"When I was 15, I shot my first feature film,” the local horror film director John Johnson told me last week. “I was lucky enough to have Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell and Joseph LoDuca, the creators of the original Evil Dead series look at my film and give me pointers.”
Jarod Kearney stars as the handless, axe- and chainsaw-wielding zombie killer Ash in director John Johnson’s Evil Dead: The Musical.
Now in his 30s, Johnson has made more horror films than most people have seen. Since it’s Raimi’s work he emulates on the screen, a musical adapted from Raimi’s films seemed like a logical next step. “I wanted to do something that was a hybrid of theater, a Universal Studios ride, and a haunted house,” Johnson said of his first theater effort, a performance of Evil Dead: The Musical, which opened last week at Play On! Theatre.
I mean this as a compliment: Evil Dead: The Musical does Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy justice by being the worst musical I have ever seen locally. The acting is over the top. There is a constant hiss from the wireless headsets worn by the actors. Sometimes the sound effects don’t match up with what’s happening. The singing is actually pretty good—but you can’t hear the words. There’s a clock that turns eerily; rocking picture frames; an evil, talking moose head. All are clearly controlled by some chucklehead behind the wall. Blood splatters into the audience as one character gets a pencil jammed in her leg, her head gets chopped off, and then chopped up, with a chainsaw. And that’s just one character.
In that sense Evil Dead: The Musical may be the local production in recent memory that best achieves what it has set out to do. After 20 minutes of musical numbers backed by cheesey MIDI tracks—songs included “What the Fuck Was That?” “All the Men in My Life Keep Getting Killed by Candarian Demons” and “Bit-Part Demon”—you’ll turn to your friends and say, “I think I’m ready to see these characters get killed now.” And sure enough, you don’t have to wait long.
As a prologue to the play, Johnson himself popped up out of a hole in the floor, plopped a fat volume on the stage and read aloud the definition of a B-movie. It goes something like this: After scores of theaters closed during the Great Depression, surviving theater owners had trouble satisfying their audience’s appetite for films. The solution for studios was to package a quality flick with a bigger budget and a cheaply-made, short feature.
As the double feature fell out of favor, the influence of these rickety films remained, many of them developing a cult following. Among the most famous is Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, which sets a B-movie standard: Not having money doesn’t mean you can’t reach for top-notch set effects; falling flat is preferable to not trying. (Johnny Depp plays that filmmaker in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood; Johnson just wrapped up a hotly-anticipated remake of the film, called Plan 9.)
In the early ’80s, Raimi and actor Campbell—then students at Michigan State University—made The Evil Dead, a horror flick so gory, so over-the-top that it was passed over by mainstream distributors. But it was good enough to get picked up, and when it did, in 1983, it became a cult classic in the truest sense, spawning action figures, imitators and two sequels. The trilogy spawned a schlocky revolution at comic book stores and bawdy shopping mall gift shops.
In musical form, Evil Dead: The Musical is an inelegant amalgam of Raimi’s trilogy, which does more than you can in the span of two hours at Play On! Theatre. To keep the purists happy, Johnson added more famous dialogue from the films. “I’m now playing with the Holy Grail of horror films,” Johnson said. “If I do something that doesn’t fit perfectly, they’ll burn me alive.”
The story begins when a group of college students on spring break sneak into a secluded cabin in the woods. The house belongs to an anthropologist who has mysteriously disappeared after translating portions of The Necronomicon (“the book of the dead”), an ancient Egyptian text “bound in human flesh and inked in human blood,” that, in some way, arouses spirits. Soon the trees are attacking hero Ash’s younger sister, and she returns, as does everyone but Ash, in zombie-like form.
It gets crazier from there. Ash takes a chainsaw to his girlfriend-turned-zombie’s decapitated head, stagehands squirt fake blood into the first three rows of the audience. When a moose head secured to the wall bites Ash’s hand, it gets infected with the nefarious, deadness-oriented whatever-it-is. On stage, Ash amputates his hand with a chainsaw.
More madness. More fun. More splattered blood for the first three rows (or four or five rows, as it turned out on opening night). The blood is machine washable. Rain ponchos are on sale at the concession stand for $1.50.