Bruce Campbell Is Hollywood's Blue-Collar Hero

We chat with legendary B-movie actor about his new book, the Evil Dead franchise, and making comedic horror.

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Aug 16 2017, 3:54pm

When I was a teenager, I took a girlfriend to see Army of Darkness, the third installment of the Evil Dead franchise. I hyped it up, going as far as to mention that Stephen King called the first Evil Dead movie "The most ferociously original horror film of 1982" and reiterated how the movie was going to scare the shit out of her. But when it started, she began laughing hysterically, almost relieved that the movie was more Monty Python than The Shining.

The franchise's "splatstick" formula endeared a lot of fans to the main character, Ash, played brilliantly by actor Bruce Campbell. He's since made a career in "genre" movies and TV shows—not just as an actor but as a director and producer as well. Campbell is essentially a modern-day renaissance man—as well as a fan favorite, highlighted when he returned to the role of the infamous Ash in Starz's Ash vs. Evil Dead.

Fifteen years ago, Campbell penned his first memoir, If Chins Could Kill; this week, he releases the follow-up, Hail to the Chin: Further Confessions of a B Movie Actor. I gave him a ring to find out if he ever thought the Evil Dead movies would launch him to fame, how he incorporates comedy into horror, and what it's like connecting with fans at comic con events around the country.

VICE: When you first got involved in Evil Dead, did you have any inkling of how iconic the films would be?
Bruce Campbell: No, because we didn't think we were going to finish the movie, let alone revisiting it 35 years later. We started the movie with about $85,000, which got all spent. We left shooting in Tennessee. We had no sense of grandeur or greatness because it was our first experience. It was very difficult, and it took us four years to complete the movie.

What was it like when you guys got Stephen King's endorsement?
It was massive. There were a few things that happened that helped us immensely with the first Evil Dead. Irvin Shapiro, an old-school film salesman, helped sell it around the world. Then Stephen King saw the movie at Cannes and said it was the most ferociously original film of the year. We thought, Holy shit, because back in the early 80s, he was the head honcho—the big kahuna. We asked him if we could use that quote, and he told us we could use it if we said it was from that year specifically. That helped reviewers take a much more sympathetic eye to the film—the LA Times called it an instant classic right after that. We will be eternally grateful to Mr. King.

The Evil Dead movies have a strong comedic aspect. How did you develop it?
The first Evil Dead is like a melodrama. You have very inexperienced actors saying kinda crappy lines of dialogue, and you get a few laughs out of that. The audience laughed at the pencil in the Achilles tendon scene and reacted tremendously towards the over-the-top stuff. Evil Dead II was cowritten by Scott Spiegel, who was a huge fan of the Three Stooges—and we were, too. We incorporated more humor and coined the term "splatstick," where it's horror and comedy. As for Army of Darkness—really, a 12-year-old could watch that movie.

As a pioneer of the horror genre, what do you think of the continued interest in horror movies today? What role did you play in the genre's evolution?
We helped keep it alive. There were guys before us: the great George Romero who just died, and Herschell Gordon Lewis who made 10,000 Maniacs. The John Carpenters of the world have led the way—we just tried to make horror movies a fun experience, too.

When did you first decide that you wanted to write books?
I saw a lot of movie books out there written by people like Charlton Heston and Judy Garland—people in the A-movie business. Most of the film industry is comprised of B-, C-, and D-material. There's very few people who actually get into the A-world. From a storytelling point of view, I thought that was very much underrepresented. What about everyone else who works on these low-budget movies, have shitty careers, and are really struggling? That's most of the industry. I wanted the other side of the tracks could be heard. I felt the blue-collar side of Hollywood was missing.

What do you want readers to take away from Hail to the Chin?
I just want to entertain them. It's meant to be a light, fun read—nothing too serious.

What has stuck with you the most in your career?
Never give up. You've got to keep banging away. The industry is not for the weak at heart. It's a very challenging industry—you have to grow a pair of balls and thick skin. If you do that, you're halfway home.

Your book is subtitled Further Confessions of a B Movie Actor, but don't you think that you've become more than that?
I don't know. Maybe I'm a B+ actor now. I still make so many B-type and genre movies. I haven't disavowed my low-budget roots, and I hope to continue in that world. When you don't spend a lot of money on a movie, nobody gets that wigged out. If you spend a $100 million dollars, a lot of people have opinions, and things aren't as fun. I don't ever want to let the fun out of what I do.

You meet your fans a lot. What does that mean to you?
I like it. Not every actor likes it. I went to a convention with a big TV actor, and she hated it. She didn't like all the eyes looking at her all the time. People wanted to meet her and get all sweaty, grab her hands, watch what she was eating for lunch. She was under a microscope. I like it because I have fun. I give money away and bring kids up onstage. We just try to have a fun time with it. I don't take it that seriously.

Why do you think stuff in the entertainment world that was considered "genre" or underground in the 1980s is now mainstream?
Our tastes have changed. We're more accepting of guys in spandex suits running around in capes and saving the world. In our time as a society, we're looking for heroes. Sometimes it's a good meeting of the minds when your citizenry wants a hero and movies are very hero-oriented.

Genre movies are more mainstream now. Look at all the A-movies: Batman, Superman, Iron Man. Those are B-movie concepts. I don't care what anyone says—if you get bitten by a radioactive spider, that's a B-movie. If you dress up like a bat and fly around the city, that's a B-movie. It's kind of funny. I'm not sure where it's going to lead, because as soon as you have about three or four of those big movies bomb they're going to drop them like a used you-know-what.

Follow Seth Ferranti on Twitter.

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