Story and photos by Joe “J.J. McCarthy” Shearer
“Ken tells me I was the first guest he invited to this thing. I met him about a year and half before the first one at Motor City Con. I was walking around and he was selling these T-shirts—Evil Dead T-shirts.
I go, ‘Hey, I did the makeup on that.’
And he goes, ‘Are you Tom Sullivan?’
‘Have you ever done a horror convention?’
‘No, I never have.’
‘It’s been 20 years. You’ve never done a horror convention for Evil Dead?’
‘No, nobody ever invited me.’
‘Well, I’m gonna be putting one on in a year or two. You wanna be a guest?’
‘Sounds like fun.’
–Tom Sullivan’s rehash of his first interaction with Cinema Wasteland organizer Ken Kish some 12 years ago.
I feel bad—guilty bad.
As I stand here chatting with Tom Sullivan in his traveling Movie Memorabilia Museum and Art Print Gallery, a lone soul patiently awaits his turn to speak to the artist. I’m grateful he’s the only one. In a few minutes, more (Evil) Dead heads will stumble their way into Sullivan’s lair down the hall and to the left slightly away from the rest of the action at the Strongsville, Ohio, Holiday Inn.
“They give me this whole room to myself,” Sullivan says. Walking into the room in and of itself is a welcome breather. While the other guests and vendors are gathered tightly together in the main hall, this space is quieter, more spacious. Free of the keep-it-moving pressure, it’s easy take in the numerous prints lining the walls, or the display case full of props and memorabilia (including the original Book of the Dead and the Kandarian dagger), or even the inspired fan-art the artist has collected over the years. When you sit back and think about it, the separate room makes perfect sense: If such a thing as royalty exists beneath the blood, guts, grime and filth here at Cinema Wasteland, the bi-annual horror convention celebrating its tenth year, then hail to the king, baby. Sullivan, whose prints are all over the Evil Dead franchise, has never missed one of the 18 conventions. “Twice last night, young women grabbed me and took me to their rooms trying to get me drunk,” he says, adding modestly, “It was amazing. But I keep myself pure for the fans.” The cool thing about Sullivan is he’s got you laughing and talking like you’re old friends as soon as conversation commences. A sort of contagious and youthful exuberance that you might not expect from a guy so steeped in horror imagery.
Why all the fuss? This particular Tom Sullivan doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. At horror conventions, obscurity is a badge of honor—again, if something like that exists in these quarters. But if you’re any kind of film buff, you don’t have to dig six feet under to be acquainted with Sullivan’s work. Credited with the hilariously grotesque makeup on The Evil Dead and some of the special effects on film’s first sequel, Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn, he also created the iconic Book of the Dead, the original title of the first film and the biggest star of the trilogy next to chainsaw-wielding Bruce Campbell. [Note: Contrary to popular belief, the latex-wrapped books are not bound in human flesh and inked in human blood.] And while his overall filmography may seem surprisingly thin, the artist/effects guy/actor/yes, even hopeful filmmaker is busier than ever.
Still, as I peruse the museum and all its Book of the Dead variations, I realize Sullivan doesn’t mind keeping his past close. (He wears it proudly—literally, with a bright, red Army of Darkness tee.) So like many a book, that’s where we’ll begin.
CH. 1: THE EVIL DEAD CURSE
From all accounts, the making of the first Evil Dead film was, to put it nicely, challenging. The little indie wouldn’t hit U.S. theaters until about five years after writer/director Sam Raimi began pre-production. And, surprise, surprise: Many of the cast and crew’s contributions go completely uncredited, such as Sullivan’s work on most of the effects and props. The gory details can be found in DVD commentaries, interviews and Josh Becker’s Evil Dead journal, which does a fine job of summarizing the cold, damp shoot in Tennessee.
Sullivan, however, looks back fondly on the first movie. “On Evil Dead, I didn’t have any pre-production time, so whatever I could work out the night before I took. And Sam liked it and it all worked. And I brought a whole lot more than what was in the script. Fortunately I’m a genius, so all that worked out,” he says lightheartedly.
The sequel is where problems began to set in. Not wanting the long hours and early wake-up calls, Sullivan opted to work on special effects and again, some of the props. The idea of working on the winged Deadite and stop-motion animation was very appealing to the multi-faceted artist. But as most movies go, things took longer than expected. “Evil Dead II—Sam had learned how to micromanage everything, which drives special effects guys crazy,” Sullivan says. “And I went crazy. Oh, it was depressing. It was awful. Ohhhh.” He puts his head in his hands with that final sigh. “I was supposed to be away for three months. My wife was in California and I missed her, and it went on to like 11 months for me. It was just way too long—just too, too, too, too long.” His golly-gee-whiz demeanor doesn’t tell the entire story. In a revealing interview that took place around the turn of the millennium with Deadites.net, Sullivan explains one of the reasons for his relative lack of film credits. During the long stretch of ED2, his wife, Penny, wanted to separate. Shortly after completing his work on the movie, she drowned. Sullivan would go on to work on one more film (The Fly II) before moving back home to Marshall, Mich.
He then illustrated some role-playing books and one more time helped with The Book of the Dead for final installment of the Evil Dead trilogy, Army of Darkness. It should be noted this is the only film he’s credited with having created the mischievous prop. In 1992, Sullivan suffered a serious head injury and remained out of the spotlight—OK, let’s say cult spotlight—until he found rejuvenation doing something new.
CH. 2: CINEMA WASTELAND, HORROR CONVENTIONS AND THE DEATH OF THE CURSE
Whether you believe in it or not, sometimes you hear a story and go, “It’s gotta be fate.” The details surrounding the incident just seem too perfectly placed to be mere coincidence. Like when Sullivan tells me how he bumped into Cinema Wasteland organizer Ken Kish at a Motor City Con in the late ’90s. Kish was a guy looking to start a horror convention with zero guests at the time. Sullivan had never been invited to a horror convention. Neither was seeking the other out; they simply bonded over some Evil Dead shirts Kish was peddling. Sullivan recalls the first show. “We came in here, and we had like nothing—no prints. Ken gave me a box of prints [to] help cover costs and stuff. I didn’t make any money. I had like three or four film-crew T-shirts from Evil Dead II that I sold way too low.”
But so began an important tradition that remains strong to this day. Sullivan makes the trip from Marshall to Strongsville twice a year for the three-day convention, fine-tuning the presentation in his room along the way.
In the Deadites.net interview, Sullivan had said he didn’t get out much. Now, he’s a complete 180, interacting with fans nonstop, whether it be through his many appearances at conventions or through his website, DarkAgeProductions.com. His next appearance is at Crypticon Minneapolis, Nov. 5-7. But unlike those tricky trees in the second chapter of the Evil Dead, Sullivan holds tight to his roots. “Cinema Wasteland is really special,” he says. “The vibe of this place is really unique. Horrfind’s a blast. Flashback’s a blast. There’s lots of great conventions. But this one’s got this family thing going on. It’s really homey. It’s really low-key. And also, just the greatest parties.”
CH. 3: THE RETURN OF THE CURSE (?)
When talking horror movies, one thing you need to know: The evil is never dead.
Whether it be a masked lunatic mimicking another or a cursed book that needs one final bite, there’s always something lurking beneath each victory. Sullivan knows this, perhaps all too well. For years, he’s wanted to make the jump into directing and create his own movies. It was looking pretty good with his project The Last Ghost Story, based on the haunted history of the Homer Mill in Michigan. Everything was in order: producer, actors, effects and most importantly, the location—the actual Homer Mill. Then, the unthinkable happened. “The place burnt down,” Sullivan says before continuing somewhat reluctantly, “to the ground. It wasn’t arson. It was just this horrible thing. Oh, it was great. It was a 120-year-old building. It used to be a grist mill. Eight people died there, including one guy [who] was skinned alive by Satanists in the ’70s. And they had all kinds of ghosts through there. You worked there for six months, and you’re experiencing something weird. It was just perfect for that. Aww, shucks. What a shame.”
In the meantime, Sullivan continues acting and helping friends with their films, such as Splatter Movie, Dog and Buddy BeBop vs. the Living Dead. And he even has a Plan B, as he calls it, for his next shot at a feature, tentatively Painting With Tom. It’s a sort of hybrid of his involvement in film and his art for the “Call of Cthulhu” role-playing books. The story begins with Sullivan teaching art lessons on how to paint supernatural Lovecraftian creatures. However… “the lessons are going to be interrupted by Cthulhu cultists meaning to kill me to stop this project. And I fall back on my training as an artist, and I kill them with art supplies. I find myself drawn into this international conspiracy to destroy humanity. And I’m aided by a secret organization with a mysterious link to me that I’m unaware of.
“So we’ll see if that happens,” Sullivan says, acknowledging anything can happen in this biz. “I just hope I don’t burn down!”
QUICK! MORE BLOOD—FANS WANT ANOTHER CHAPTER
For years, director Sam Raimi has tortured fans with the prospect of a new Evil Dead movie. First, it was the remake. Now, it’s the sequel. Perhaps only two people know if another Evil Dead will ever come to life: Raimi and his older brother, Ivan, who are supposedly working on a script. Actor Bruce Campbell, who played Ash in the original three films, typically responds to ED4 questions with an “I’ll believe it when I see it”-type response.
Tom Sullivan, who created most of the effects, props and makeup designs for the first film, responds similarly: “There’s a new Evil Dead?”
Still, he, like many a fan, doesn’t mind stirring the pot. “From a business point of view, it’ll put butts in seats. And so for Sam and Rob, it’s a great idea, and it might even be a terrific film. I can’t lose, cuz on the one hand, if it turns out great, they’ll say, ‘Oh, but they’re standing on the shoulders of giants.’ And if it sucks, they’ll go, ‘Yeah, they spent $5 million on digital effects. Look what Sullivan did for pocket change.’ So either way, I’ll benefit from promotion and get invited to lots of conventions.”
While we’re on the speculation train, what about a glorious return to the over-the-top effects that made the original so enduring? Would Raimi revert back to Sullivan’s classic work with latex and stop-motion animation in the event of a sequel? “It’d be great to work with Sam again,” Sullivan says. “Especially now that he’s king of the world. And he also knows what he’s doing now. He was kind of happenstance back then.”
We can only hope for the best–that all parties involved start hearing the words “We’re gonna get you” in their nightmares and reopen that book someday soon.