AUCKLAND, New Zealand — A soundstage in the Southern Hemisphere has been transformed into a trailer park in Michigan, where Ash Williams’ Airstream sits a few boomsticks away from a car instantly recognizable to “Evil Dead” fans.
The rumbling baritone motor of the 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 fills the cavernous room as three men huddle around a camera: director Sam Raimi, actor Bruce Campbell and producer Rob Tapert — a trio of Detroit-area natives who, more than 30 years ago, made a low-budget horror flick that spawned a cult classic.
Their “Evil Dead” franchise lives on with Starz’s upcoming series, “Ash vs Evil Dead,” 10 half-hour episodes that debut at 9 p.m. Eastern/Pacific Oct. 31 on the premium cable network. Filming began in April in New Zealand.
“It’s hard to believe that we’re actually here making this,” Raimi told me when I visited the set in May.
The “Spider-Man” helmer is directing the premiere. He wrote the episode with his brother Ivan Raimi (“Darkman,” “Army of Darkness”), Tom Spezialy (“Chuck,” “Reaper”) and showrunner Craig DiGregorio (“Workaholics,” “Chuck”).
“It wasn’t just another job for us,” Raimi said about the series. “There’s a small but very dedicated fan base of ‘The Evil Dead’ films. They really want to see Bruce Campbell in his role as Ash. That’s why we’re making this. We felt television would be the best way to tell that story.”
“Ash vs Evil Dead” picks up long after the titular protagonist first stumbled upon The Book of the Dead (Necronomicon Ex-Mortis) in a cabin in the woods, unleashing the evil forces of the Deadites.
So what has the dashing, daft Ash been up to for the last 30 or so years?
“Jack shit,” Campbell said during a break between scenes. “Hiding from responsibility in Michigan, which is a good place to hide. He’s been living what he thinks is a normal life, but it’s really kind of a depressing life. Now, he’s had greatness thrust upon him through the actions of his own misdeeds.”
Campbell greets me by extending his right arm capped off with a dark, swollen-looking rubber hand that’s taken the place of his trusty chainsaw.
“It’s like a dead fish,” he said about the prosthesis. “I give a real limp handshake just to freak people out.”
He’s wearing a maroon shirt and a name tag, Ash’s uniform at Value Stop, where he’s a stock boy.
“It’s the equivalent of S-Mart,” he said, referring to Ash’s former place of employment in the 1992 film “Army of Darkness.” “It’s just a fictitious place where a loser would work.”
Campbell is shooting a warehouse scene that day — a short clip of it can be seen in Starz’s new trailer for the show — with Ray Santiago.
“That was beautiful,” Raimi tells Campbell after the final take. “You might be Robert Mitchum.”
Santiago (“Touch,” “Meet the Fockers”) plays Pablo, an idealistic immigrant from Honduras desperate to fit in as American.
“He sees everyone’s inner hero,” Santiago said about his character. “I’m somewhat of Ash’s squire — a Sancho to his Don Quixote.”
Dana DeLorenzo (“A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas”) co-stars as their feisty Value Stop coworker, Kelly, along with Jill Marie Jones (“Sleepy Hollow”) and Tapert’s wife, Kiwi actress Lucy Lawless (“Salem,” “Spartacus”). Lawless plays a mysterious figure — Tapert calls her “our version of The Smoking Man from ‘The X-Files'” — who thinks Ash is the cause of the recent evil outbreaks.
On the set of the Value Stop break room sits a bag of Detroit-based Better Made potato chips and Faygo Redpop, “the soda we used to drink as kids,” said Campbell, who bonded with Raimi during drama and radio speech classes at Wylie E. Groves High School in Beverly Hills, Michigan.
The biggest Wolverine State prop of them all — the ’73 Olds — has had a cameo in every one of Raimi’s films.
“It was the family car in high school,” Campbell said. “We’d go to the movies in that car. We’d make movies in that car. We didn’t cruise for chicks. That wasn’t our bag.”
Multiple replicas of the yellow Delta with Michigan plates are parked in a garage at “Ash vs Evil Dead’s” Auckland studio, along with the original classic.
“That thing had to be put on a boat to get down here,” Campbell said. “You just can’t drive it to New Zealand. It had to be shipped like the Crown Jewels. It’s kept in a secret location back in Michigan. Sam’s even kept the location secret from me because he’s afraid I’d try to wreck it. It’s an unhealthy obsession.”
There’s no doubt the car has a lot of sentimental value to Raimi. So does “The Evil Dead” franchise.
“It’s probably the closest to my heart,” the prolific Hollywood director said. “It’s something we conceived ourselves. It’s where I got my start.”
“As much as I loved working with the great cast of ‘Spider-Man’ or with great actors like Cate Blanchett and Russell Crowe,” Raimi added, “I really like the down-home quality of ‘The Evil Dead’ films and their pure desire for rock ‘n’ roll entertainment.”
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