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Tom Sullivan: Bookbinder of the Dead

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

Once upon a time, a bunch of friends went into the woods with the goal of filming the ultimate experience in grueling terror. Yeah, I know you've heard this one before. It happens all the time all over the country. The difference here is that back in the late 1970s, those friends included a young director named Sam Raimi, a future master thespian named Bruce Campbell, and a self-taught makeup effects and stop-motion animation guru named Tom Sullivan. They made a movie called The Evil Dead and... well, you know the rest. Suffice it to say that the story seems to end with a company called Anchor Bay buying the rights to these movies and finding endless ways to repackage them.

To their credit, Anchor Bay has done much more than just slap watered-down versions of the same movie into slightly different keepcases and call them golden. Instead, they've gone back to the source, inviting Tom Sullivan to design and sculpt replicas of the series' most infamous prop, the Necronomicon ex mortis, commonly known as the Book of the Dead. The original film was released in a squishy, funky-smelling Book of the Dead edition back in 2002 that won DVD packaging awards from all corners, from DVD Review Magazine's annual awards ceremony to our very own humble Bitsy Awards.

So how do you follow an act like that? Well, obviously you've gotta make the book scream. The brand new Evil Dead 2: The Book of the Dead 2, once again designed and illustrated by Tom Sullivan, screams bloody murder when you poke it in the eye. As would any book if you poked it in the eye, I suppose.

To celebrate the release of the new version of Evil Dead 2, I chatted with Sullivan about his work with Sam Raimi and his association with Anchor Bay. Along the way, I picked some helpful tips on the proper care and handling of your Necronomicon and learned that Tom can do a pretty spot-on Sam Raimi impersonation.


Adam Jahnke (The Digital Bits): It seems that you, just like most everyone else involved with The Evil Dead, were pretty much self-taught. You really learned this stuff as you went along by doing it.

Tom Sullivan: That's correct, yeah.

AJ: How did you figure out how to do this kind of thing? Just trial and error?

TS: Well, I saw King Kong when I was five and that was definitely the pivotal force, the trigger in my life. Because I thought if adults get to do that, count me in. So I just started asking for clay and things like that so I could make little clay dinosaurs and little dioramas. I'd go out and get sticks from the yard and try to make my own little miniatures. And along the way, I discovered libraries. I lived in a little town called Wheaton, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. I spent a lot of time from sixth grade through high school at the library. I'd read movie review magazines, like Time's reviews of movies, and I was just fascinated with all kinds of cartooning and artists and paintings. So I'd look at all the classics and stuff and read all the movie sections. And my library had a book or two about special effects in movies. It would have a little bit about Ray Harryhausen, the stop-motion animator and special effects genius, and Willis O'Brien. It explained a little bit about these things.

So I would just imagine, what did these guys have to know, what would they have had to have learned to do their skills? Motion picture photography, studying how things move to be an animator, sculpting, drawing, painting, photographic effects, start figuring out how to do everything from matte painting to traveling mattes to split screens to stop-motion animation and ways to composite them together with rear screen and all these elaborate things, and just do a lot of dreaming. And I was coming up in the era of George Lucas and Spielberg and the push away from the studio system. And Harryhausen was kind of a pioneer in that too with (producer) Charles Schneer, because they went to Europe and made their own damn movies. They were very commercial and the studios loved them and they made money, for the most part. But the idea was not to have committees breathing down your neck. So I was kind of gearing up toward that.

I taught myself all these skills, drawing, painting, art, sculpting, I've even done some acting. I've been doing a lot of writing lately and now I'm even a published comic book writer. The idea was to be an uber-director and be able to have the production design and special effects designs and storyboards and the script and all that stuff all laid out before I even go to a studio with anything so my vision could be the major influence and I could communicate with all the studios without having an artist or somebody else translate it for me. George Lucas makes that work really well for him 'cause he's hired the best damn designers in the world. But, y'know, my idea was taking a more low-budget approach to things.

One of my heroes is a guy named Karel Zeman, a Czechoslovkian filmmaker. He had these low-budget films but incredibly inventive, wonderful stories, very imaginative ones. There's one called Journey to the Beginning of Time where some kids go down a river into a cave. When they come out the other cave, they're in the Ice Age. And the farther they go down this river, the farther back in time they go. There's more dinosaurs in it than in Jurassic Park. And prehistoric animals and then they hit the ocean, it's quite an adventure. I'd love to remake that one. But it's got great ingenuity, a lot of simple effects but terrific storytelling and a very dramatic use of effects and everything.

Sullivan at work on the Evil Dead films.

AJ: On the first Evil Dead, you were responsible for pretty much all of the effects, correct?

TS: Yes. I was pretty much it. Until we got to the stop-motion finale. Then I had Bart Pierce, who was the cameraman and co-animator on that. But I designed the sequence and Bart had some amazing suggestions and we kept shooting it. Sam and (producer) Rob (Tapert) and Bruce were in New York editing the darn thing, so we just had free reign down here back in Michigan. Slept on a cot in the basement of Bart Pierce's home. And he had a brand-new baby and a three-year-old son and a wife and a dog, but we just chugged away. It took about two or three days per shot. We did about thirty shots plus a bunch of little pick-up shots and insert things of other special effects that were required. And there you have it. It was three months to do that finale effect.

But yeah, for the rest of the film, I was it. I did the props, the Book of the Dead, the dagger, and lots of the other props that were around the room. I was the uncredited, unpaid art director. I'm also a performer in it. When the monster arms burst out of people during the stop-motion finale, I'm wearing the glove. That's never been revealed before. But it felt important that the artist throw the guts directly into the lap of the audience, which I got to do.

AJ: (laughs) As it should be.

TS: But it was an amazing collaboration. It was one of the best experiences I've had in art. And it's good to say that we're all still friends. Even better friends today than we were back then.

AJ: With the second one, then, you chose to focus almost exclusively on the stop-motion effects?

TS: Yeah, Sam gave me the option to do make-up effects and all that stuff but I knew that the bulk of that would be full body suits and things that were kind of out of my league for the scope they were doing. And I wanted to be a stop-motion animator, thinking at that point that there'd be a big future in stop-motion because of the technology getting better. This was right before the digital age would happen.

Unfortunately, my big scene in Evil Dead II at the end, when a flying Deadite shows up, it's supposed to have this huge battle with a bunch of knights. And inexplicably, Sam ignored our large list of do's and don't's for shooting background plates. I'm not sure what happened, there wasn't any insurrection or anything, but my cameraman, Larry Larson, who's an expert in stop-motion rear screen photography, he and I were banned from the location shooting. So we couldn't even supervise how the effects were being shot. And one of the things we knew was that you couldn't put dust up in the air. Because in 1986, you couldn't put a creature behind dust. Today, digitally, you could do that stuff. But it was supposed to be like this whole Harryhausen sequence where this flying Deadite comes down and it's got this tail like a seahorse except it has like a four-foot blade at the end that it would swing down and knock knights off their horses. And they'd be throwing arrows and spears and stuff at it. Then it would spot a woman running with a baby and it would chase her down and that's when Ash would show up and blow its head off.

Well, Sam shot all this stuff and he had these big fans that blew all this dust up. I swear it was the most expensive sequence in the whole thing, 'cause it had like 30 or 40 guys in full armor on horseback. That's a fortune to do that. All the horse handlers, the transportation, putting people up, the whole thing... that's a fortune. And we couldn't use any of it. (laughs) One or two shots of like, some sky. So the thing just shows up and that's it. That was actually the reason I did the film and it just got destroyed. Oh, it was awful. So demoralizing. I was just depressed for months after that. (laughs) But the end result, though, is a great film. And I'm very proud of all the stuff that did get in it. But I was really more interested in stop-motion at that point. Still am.

Sullivan at work on the Evil Dead films.

AJ: The new DVD release does have a new feature with some really good pictures that you provided of that flying Deadite.

TS: Yeah, right. It was a beautiful model. I built and designed it myself. I guess at the last minute, Sam decided he didn't want a tail. And that was a creative discussion Sam and I had. He wanted legs and I thought, "Well, it's gonna look just like the Harpies from Jason and the Argonauts." So let's give it a tail kinda thing. So I did that but... oh, and there was one other shot that's not included where it was swooping down and kind of striking at a knight on horseback. It was a really nice composite, just looked really nice. And Sam gave me some nice compliments. He said the stuff looked like Ray Harryhausen. I've heard he said that to one of the animators, too.

AJ: Well, you can't get much higher a compliment than that in stop-motion.

TS: I concur.

AJ: What kind of learning curve did you have between the first film and the second in terms of the stop-motion? Was it easier the second time around?

TS: Yeah, the first one was pretty much clay animation. And the second time, I had a company called Illusion Engineering with my partner then, Bob Meese. Bob had the engineering end of it, so he designed these ball-and-socket stop-motion armitures. It was a series of balls with little scoops inside the ends of it, so that you could put in a little ball bearing that's then welded to a rod to another ball bearing. You take these plates, bolt them together, and by applying tension, you could bend these little things. You could use wire for stop-motion animation but wire breaks so these kinds of hinges and balls and sockets and things work really well. But we made a modular system, where you could just buy these various sizes and put them all together and you'd have really nice stop-motion armitures. Instead of hand-machining all of them out of steel, we cast them out of aircraft aluminum. So they were lightweight, really strong, and worked really well.

Unfortunately, I moved out to California and the company just kind of dissolved on its own. But it's still a viable idea and he's still got the molds. In fact, he makes new versions of them which I'd like to see going again. Because with digital filmmaking, stop-motion is back very strong. There's various stop-motion programs and with digital compositing, the stuff looks better than ever.

AJ: Actually, not long ago I interviewed Ray Harryhausen.

TS: Excellent!

AJ: And if it's not obvious enough just from watching the films, you really come away after speaking with him with the idea that you don't enter into stop-motion animation lightly. That it requires a real passion and commitment to the form.

TS: It's kind of funny, I remember on Evil Dead II, one of the first things I shot was the Deadite stuff. And boy, you get in about three frames and you go, "Jeez, this is maddening! I could have been flipping burgers at McDonald's!" But the thing is... you've just gotta see what it's gonna look like! And I was trying to put some blurs into it. Like, the Deadite actually smiles at one point. If you look carefully between wing flaps, it's one of the side shots where it's flying and the head is kind of bobbing up and down, between the wing flaps you can actually see it smile.

The head of the Deadite had the skull features on it and it had a hinged jaw so it could open and close, and a wire tongue. And in the back of the head, I had embedded some little hex-head screws. Six of them. And they all had little bits of fishline, really tiny fishline attached to that, that went under these little gullies underneath that were etched into the skull and then were attached underneath this very thin foam latex skin that made up the face of the creature. So that by animating the little screw by turning it with a hex-head wrench, you could make tiny changes and actually lift or lower the eyebrow. And then there were two points on the mouth, so you could make it frown or smile. And only one of the smiles made it into the film. But it's actually quite effective. If you look at it quickly, there's kind of a five-frame smile in there. It is noticeable if you're looking for it. But that's just the kind of detail I put into my little things.

AJ: You then did a stint with Chris Walas Productions, working on The Fly II. And in your bio on your website, you say that fewer artistic contributions were required of you as you worked on bigger and bigger things. I thought that was a pretty honest thing to say, actually.

TS: Yeah, wanting to do my own projects, it just seemed like disappearing into a factory system wasn't for me. Now I love what these people do and I was working with amazingly talented, wonderful, neat kids. And I was like an old man there. (laughs) But, y'know, it just wasn't for me. And it seemed like yeah, I was making more money and stuff but I had to live in San Francisco, so it was like, I could just come back to Marshall, Michigan, and keep doing my illustrations and have my money go further and be around family. The big rat race was kinda like Koyaanisqatsi, that "life out of balance" kind of thing. And I really do like small towns.

AJ: I'd agree with that, actually. Let me ask you specifically about the new Book of the Dead 2 package. Did Anchor Bay approach you originally with the idea to repackage the films like this?

Sullivan's packaging for the Evil Dead 2: Book of the Dead 2
TS: Yes, that's what happened. I ran into (Anchor Bay's) Mike Felsher at Cinema Wasteland, a terrific convention in Strongsville, Ohio, they have every October, and we hit it off. And he said, "Hey, we have this project we're thinking about." They'd just gotten the rights to the Evil Dead films and wanted to a big push and make it a valuable property.

The idea was that since I owned the copyright to the Book of the Dead, I was a clever young man when I copyrighted that, so in order to make a reproduction of it, they contacted me. I did a sculpture and the cover was based very close to my sculpture, but I like mine just a little bit better. And I did the interior pages and hid some secret messages in that turned into kind of a fan discovery. Because I didn't tell anybody I had done that. I didn't even tell Anchor Bay. I was hoping some executive would have to stay up for a couple of weekends trying to figure out what I might have said about him. But all that is revealed is what a smart-ass I really am. But it was a lot of fun, so the second one was a big surprise.

But the great thing about the first one is it won DVD awards. DVD Review Magazine gave it an award. Leonard Maltin handed it out and said something like it was the most disgusting thing he'd ever seen, which is just the highest praise coming from him. Anyway, I couldn't be more proud of what we've done and I think the second one is even more fun. I've got new art, new secret hidden messages that are a lot of fun, and, of course, it screams when you poke it in the eye. So it doesn't get better than that.

AJ: Let me ask you a practical question about these packages. On my copy of the first Book of the Dead, the skin has kind of started to split. So how could one repair their Necronomicon?

TS: Liquid Latex would probably work. It's available at hobby stores. It's nice because you can brush it on thin or even use a little bit of cloth or cotton or something and you can patch it up. But that is one of the unfortunate things, although most of them are still holding up pretty good. It's a long-lasting mask material. But somewhere along the way, some might have gotten a little wet. And this being an organic material, it doesn't like water. So keep 'em dry. Keep them out of the sun as much as possible. And just remember that human skin isn't the best book-cover packaging material. But it is like it's rotting and corroding in front of you. You get to watch it disintegrate before your eyes. (laughs)

AJ: So how did the original design for the Book of the Dead evolve?

TS: Well, in the original script, the book was described as having some kind of animal skin with a couple letters of an ancient alphabet on it. And I thought, well, this sounds like a high school photo album. It's actually like the description of the book in Equinox, that 60's film that's kind of like The Evil Dead. Book, kids, cabin, woods, stop-motion monsters.

Anyway, so I asked Sam, "Sam, the book's not terribly scary. It's an evil book, right?"

(imitating Sam Raimi) "Yeah, it's full of evil spells!"

(in normal voice) All right, well, let me try this.

The most disgusting thing I've ever heard of that humans do to each other was there was this woman named Ilsa Koch who was the wife of a commandant at a concentration camp. And she was known for skinning prisoners and then making lamp shades and curtains and book covers out of human skin. And so I was thinking, that's pretty much one of the sickest things I've ever heard. So how about a book cover made out of human skin? Well, you'd need a recognizable human skin feature on it and I wasn't going to put a schlong, so I put a face. And what I did for that was I had molds of Hal Delrich, who played Scotty, and the actresses. I didn't need one for Bruce. I did a slush mold of Scotty's face and maybe one of the others and I just stretched this stuff over a piece of corrugated cardboard and glued it down with contact cement. Instant movie history. The pages were bound together with paper from a grocery bag. (laughs) It couldn't have been cheaper!

Then over the first couple of weeks of filming, when we were preparing everything, I'd sit around the kitchen table with Josh Becker and talk movies and do my drawings. I based the original drawings on my memories of studying the Da Vinci notebooks. It had that kind of notebook look with the notes and the anatomical drawings. Some of them you can kind of tell more than others. There's even one that's... Da Vinci did that proportion drawing with the figure in the two positions with the circle and the square? Well, I used a pyramid and a pentagram for my shapes and put a demon in there with wings. It's kind of like maybe Leonardo had a little occult sideline or one of his students had fallen into the dark side or something. But now it's like this incredible prop. It's like the Rosebud sled of horror films! It's great.

Sullivan at work on the Evil Dead films.

AJ: Why do you think this series has endured like it has?

TS: I think it's clearly my genius.

AJ: Well, I was gonna say...

TS: (laughs) I mean, what's Sam done lately? No, I think that everything I did, and I tried to bring as much as I could, everything works great because of the context that Sam put it in. It's his editing that makes everything just tick. And we've seen enough of his movies now to see that this guy knows how to put a film together.

I remember when we were doing it, I hadn't really seen horror films. I didn't want to shock my calm sensibilities when I was a kid. I didn't even see James Bond films thinking they were gonna be too violent. That shows you how wound up I was. So we'd go see horror films because I realized once I got involved with Sam and Evil Dead that I'd better start figuring out what I'm getting into. And they freaked me out. The first twenty minutes of Dawn of the Dead, I was ready to bolt. And then it got to the zombie who gets the top of his head shaved off by the helicopter blades and I was like, "Oh, I get it. It's a joke!" You don't have to take this seriously. And then the rest of the film was that wonderful satire and action thing and I got it.

So my idea was that we were like a bunch of kids putting on a local Halloween haunted house in their folks' basement. And so we're shocking you but, y'know... "Hey, close your eyes! We're gonna put guts in your hand!" And then you dump spaghetti or something. It just had to be fun and exciting. I wasn't studying crime scene or accident photos or anything like that because it's got to be real! No, I thought it was like a James Bond thing where you know that there's stuntmen and car crashes and the things are rigged and if anybody gets hurt, it's so unusual. You just have that little bit of safety between you and the screen.

Now, Sam took it a little further in some scenes. But I prefer just to have fun, that this is just a scare-ride, so throw shocks at 'em and everything. But I also remember not giving any thought at all other than to hell with the ratings system! We've got one crack at making this thing and one of the things that's going to make it sell is that it's extreme.

So I remember asking Sam, "Sam, now when you stab people with a knife, do you want to see the knife going in? Or do you have them stabbed from behind and they turn around and there's the knife?"

(imitating Sam) "Well, can we see the knife goin' in?"

(normal voice) "Yeah, if you tell me ahead of time."

(imitating Sam) "Well, OK, let's do it if you can do it!"

And so, we see the hand get cut off and people stabbed from the front and people being yanked out and eyes gouged out and all this other stuff. It kept me busy! But Sam knew how to put all this stuff together and that's why we owe him like we do.

And also I think one of the other things he purposely designed in is the film, even today, really doesn't have anything that screams 70's. You know, you could find an old car like that if you're a poor college student. It still has that feeling of almost a contemporariness. And it's almost got a documentary feel to it that gives it a little more immediacy, especially when it gets into the grisly stuff. It just feels like you're watching it going on, rather than it's staged for you. It doesn't have like a storyboarded feel to it. It's not slick. It's gritty so you just aren't sure where or how far it's going to go and that adds to the tension.

I get to see it a couple times a year thanks to conventions with fans. And I'm amazed at how fast the thing moves and it holds up. It's so watchable. It's one of those films that when you see it, you want to go grab people off the streets and go, "You've gotta see this thing!" The word of mouth is what happened. I had a discussion with a video store owner and he said that during the 80's, it was the most stolen VHS tape for almost a decade. Because people just couldn't find it except in video stores. And then Anchor Bay has done these astounding jobs, as they do with all of their product. And I'm proud to be a part of it. I hope we do more.

AJ: Looking at them objectively, which of the films is your favorite?

TS: I'm going with the fourth one. (laughs) My second choice would be the first. Not only because I worked on it. I just like the balance between scares and comedy. I like that dark edge. The more it turns into the Three Stooges, I think it robs it of its power. Although they're all different enough and I think it's pretty evenly split with who likes One, Two or Army of Darkness.

AJ: Speaking of which, since the Book of the Dead 2 has the screaming feature, will the Army of Darkness Book of the Dead try to bite you when you open it?

TS: Wouldn't that be a good idea? Or maybe we can get the next one to talk. Or fly around the room.

Sullivan at work on the Evil Dead films.

AJ: What are you working on now?

TS: There's a company called Dead Dog Comics and they've hired me as a comic book writer and I've come up with a four-issue story called Tom Sullivan's Books of the Dead: Devilhead. And for fans of Evil Dead and Lovecraft, they'll find a lot here to look at. It's really gory although I'm not doing the artwork. I could have but it takes me forever and, y'know, I'm expensive. But I wanted to be known as a writer, because I'm starting a new career as a producer/writer/director. So I wanted to create a new image for my meager fanbase to prepare them for the next phase. The art is by a guy named Josh Medors and I'm promising two bloodbaths per issue and I will deliver. It's really gross, lots of monsters and icky stuff going on, and it's nicely character-driven, too. It'd make a great movie.

And another little weird thing is my girlfriend out in California is propmaster on The West Wing. I just got back two days ago from visiting her. And she got me a job as an extra! I'm going to be in the third episode of The West Wing. I'm a cameraman in a scene with Alan Alda. He gets out of an elevator in a parking garage and I'm with a group of reporters who are asking him questions about Santos. It should be early in the scene, so look for that.

AJ: When's the comic book coming out?

TS: The first issue should be out very shortly but there's already a little preview comic. It's an anthology featuring three 8-page stories and I've got one of them in there. It's like a little supplemental story, a preview for my big story. It's called The Horror Show from Dead Dog Comics. My little story is some Iraqi soldiers are investigating a disturbance at a labor camp while they're protecting some American archeologists. And it's about what they see. And it's not pleasant. It's really gross and the art by Josh Medors is astounding.


And what of the fleshy, screaming package that brought Tom Sullivan and I together? I'll discuss it in detail in a future installment of The Bottom Shelf, but here's the quick rundown. The package itself is, if anything, even more hideously delightful than the first one. The eyes, nose and mouth have been given a touch of color as well as a grimace-ful of jagged teeth. The screaming eye is pretty cool, not so obtrusive that you're likely to trigger it accidentally and not so loud and irritating you're likely to tire of it until you've poked it at least fifty times.

How about that new Divimax transfer? I compared it to Anchor Bay's previous flashy incarnation of Evil Dead II, the limited edition tin they released back in 2000. That release was THX-certified. The Book of the Dead 2 release is not, but it makes up for that with a promise that the transfer was supervised by Sam Raimi hisownself. The new transfer is actually a bit better, showing off the makeup and Sullivan's stop-motion sequences to much better effect than the previous disc. The image isn't nearly as dark as the last one. The audio track, on the other hand, seems to be identical to the one used last time out.

The extras are pretty much the same, keeping the audio commentary by Raimi, Bruce Campbell, Scott Spiegel and Greg Nicotero (one of the better commentaries you'll ever listen to) and the featurette The Gore the Merrier. They got rid of the preview for the then-new game Evil Dead: Hail to the King but keep the synergy alive with a preview for the now-new game Evil Dead: Regeneration. In addition, the new disc boasts several minutes of interesting behind-the-scenes stills with commentary by Tom Sullivan. Perhaps it's not enough to make it worth an upgrade by itself, but coupled with the nifty new package, at least it helps make it feel like you're getting a little something extra for buying the same movie twice.

At any rate, Evil Dead 2: The Book of the Dead 2 is a handsome addition to anyone's already overburdened Evil Dead shelf. Our thanks to Tom Sullivan for taking the time to chat with us, as well as to Ed Peters for making the whole thing happen. For more information on Tom and his past, present and future projects, be sure to check out his website - Dark Age Productions.

Adam Jahnke

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