Evil Dead Rise Director Lee Cronin On Nailing The Tone, His Fascination With Holes, And More [Exclusive Interview]

Lee Cronin is a name horror fans are about to become very, very familiar with, and most likely quite fond of, as he is the director behind the upcoming "Evil Dead Rise." The first film in the franchise since 2013's "Evil Dead," the new movie premiered recently at SXSW and the buzz has been nothing shy of excellent (read our review here). Even though Bruce Campbell is not suiting back up as Ash Williams (he was on board as a producer, alongside original director Sam Raimi and producer Rob Tapert), the response indicates that Cronin has managed to bring the series back to life in a big, bad way.

Cronin is not only making the first movie in this franchise in a full decade, but he's also taking the action largely out of the woods and into the city — something these movies haven't seen before. The film focuses on a pair of sisters, played by Alyssa Sutherland and Lily Sullivan, who reunite after being estranged for quite some time while sorting out some pretty intense personal issues. Unfortunately, bad things happen that result in flesh-eating monsters crashing this family reunion. Naturally, lots and lots of blood spills from there — and let it be known that the production did not skimp on the blood.

I had the great fortune of speaking with Cronin following the film's premiere at SXSW. We discussed how he approached his take on the series, how the movie went from HBO Max to a theatrical release, exactly how much blood they used, and much more.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

'They're also super aware that bad things are going to happen'

How are you? You had a big night last night.

I did. I'm doing good. My head is still spinning because it was a lot of anticipation and buildup to bring this movie to the big screen, and to premiere here in Austin. So, I'm doing good. I'm feeling happy. I think as a filmmaker, trying to make a movie that has been born to entertain, to shock, to scare, and to thrill, I feel like we got that reaction last night from the audience in the Paramount Theater.

I would say so. I was telling Lily and Alyssa during our interview, I've been to a lot of good premieres in that theater. I saw the world premiere of "A Quiet Place." Last night was something else entirely. People were in it.

Yeah, it was a great night for everybody and to have some of the team here and obviously Sam [Raimi], Rob [Tapert], and Bruce [Campbell], and the wonderful cast, and just to bring everyone together because we never really got to celebrate this movie at the end. We finished it during a Covid lockdown in New Zealand, and all just had to walk our separate ways. So for this to be the payoff for the journey last night was something really special.

You mentioned Sam. Let's start at the beginning of the journey here. Sam Raimi comes to you and says, "Hey, Lee, you want to make an 'Evil Dead' movie?" What's that like?

It was a great conversation. It was a lunch that we had in L.A. just after I'd finished making "The Hole in the Ground" and Sam had seen it and we talked about everything but "Evil Dead" during the lunch until I just kind of said, "Look, I'm a fan so I kind of want to just go, 'Hey, what's up with Evil Dead?'" Because I knew it'd been like 10 years at that point, in terms of the movies. And Sam was like, "You're an Evil Dead fan?" I'm like, "I'm a massive Evil Dead fan." And the conversation kind of rolled from there. It started from there.

What's interesting about the movie is, in an era of franchise storytelling, so many people in interviews will be like, "Well, I really want this to be a fresh entry point for new fans, but also honor what came before." That's easy to say, but hard to do. You 100% did that.

Thank you.

You could never know a thing about "Evil Dead" going to this movie. It's a hell of a horror movie. But there's so much reverence for what came before. How on Earth do you weave that web?

I'm really, really thankful for those comments. And it was an intent. The fact that we got the intent right and I was able to steer that ship in the right way — I went after the story and the characters first. I hunted down those personalities. I hunted down the themes and the metaphors before I actually then went and looked at the horror. Now of course, in my brain, I was boiling ideas all the time, but I didn't let myself go there until I just had cracked into those people. I think it's the Zucker Brothers, and they talk about when they were writing movies like "Airplane!" back in the day, it was like, "Get the story right, and then work on the jokes, work on the gags thereafter."

Horror and comedy are similar in that way.

Absolutely. I wanted it to be something that felt fresh, and just nailing those characters early so that people have a familiarity with them, they grow to like them. They're also super aware that bad things are going to happen. They know it's not going to stay happy families or medium-happy families, it's going to turn into something else. That was probably the trickiest balancing act of all, was bringing the character and the gore together, but also doing it in a way that was accessible to a new audience. I think this is one of the things that will surprise people when they watch this movie, even more than the trailer suggests: It is actually super accessible and you can step into that world and just have a good time. And get the pants scared off you, of course.

'There's a little bit more to the story than it seems'

The premiere last night was so great with an audience. This was originally produced with HBO Max in mind, and Alyssa and Lily told me you always were filming with the hope that it would go to theaters. Was it true that you were literally filming with the hope that you might get a theatrical release?

There's a little bit more to the story than it seems. When I wrote the screenplay, all intention was that it was theatrical. No one was thinking any other way. But I wrote the screenplay at the start of Covid and the world was kind of closing and falling apart, and no one knew what was happening with theaters and the theatrical experience. Actually as we entered prep on the movie, we were still in the knowledge that it was going to be a theatrical release.

Oh, okay.

But Covid got really bad at a point, and understandably, many studios were pivoting their approach to things. So, it was kind of a little bit of surprising news, quite close to actually shooting the film, that it was going to go to HBO Max. And it rattled me for a moment because that was not how I was designing this movie in my head.

To be fair, if I make a movie for a streaming platform, I'm still going to think on the biggest canvas possible anyway. But myself, and there was great support from the executives in New Line, Dave Neustadter and Richard Brener, Victoria Palmeri over there. They were just like, "Put your head down and make your movie. Let us fight the good fight." Then thankfully, with some of the changes with Warner Bros., then we had some fantastic test screenings as well that really was able to drive excitement into the studio, and they could see what they really had. And here we are. Thankfully, it's found its rightful place on the big screen.

Sure as hell did. What is it with you and holes, man?

[laughs] I was only thinking that last night. I was thinking, "Another hole?" Yeah. I don't know. I don't know where that comes from. Look, there's always something creepy about a dark void, right? I knew that if I was going to put this in the city, I knew I wasn't going to have the obvious fruit cellar or that type of item. So I needed to find a way to hide that book inside this world. If it's been really, really hidden, there's going to need to be a big-ass hole to unveil this thing at some point. That was a much smaller hole than the one in "The Hole in the Ground," but still one that brought forth much danger.

It's a gnarly movie, no question — you've made no bones about that in the trailers. But the tricky thing about something like "Evil Dead" is that you have the original, which is very much a more hardcore movie by 1981 standards, and "Evil Dead II" and "Army of Darkness" are much more campy. How did you decide to go a little bit more hardcore? You do have some levity in there, let's be fair. But how did you settle on how you were going to approach this from a tone perspective?

I think tone is always the trickiest thing. It's the thing you want to get most right. For me, what I trusted in was that if I really push the envelope out, and make the scares, and make the set pieces, and make the fright moments as imaginative and creative and screwed up as I possibly can, they naturally will bring with them an outlandishness and a levity. I think we saw that with the audience last night. I want people to laugh. I don't want people to be silent and sitting in fear. I want them to vocalize in some way off the impact of what it is they see.

That was kind of the thing that I hunted down. But also making sure those characters and what's bubbling inside them doesn't just get left behind. It still just finds places through the story, the personal circumstances of the characters, as well. I think that helped temper stuff and find the right balance. There's a line after a very particular explosive moment where the little girl, Cassie, says, "Am I dead?" And everybody laughs because it's such an obvious thing to think, and maybe silly to say, but maybe a kid might say it in those circumstances. But again, it came from character and that allowed us to just keep that little bit of light amongst the mania.

'They're something way more sinister with way more personality'

There is a little sprinkling of "cabin in the woods" in here, but for the most part, you move away from that. How did you decide you didn't want to do a cabin in the woods movie again and instead go to a big city? And within that big city thing, you still kept it contained rather than being a zombie apocalypse of Deadites.

First of all, very quickly, when I first spoke with Sam, we met, and then I was re-approached a few days later. "We'd really like you to take a serious crack at 'Evil Dead.' What do you think you'd like to do?" I kind of knew instinctively that if I came back with a cabin in the woods take, it was just going to be more of the same. It was going to be like, "How do we mash this up? How do we double down on what's already been doubled down on?" So instinctively I felt like I needed to take it to an urban context. I knew I wanted to make a story about family, about parenthood, about kids, because I think that's the place I always get drawn to — the horror of domestic circumstance. I felt the city, the urban jungle, was the polar opposite to what we've seen before. So if you're going to make a change, you really got to make a change, in a way.

Then in terms of the idea of the entire building being overrun, it was Rob Tapert that actually reminded me when we were talking early on. He's like, "Don't lose sight that 'Evil Dead' is about a group of four or five people that get trapped and get chopped up." In a way, that's what it is. Those things were important to be true to the DNA of what an "Evil Dead" story is. Sure, people would like to see a hoard of Deadites. But that then starts to lean back into, as you noted, more of a zombie world, and the Deadites aren't zombies. They're something way more sinister with way more personality.

You mentioned something last night. You said something about blood being a character in the movie.


There's a lot of blood. If you were to estimate, how many gallons of blood do you think you guys went through in the movie?

I can give it to you in liters and you'll have to translate, but it was 6,500 liters of blood.

Holy s***.

Yeah. And all proper sticky, icky movie blood. Like the real deal. There's no cheating of taking some water and putting red food coloring in. Because that will do. This was all cooked. We had to hire an industrial kitchen to make the amount of blood that we needed, and it was everywhere. So yeah, it's the real deal. And it's splattered all over the screen.

"Evil Dead Rise" hits theaters on April 21, 2023.