If you’re a horror fan, you’re aware of Tom Sullivan’s work. If you’re a horror geek, you worship it. Tom Sullivan is responsible for the gory effects resplendent in Sam (Spider-Man) Raimi’s classic The Evil Dead. The pencil in the ankle; the twitching, dismembered limbs; the wrist gnawing; the blood. Ahhh, the blood. And, of course, Sullivan was one-half (the other being Bart Pierce) of the primary team that designed and animated the pair of decomposing “Deadites” boiling away to mush and blood and bugs during the film’s climax. His “King Kong.”
Animator, sculptor, and artist, Tom Sullivan was an integral part of that intrepid team of Renaissance Pictures filmmakers who ventured into the wilds of Tennessee in mid-winter, 1979 to film what was then being called “The Book of the Dead” (Sullivan even created the famed titular prop by stretching a latex mask over a hunk of cardboard). “I think we left for Tennessee on November 9, 1979, something like that (and) I was there until a week after Christmas. Almost everybody left that day or the next day. Josh Becker, was there and one or two others (for a few days after that). That’s where they got all the little bits of isolated Bruce (Campbell) action. They were on their own, then. And from what I heard they could have used me. But I had a job.(laughs)”
Sullivan, after what is described in Bill Warren’s wonderful book, The Evil Dead Companion, as his “disappearance from filmmaking”, has recently resurfaced, much like the Lovecraftian horrors he has been illustrating for the game company Chaosium for seventeen years. Thanks in a large part to the “Ladies of the Evil Dead” – original actresses Betsy Baker, Ellen Sandweiss and Sarah York making the convention rounds to grab their own piece of the fan-glory – Sullivan has been making ample appearances this year. Film Threat got the opportunity to meet the affable artist face to face at the Cleveland Frightvision Convention this past Spring. Sitting in a room virtually to himself, Sullivan was in attendance with his “Tom Sullivan Movie Memorabilia Museum”, hundreds of drawings, storyboards, sketches, and dozens of original props, including a few original Books of the Dead. “That one was actually used to beat Bruce in the head,” Sullivan says, pointing to the gruesome, grinning rubber beast. “It has all his blood, sweat, and DNA soaked in.”
For die-hard fans of The Evil Dead, meeting Sullivan – or any of the Evil Dead Ladies, for that matter – is like being able to reach out and touch history. Director Raimi and producer Rob Tapert have gone on to bigger and better budgets, but far less gore. Bruce Campbell, the film’s star and actor everyman, is still accessible to fans, through his own website and at numerous convention appearances, but still feels a bit out of reach. Hell, he became Brisco County Jr. and is in Spider-Man! Now here’s Tom Sullivan, and he’s smiling, friendly, personalizing hundreds of autographs, sitting in a room with THE Book of the Dead. He has the vicious-looking dagger on the table next to him (the same dagger that was licked by Betsy Baker)! He was there, man. He was in that cabin in the dead of winter, making what many consider to be THE horror movie. He created the “Deadites”. If you’re a fan and also an independent filmmaker, you feel like you’ve encountered a kindred spirit – someone who also hopes to make his own films in the near future. Twenty years ago, Tom Sullivan was down there in the trenches, suffering for his art. He survived and is now in front of you, smiling away.
“It was terrible,” Sullivan says, laughing at the memory of the Tennessee shooting conditions. “There was no electricity (in the cabin set), no plumbing, no windows. We did have a home, where we could live that did have all those things – except, of course, for enough bedrooms or mattresses or things like that. But when we first arrived – actually, a day or two before we left for Tennessee, they had already arranged for a house, somebody owned it, it had a trap door and everything. But it looked more like your standard farmhouse. That fell through. The family decided, ‘Let’s not have these kids come in and trash our home’. Which was incredibly wise on their part. So we went down and found other things to shoot during the week or two it took for the construction crew, led by Steve “Dart” Frankel, to put windows on it, build the porch, fix the chimney, add some rooms, scrape the three inches of cow dung off the floors. There were no doors, either. It was just a place that cows found it nice to go to the bathroom in. It was an immense task, but they did it. They did a fine job. The cabin was much more interesting (after they were through).”
The interview continues in part two of TOM SULLIVAN AND “THE BOOK OF THE DEAD”>>>