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Rock Gods and Monsters: Bruce Campbell plays Elvis and fights a mummy at the same time in 'Bubba Ho-tep.'

Return of the King

With the new 'Bubba Ho-tep,' cult hero Bruce Campbell isn't just playing an elderly Elvis--he's crusading for the soul of indie filmmaking

By Steve Palopoli

In 1979, a totally bizarre film called Phantasm offered audiences what can only be called a hallucinogenic vision of what a low-budget horror flick could be. Still one of the weirdest scary movies to ever be a mainstream hit (earning its $300,000 budget back 40 times over), it made a name for 25-year-old writer-director Don Coscarelli and became a cult favorite.

Three years later, an equally inventive (though certainly more linear) low-budget film called The Evil Dead became a phenomenon in much the same way--on half the budget, even. It made a name for 22-year-old director Sam Raimi, and also became a cult favorite.

After such similar starts--and despite the fact that they have both returned to their successful cult franchises multiple times--the directing careers of these two self-made upstarts have taken wildly different paths. While Raimi is currently filming Spider Man 2, the sequel to his 2002 Hollywood comic-book blockbuster, Coscarelli has made almost nothing but Phantasm sequels in the last 20 years. And his latest film, Bubba Ho-tep, returns the phrase "indie filmmaking" to its true meaning. Not only produced but actually distributed by Coscarelli, it's a million miles from Raimi's newfound place in the top level of bankable Hollywood directors.

However, Coscarelli did take one thing from Raimi for Bubba Ho-tep: his favorite leading man. First and best known as the square-jawed but increasingly ironic hero Ash in The Evil Dead and its sequels, Bruce Campbell has stepped into the Hollywood mainstream in Congo, Serving Sara and pal Raimi's Darkman and Spider Man films, but for the most part stayed outside the system in dozens of independent movies. In Bubba Ho-tep, which is every bit as weird as Phantasm despite being less a horror film and more a twisted and funny character study, Campbell plays a 70-year-old Elvis Presley, stuck in a rest home because his attempt to escape fame by switching places with an Elvis impersonator went horribly, horribly wrong. Through circumstances I can't even begin to go into here, he and an African American man who thinks he's JFK (played by Ossie Davis) wind up battling an Egyptian mummy.

Campbell, for his part, has turned his association with Coscarelli's film into a near crusade, touring across the country with it in an effort to beat the stacked Hollywood system at its own game. Unbelievably enough, it seems to be working, with Bubba Ho-tep opening strong in several cities and looking to expand to even more. Campbell spoke to us about the film on the eve of its opening in Santa Cruz at the Del Mar Oct. 17.

Metro Santa Cruz: Wow, Bruce Campbell as The King. You really took on the mother of all acting gigs with this movie. Which begs the question: How exactly does one approach playing Elvis?

Bruce Campbell: You know, I looked at some concert footage, but that's only going to help you so much, 'cause there's really no one who can do that--there's one guy, and that's Elvis. Everyone else is just a faker. Fortunately, I only had to do short little bits of that, and even that was plenty. And then the rest--well, he's 70, so who can judge him? Who can judge what he would be like, or even how he would sound? So I got tons of leeway just from that. As long as you get some of the familiar mannerisms and things like that, you just have to make it your own.

Did you ever think there was any Elvis in Ash?

No, not really. Ash is way more pissed off than Elvis will ever be. And Ash is way dumber, believe it or not. Ash is very rash, he's just like, "I don't care, do it!," and people die all around him. He's got to have that mentality to dish it out to the Deadites, you know.

What would Elvis do to the Deadites?

Well, if his hip was working, he'd do some karate, stuff like that. He'd have Sonny and the boys take 'em out--they'd be killed first, I can guarantee you that. [Slips into highly convincing Elvis voice.] "C'mon, Sonny, get out there man! What good are ya? You a bodyguard or not, baby?"

How did you hook up with Don Coscarelli in the first place?

Sam Raimi recommended that he call me. Because in a totally obscure conversation they were having about three years ago, Don mentioned he had this property that he'd optioned from Joe Lansdale, and he needed to find an old Elvis. And Sam said "Aw, just get Bruce Campbell."

Right, 'cause when you think '70-year-old Elvis,' you think Bruce Campbell.

Well, yeah, I don't think it was Don's first idea. Because I think he was thinking "Let's get a 70-year-old guy." But then he was thinking, who the hell do you get? Robert Vaughn? Where do you go with it? Not a lot of ways you could go. So then I think he decided to do the old-age makeup.

Which turned out to be a great idea, 'cause then you could do the flashback scenes. How long did the makeup take every day?

It was about 2 1/2 hours every day, then an hour to get it off.

It was pretty convincing, as those things go.

It was convincing enough. We just had to convince the DP to shoot it like I was an aging starlet, you know what I mean? You've got to soften it, you've got to be careful.

Was that tough at all for you? Ash may have been dumb, but he had some sex appeal. This was old, fat Elvis with a walker. Was that hard, egowise?

Oh, hell no. That was the best way to go. 'Cause then you're not worried about any of that shit--you're not worried about lighting, you're not worried about lenses, you don't care about how good your hair looks. You don't care about anything, you just act. That's the best way to go. I'm glad I'm middle-aged now. But I've never really cared that much. I've had a big L-shaped scar on my chin forever. If I was really concerned, I would have gotten that fixed a long time ago. I don't care. My hair's graying now--tough! You get to play other parts--who wants to play the same roles? You can't play 25 forever. Now, in this horror film called The Woods, I'm the lead girl's dad. That works for me--she can get covered with blood! I'll show up and go, "What'd I miss?" You know, "Leave my daughter alone!" Then he can't really do anything. But I think it's OK to age. Some guys, you really have to tell 'em, "Hey guy, time to put the gun down and look for a lawyer role."

But how was it mentally playing that age? With the walker, you can't move too fast, you can't look too agile--or even too mobile--even in the action scenes.

It's a physical thing. It's no different than, like, Evil Dead 2, where you've gotta break plates over your head. Whatever's required, you've got to just figure it out. You've got to slow yourself down. You've got to pick which hip would go out. Don was shooting at a slow enough pace--we shot this for six weeks, which on a low budget movie is about twice what you normally get. Which is why I said yes, because I knew he wasn't going to just do a Roger Corman on this. Seriously, that's a huge factor. I mean, what kind of coverage can you get if you have to shoot eight pages a day? You're making a TV movie. Unless you have a crack TV crew, it's going to suck. So when he said six weeks, I took a huge sigh of relief. It was like, "Oh, great, you're serious about making this movie."

It definitely shows--this is his best looking movie for sure. It's a huge step up for him in terms of the visual style.

Well, everyone matures. Actors start sucking less as they stick with it, and directors refine themselves. You have a kid, you mature, or something happens in your life, your point of view changes. You're not always interested in just cutting jugular veins. I mean, this is not a horror film. Not at all. It's a redemptive Elvis mummy picture. In that order.

Yeah, it's pretty weird. It's practically a character study! You kind of go in thinking it's going to be an hour-and-a-half of Elvis squaring off against the mummy, but it's so much more bizarre than that.

You see [in the trailer] that the guy's an old fart, he's got a walker, so there's only going to be so much ass kicking going on. And the mummy's beside the point. Really, it's a story about what you do with old people, especially famous guys. In this case, one who thinks he's JFK, and one who is Elvis.

Hey, I don't know, by the end of the movie I was kind of buying that Ossie Davis might really be JFK.

That's why we came out so far ahead casting Ossie Davis. 'Cause look, Bruce Campbell in a mummy movie--big deal. But then you go, "Ossie Davis? What the hell is he doing in that?" And it adds a whole new level. He brings a deep-seated sincerity to it that you'd never get if you cast somebody else. When he says, "I'm President Kennedy," you go, "Yes, you are." Funny thing is, he knew him! That's how far back Ossie goes. I mean, his first movie was 1945. Ossie's in his 80s, and he acts like he's in his 60s. It's way trippy, because you see him and you go, "You're not that old."

I can't imagine what it was like when they sent you this script and you read it for the first time.

Oh, it was freaky. Really freaky. 'Cause you usually don't get scripts like this. I get cheeseball action films or sci-fi things where the lead character goes, "Get down! C'mon! Let's go! Wait here! Now!" All his lines of dialogue are so predictable. And this, you've got a guy who's Elvis, and he doesn't give a shit. He'll insult the nurse, he swears and he gets crabby. I was like, "Oh my God, I hope this can get made, because no one makes movies like this." And, you know, it's so low budget you can't really lose. It's not that big of a risk. It's still Don Coscarelli and Bruce Campbell making a pseudo-horror film. Somebody will buy it. But what got me is that it's not really a mummy picture. It's almost like Grumpy Old Ghostbusters.

It's also got a lot of funny stuff. The RV blowing up was hilarious. Who knew Don Coscarelli could do comedy?

My wife laughs her ass off every time she sees that. The way Don orchestrated the explosions, he was really specific. He goes, "I want this to blow up in the air, then I want this to go, then a really big one, then something else." But sometimes you can do comedy by not trying to do comedy. You let the script do the talking for you. It's the same with us--if Ossie and I had approached it differently, I think it would have been a disaster.

Were you a 'Phantasm' fan at all? There were some definite parallels with 'Evil Dead,' and they were made around the same time.

Oh yeah. You know, the weirdness, the wackiness, the camera shots, the floating sphere, the blood flying everywhere. And it was a cult film. But I never worked with Don, nothing ever came up before this.

And now you guys are putting out 'Bubba Ho-tep' together--and distributing it yourselves, right?

Every major distributor passed on it. Every single one.

And now it seems to be doing great.

It is, and I think it's the proper turn of the karmic wheel. You know, this film is not designed to be marketed like The Hulk. You gotta understand, whenever you have something that marketing guys are going to actually have to figure out, they run. If they can't have Mel Gibson looking pensively with a gun in his hand, they're screwed. I'm unimpressed by most marketing campaigns. I mean, get it in 2,300 theaters, get the Taco Bell tie-in, get the miniatures out in the store before the movie opens, get the trading cards, get the video game ready. It's like landing a plane at LAX--"OK, bring this one in, hold that one off, back it up, here we go! Whoo!"

With all the work you're putting into this movie, you must feel that this is more your baby than other things you've worked on.

Oh, of course. I mean, I've toured with this thing already in probably 15 cities, at midnight shows, just to get the word out. That's what Bubba deserves--it's a grassroots movie for grassroots people. We don't have to have a blockbuster. We were just hoping to avoid straight-to-DVD. Which is all right--look, at the end of the day, people are getting more and more used to that, and DVD is a great way to present your movie for the first time. But still, I have to say, I've been to enough screenings of this now and seen the response to say that every so often a movie deserves to be seen in a collective experience. I just got back from San Diego, where we showed Bubba at the only single-screen theater remaining in the city. The only one! It's 500 seats, which was great, big screen. They had the dual projectors, these carbon-arc projectors. We had to change the carbon every hour, and then align it so it burns properly. Unbelievable! These things were in mint condition. And the cool thing about Bubba was that the only theaters we could get it were those cool theaters. In the last two years, I've seen some of the greatest old, funky-ass theaters, with these gothed-out managers with the pink hair and the pierced this and Evil Dead tattoo and the combat boots. Thank God for them! They're the ones who go, "Fuck those multiplexes!" They can appreciate the independent nature.

And this is certainly far more independent then your typical 'indie.'

That term is way overused. An independent movie that goes to a film festival but has a release date is bullshitting you. They're not independent--they already have a deal! They're using the film festivals to get PR and reviews. We're using film festivals to find a buyer. And I'll tell ya, Sundance needs to be put down. It does. It needs to not be considered what it used to be, because I can't get my agents on the phone in January because, guess what, they're all at Sundance! They're looking for the new hot deal. So that's even blown it. You need to now go back to, like, the Santa Cruz Film Festival. That's what it's all about.

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From the October 15-22, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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