Features | Written by Joel Harley 28/03/2020

Interview: Theresa Tilly | THE EVIL DEAD (1981)

Interview with Theresa Tilly

Starburst: You played Shelly in The Evil Dead. How did you come to be involved in the film?

Theresa Tilly: Unlike Ellen Sandweiss and Bruce Campbell who both went to Groves High School in Birmingham Michigan with Sam Raimi I was not a friend or classmate of Sam’s before filming ED. I had just graduated from St. Mary’s College of Orchard Lake with a BA in Communication Arts. I was struggling to be an actor in the Detroit area doing a lot of local theatre, setting up my own puppet shows in malls and schools, commercials and car industrials; whatever I could get my hands on in Motor City! I got a call from my agent - whom I barely knew - asking me if I was interested in auditioning for a feature film. Sam, Rob and Bruce had gone to local theaters looking for resumes for small time actors like myself who might be interested in working for “nothing” to be in his feature called The Book of the Dead. Sounded kind of good, there was even a “Book” in the title! I agreed to audition. I met Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell and Rob Tapert at Sam’s parents’ house where we went down to his basement and read a few lines from the movie and screamed with horror several different ways, the rest is history.

Did you have any idea, making the film, that it would go on to be as successful and influential as it is?

I had no concern whatsoever about the notoriety this film might bring when I signed on. If I had I might not have done it since there was absolutely no budget and the conditions we shot under were gruesome and bordering on the ridiculous. I didn’t care, I was just thrilled to be hired to do a feature film. When you’re young you don’t have grand expectations and it took awhile before some of the low budget aspects of shooting started to sink in. We filmed this in Morristown which is a tiny city in the hills of the southern state of Tennessee. I had never left the Detroit area before this and I don’t think the others had either.

What do you think has been the key to its lasting appeal?

I do think it’s scary and yet it doesn’t take itself too seriously! And yet there’s a violent rape scene - but I think the key is that you never really see too much, it’s all in the imagination. To have that much gore and blood and that much violence, and still be campy, well that takes a lot of confidence.

What do you make of the fan affection – particularly towards the ladies of The Evil Dead?

I’m sure you’ve heard the story that the 3 of us were a little embarrassed by the movie initially; none of us used it on our resume or told anyone we were in it. I had seen it at the video stores but since I had used a different name (Sarah York) I figured I was safe, no one would ever know it was me. Betsy Baker and I had remained friends from the movie and when I moved to Los Angeles we spoke to each other somewhat regularly. She contacted me about a screening here in Hollywood back in 2001. She and I ended up going to that and doing a Q&A and saw how many fans were lined up to meet us. We were really amazed that it had such a following and soon contacted Ellen to form a trio and meet all these wonderful fans around the world.

Here in the UK, The Evil Dead was actually banned for a number of years. What did you make of the decision to ban the movie?

I’d ban it too if it were my kids/country! We often hear stories about how kids couldn’t see the movie and they finally snuck in or somehow got a hold of it they were so happy to see it. The whole forbidden fruit thing, I think that really plays into the fun and desire to see it. We heard a lot of stories about the Video Nasties in England when we were there. The idea of Sam speaking in Parliament in protection of his film is hilarious!

Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell have gone on to become enormous cult figures since making The Evil Dead. What was it like working with them?

And now they’re making Evil Dead again! But we’ll always be the first! It’s funny when you think back on where we started and how low budget our movie was it was crazy to make it with our shoestring budget and lack of experience. But these guys were and continue to be visionary and that includes Rob Tapert who went on to become a pretty substantial producer too. The 3 of them were so inspired to do this that nothing seemed to get in their way. Day by day we’d run into all sorts of problems that to me seemed insurmountable but they’d just tackle them one by one. Their tenacity and drive, and of course their genius of movie making got them to finish and sell Evil Dead in spite of the many obstacles. We were just a bunch of kids having a good ole time shooting a movie for the most part - it was a lot of fun.

Following the first Evil Dead, the sequels went in a more noticeably comedic fashion, before becoming out-and-out Fantasy Comedy in Army of Darkness. What did you make of that?

I have always preferred the comedy based in reality of the original. But then again I’m partial aren’t I!

Was it difficult acting under the layers of make-up and gore FX as Deadite Shelly?

Ellen and I were the first to put on the masks and I was the first to die and therefore the first to perform with their original idea of the Deadite make-up and mask. I was unable to have much facial expression once the mask was used so I tried using my body to express things. Unfortunately I had on lenses that were completely blinding so my movements were very limited. It was pretty frustrating!

What is your abiding memory from making The Evil Dead?

I can’t believe I was so stupid to agree to get in a car and drive across that bridge which was ready to fall any minute. I am just happy I survived it all.

How was it re-uniting with your Evil Dead co-stars for Dangerous Women?

I only wish I could work with Betsy and Ellen more often, we will always be friends and we all seem to have the same type of professional ethic when we work, its how we met so I think making movies together just really works for us.

The Evil Dead remake is due to hit cinemas very soon. Will you be watching?

I just hope I won’t get too scared. I will have to go in the day light - but yes! The three of us really loved Evil Dead the musical when it was on off-Broadway.

Are you a fan of horror movies in general?

Not really; I get too scared.

What are you up to next?

I have a couple features that should be out soon, Old Days directed by Michael Rosenbaum and stars Morrena Baccaren from V who plays my daughter and Stomping Ground directed by Dan Riesser, a Big Foot romantic comedy with lots of scares. There is another big feature that I can’t really talk about but just check my IMDb every now and again!!

What are your future career ambitions?

Bigger parts!