The Return of the King: ‘Ash vs. Evil Dead’ Brings a Classic Back to Life
If there’s one thing the Evil Dead franchise has taught us, it’s to be wary of things that seem too good to be true. The zombies in this series love to disguise themselves as the reanimated friends and family of the film’s heroes. And then, when the good guys let their guard down, the monsters strike.
A hardcore Evil Dead fan would be forgiven, then, for any initial skepticism about Ash vs. Evil Dead, the fourth entry in this beloved horror franchise. It’s been some 23 years since the last Evil Dead; 1992’s Army of Darkness. After years of hints, teases, and empty promises, sassy monster fighter Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) is suddenly back from the unmade Hollywood sequel graveyard, kicking ass and calling names. But this is Evil Dead. It must be a trick, right? Shouldn’t we get an axe? We’re going to let it into our hearts, and then it’s going to break it (or possibly eat it).
Through the first two episodes, though, that hasn’t happened. However improbably, Ash vs. Evil Dead is a true return to form for the venerable horror franchise, one that hews closely to its roots in grindhouse gore and ultra-dark slapstick. And the move from film to television show (this first season runs 10 half-hour episodes) is a fruitful one; the lax content restrictions of premium cable offer the series’ creators absolute freedom to indulge their every bloody whim. (There’s enough zombie arterial spray in the opening scene of episode 2 alone to guarantee any commensurate movie an NC-17 rating.)
The pilot (which was co-written and directed by franchise creator Sam Raimi) finds Ash pretty much where we left him 23 years ago; a one-handed stock boy at a dumpy big-box retailer. He was the only one to survive his last fight with the forces of the Necronomicon, the ancient book of burial rights and funerary incantations that control the evil dead; he’s spent the 30 years since trying to escape his past and hide his true self (here Raimi and Campbell may be acknowledging their repeated attempts to branch out into other genres, and their fans’ repeated attempts to convince them to return to this one).
Ever the idiot/blowhard, Ash still has the Necronomicon, and even uses it to impress the ladies. And so the inevitable happens; the magic words are spoken, the zombies are unleashed, and it’s up to Ash to set things right once more. Luckily, he won’t have to do it alone; the first two episodes introduces two young co-workers, Pablo (Ray Santiago, whose hair can only be described as “Kramer-esque”) and Kelly (Dana Delorenzo), who join him on his quest. There’s also a subplot involving a dogged police detective (Jill Marie Jones) investigating the supernatural deaths that follow Ash wherever he goes, and a mysterious woman played by Xena’s Lucy Lawless, whose connection to the Necronomicon has yet to be fully explained.
The only character fans care about at this point, though, is Ash, and he’s portrayed with the right blend of overactive machismo and self-deprecating humor by Campbell. A huge portion of Evil Dead’s longevity belongs to Campbell’s performance, and to the unique qualities his character brings to the franchise. Where most long-running horror series focus on charismatic villains (Michael Myers, Freddy Kruger, etc.) killing interchangeable victims, Evil Dead focuses on a charismatic hero fighting interchangeable monsters. With his big mouth, predilection for massive screw ups, and passion for zombie decapitation, he’s the perfect audience surrogate for horror movie lovers, and an easy guy to root for.
Raimi only co-wrote and directed the Ash vs. Evil Dead pilot; his episode really feels like a modern Evil Dead movie, with all the classic prosthetic effects and stylistic tropes (like the “Shakycam” shot that zooms through the woods), plus new visual flourishes (one scene is lit by a spinning flashlight that’s been dropped on the floor). Raimi’s directorial style is so distinctive that it would be a tough act for any filmmaker to follow, but at least in episode 2, Michael J. Bassett (who made 2009’s Solomon Kane and also directed installments of Strike Back and The Player) does a solid job of filling Raimi’s shoes. It’s certainly not as flashy as Raimi‘s, but his episode is still plenty lively, and includes series of shots from a camera mounted on Ash’s trusty shotgun).
Bassett’s episode also includes a scene where the deceased relative of one of the core cast seemingly returns from the grave, and it’s up to Ash to figure out whether this person is legit or le zombie. Old school Evil Dead fans will definitely spend the early portion of this show doing the same thing; sizing it up for authenticity. So far, it’s pretty much nailed it. Ash vs. Evil Dead won’t have much of an audience beyond its hardcore devotees; its off-kilter mix of violence and humor puts it squarely in the cult arena. But for Evil Dead disciples who’ve kept the faith all these years, the show is fun enough to make them rethink everything this franchise taught them about dead loved ones who show up on their doorstep, looking better than ever.
Ash vs. Evil Dead premieres on Halloween on Starz. Here are the first four minutes of the premiere.