracing the first four rows (most of this during the “Do the Necronomicon” number). At the conclusion of the performance, they were soaked enough that they were ushered into a separate area, and not allowed to access the main lobby whatsoever. Pretty hilarious.
So we ended our excursion with post-libations at the aforementioned pub and reveled in the events that had just transpired. It was a blast, plain and simple. Do not miss the chance to see this if it comes to a theatre near you….in fact, a number of my friends went back for a second time a few weekends later. Raingear and all.