All right, who wants some? Starz Network has finally brought us mere mortals what many thought would never happen, the fourth official instalment of the Evil Dead saga (sort of). For those who don’t know – first of all, shame on you – the Evil Dead series is an indie pop culture phenomenon. In 1981 budding film-makers; writer director Sam Raimi, producer Robert Tapert and actor Bruce Campbell borrowed enough money from friends, family, lawyers and dentists to make their own independent horror movie titled The Evil Dead.
It was your traditional cliché set up, five teenagers drive to an isolated cabin in the woods and find an ancient book, the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, roughly translated as “the book of the dead”. After reciting passages aloud they are stalked by an evil presence that turns each of them, one be one in to zombies like monsters named deadites. Lone survivor Ashley has no choice but to kill his now “evil dead” friends before turning in to one himself. The movie was a straight horror, but featured innovative camera work, modest special effects and tons of blood and gore. Making 2.6 million dollars on a shoe string budget of $400 thousand it found a cult following on VHS, was controversially banned in several countries and paved the way for a sequel.
Due to rights issues, Evil Dead 2 released in 1987 was part remake, part sequel and saw Ash return to the cabin this time with only his girlfriend Linda. Again reading the book of the dead aloud they are stalked by an evil presence turning Linda in to a zombie and forcing him to kill her. Succumbing to cabin fever he is slowly driven mad, battling himself and in the process lopping his hand off at the wrist. With nothing but a double barrel shot gun and a chainsaw in place of his arm, he takes on the evil forces unleashed before being sucked in to a time portal and finding himself stranded in the middle ages. The sequel added a layer of dark humour and slapstick comedy while still being able to supply genuine atmosphere and scares becoming one of the rare horror comedies that balances both and birthed the wisecracking reluctant hero Ash.
In 1993 the trilogy was rounded out with Army of Darkness Evil Dead III. Ash, still in the middle ages, becomes an unlikely saviour battling an evil doppelgänger version of himself with the help of a Merlin type magician. After destroying the evil forces, seemingly once and for all, he drinks a magical potion allowing him to go in to a deep sleep andreturn to his own time; depending on what country you lived in. In one ending released in the United States Ash returns to present day working as a store clerk and still battling zombies in the supermarket S-Mart, however in an alternate ending released in the United Kingdom Ash over sleeps only to wake up alone in a post apocalyptic future.
Again due to rights issues the opening of the film – a brief recap – is a remake of the second film but by this stage the horror elements were almost completely gone in favour of more slapstick humour, catchphrases and fish out of water action adventure. Bruce Campbell as Ash Williams though, had become the ultimate wise cracking smart-ass. He was an arrogant but endearing jerk who thinks he’s all that but is always way out of his depth, the king of deluded cool.
Without a new movie for over 20 years the character of Ash Williams continued to grow in popularity with several figurines, video games, a musical and went toe to toe against many other pop culture icons in several comic book series including Jason Voorhes, Freddy Kreuger, Dracula, Spider-man and even Barack Obama. In 2013 a remake movie simply titled Evil Dead was produced by Raimi, Tapert and Cambpell and directed by Fede Alvarez. Serving as a very loose quasi-sequel and featuring a different set of teenagers going to the same cabin in the woods but not featuring the Ash character (other than a two second end credits cameo) it instead focused on new female protagonist Mia.
During all this time the three creative minds teased of one day making a proper Evil Dead 4 but got busy going their own ways. Raimi most famously went on to massive blockbuster success directing Sony’s Spider-man franchises’ first three instalments keeping him busy for the good part of a decade. But finally the day is upon us, or at the very least as close as we will ever get, now that they’ve all gone back to their roots (and no old I don’t mean that kind of Evil Dead root, tree or otherwise, there’s none of that here).
The first episode of a 10 part TV series “Ash vs Evil Dead” is written and directed by Sam Raimi, produced again by Robert Tapert and see’s the return of Bruce Campbell in the iconic role. Still working in a dead end supermarket job at age 57 Ash continues to be a smarmy and delusional wise-ass living alone in a trailer park with no one but his pet lizard. Well that and the occasional naive woman he manages to seduce from the local bar using his wooden hand as a sympathy pick up. Cleary he’s managed to avoid any responsibility for 30 years, that is until strange things begin to go down. People are randomly changing in to deadites and warning him of something bad coming for him only to change back to their normal selves again in the blink of an eye. This makes for some creepy moments and fun jump scares. He decides that’s his cue to skip town which is when the story really kicks off.
While Campbell may be the only returning cast member there are still a lot of familiar motifs for fans of the franchise to recognise. There’s an awesome montage of the first two films projected artfully on cardboard storage boxes as Campbell repeats almost verbatim his opening monologue from Army of Darkness to describe his life story to a fellow co-worker. The classic 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 is still Ash’s ride of choice being used in all four Evil Dead films and every single Sam Raimi directed movie less his 90’s western The Quick and the Dead. The lurking evil force is still represented by a POV shot racing through car parks while pursuing its prey. When Campbell is wrestling with a tiny possessed doll, smashing himself in the face with clay pots to get it off it brings back memories of him fighting off tiny Ash clones in the third Evil Dead. Raimi’s trademark Dutch tilts and crash zooms are in full force and of course what the Evil Dead be without the return of deadites themselves with their pupil less eyes, wrinkled faces and synthesised taunts.
But enough about the old (Ash included now with corset and false teeth) lets talk about the new. Working alongside him at the Value Stop are Pablo and Kelly who get caught up in the adventure and appear to be his new sidekicks against the oncoming army of darkness. Sullen, moody Kelly and aloof, childlike Pablo don’t just feel like caricatures or cannon fodder, there are some genuine back stories alluded to here yet to be fully explored. There’s also state trooper Amanda Fisher pursuing the case of a missing person who stumbles across the deadites and has to kill her own partner turned evil with disastrous results. She’s left questioning her sanity and the only other person aware of the oncoming threat, that is until a mysterious Xena warrior princess herself, Lucy Lawless gives her some cryptic advise. Who she is and what her intentions are are yet to be seen but I’m certain she’ll play a big part in upcoming episodes.
Shifting between slow creepy scenes, action filled face-off’s and situation comedy each element blends well together never feeling out of place. Whether it’s an artfully edited sequence where Fisher drops a flash light in a dark room while battling the undead. The spinning torch revealing glimpses of the action with each rotation or when Ash is assigned the simple task of putting a box of light bulbs out the back of the store. It’s met with hilarious results and comic timing showing just how useless he really is, the show isn’t afraid to go for genuine scares and equally genuine laughs. When I saw Campbell at a Comic-Con panel earlier in the year he was boasting practical effects but there is also a fair amount of CGI, and dodgy CGI at that. Whether intentionally B-movie quality or not some of the decapitations and the the little dolls quality stuck out like sore severed thumbs. But also kind of added to the charm.
It appears the undead aren’t the only thing pursuing them after all these years though. Rights issues still continue to haunt the team and the new television series is no exception. There is no reference to the events or characters from Army of Darkness so again the story is a reboot of sorts, that’s not to say they won’t at a later date but just not yet, which again makes for a muddled continuity. No “shop smart shop S-Mart” quotes or metallic hands here.
The character of Ash has developed over time from a naive wide eyed teen, to a wise cracking, gun toting, chainsaw wielding bad ass and now to an ageing flat out arrogant jerk but he still remains oh so loveable. He really does begin the episode as a completely unsympathetic character, but when the fear kicks in and the bravado drops we see hints of scared little Ashley Williams again and by the end of the episode as he finally embraces his inner hero his attitude shifts and everyone see’s it. There’s only one man that can pull it off and it’s great to see there’s none of that passing of the torch to the next generation crap on display. There’s only one king and I hail to him baby because he’s back and just as good as ever.
For those who don’t know the story, it’s easy enough to jump in and play catch up and it’s clear to see the series is a labour of love rather than a soulless cash in. With Raimi stepping away after this pilot though I don’t know how the series will fair without his unique style, but show runner Craig DiGregorio (Reaper, Chuck, Workaholics) is in charge and I’m looking forward to some fresh takes on the long running franchise. Hopefully Raimi will return for an episode here or there like a season finale or the already announced season 2 opener. But so far this show is groovy, very groovy indeed. Tune in and come get some too.
SIDE NOTE: The concept of The Evil Dead even goes as far back as 1979 with Raimi and Campbell’s short film Within the Woods which you can check out on YouTube.
Review by Dylan Boaden.