Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell’s Evil Dead franchise is a multi-media juggernaut that simply will not die, steaming along stronger than ever 35 years after the release of the initial low-budget horror sensation, The Evil Dead. Key elements of the series — the bumbling but intrepid, wisecracking hero; evil book; body-snatching evil spirits; torrential gore; weapon-replacing-missing-limb; sinister cabin in the woods — have become ubiquitous tropes on the horror landscape. The Evil Dead universe consists of the original film trilogy, all starring Bruce Campbell as Ash Williams – The Evil Dead (1981), Evil Dead ll (1987), Army of Darkness (1992); video games; comic books; a musical; film reboot (sans Ash) – Evil Dead (2013); and now a hit television series on Starz – Ash vs. Evil Dead.
The Evil Dead
The legendary first film, The Evil Dead, was conceived by Michigan boyhood friends Raimi and Campbell, barely into their twenties when they shot a short “prototype” film called WIthin the Woods, which was used to solicit funds for the feature-length film that became The Evil Dead. Written and directed by Raimi on a budget of $90,000 ($375,000 including eventual distribution and marketing costs) the story plops five college students on spring break down in a remote rustic cabin in the woods. Poking around, they find a creepy cellar, an ancient anthropomorphic book, and a reel-to-reel tape recorder that when played reveals the fate of the previous occupant of the cabin, a Dr. Knowby, whose recorded ancient Sumerian incantations unleash a horde of demons and evil spirits that possess everything in sight with increasingly cataclysmic and gruesome results. Poor benighted Ash is forced to traumatically dispatch his sister, his girlfriend, and his best friend after each becomes possessed, leading to an extreme reluctance to form lasting relationships because you never know who you are going to have to dismember next.
Though notably low on production values, the film becomes a psychedelic whirlwind of fast tracking shots, unseen menace, buckets of blood and body parts, and shocking moments of uncertainty as the possessed revert back to replicas of themselves and beg for mercy. Despite the small budget, an extremely long and difficult shoot at a real cabin in the woods of Tennessee, and the youth of all involved, the film was a smash hit at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival, generated near-universal critical acclaim including a rave from Stephen King, made over $2.4 million at the box office worldwide, put Raimi and Campbell on the map, and launched a media empire.
Evil Dead ll
Evil Dead ll — with a budget nearly ten times the size of the original — continues on from where The Evil Dead left off after a modified recapitulation of the original film that includes only Ash and Linda visiting the fateful cabin, with Ash having to dispatch Linda after she becomes possessed. New characters, including Annie, the daughter of Dr. Knowby, her archaeologist boyfriend, and a pair of bumpkins make their way to the cabin, where hell continues to cut loose in a similarly bloody but more overtly humorous manner.
EDll includes two great possessed-Ash scenes; Ash under attack by the biting, severed head of Linda; Ash under attack by the headless body of Linda; Ash under attack by the possessed body of Dr. Knowby’s wife, Henrietta; the cabin and all the objects in it coming to life and cackling madly at Ash; Ash having to amputate his possessed hand after it is bitten by Linda’s head; and, iconically, Ash fashioning a chainsaw prosthetic in lieu of his severed hand, all the better to dismember you with, my dear. Ash finally puts a messy end to possessed-Henrietta’s reign of terror as Annie chants an incantation to send the evil force back from whence it came. Unfortunately, the incantation opens a vortex that sucks Ash, his Olds, and a number of other nearby objects back to the year 1300.
Army of Darkness
Army of Darkness again continues the action right where the previous film let off, and continues the evolution of Campbell’s Ash character into a more traditional action hero as he, trapped in medieval times, battles an assembled army of the dead in an effort to return to his own place and time. Again directed and co-written by Raimi, Army of Darkness also features makeup and creature effects by future The Walking Dead majordomo Greg Nicotero.
As Ash lands in 1300, he is captured and his “boomstick” shotgun and chainsaw are confiscated by Lord Arthur’s men, who suspect him to be an agent for Duke Henry, with whom Arthur is at war. Ash is chained along with the captured Henry and taken to a castle where he is thrown into a pit where he fights off a Deadite. Now hailed as a hero, Ash regains his weapons and takes a fancy to the maiden Sheila. He is told he must find and retrieve the magical Necronomicon Ex-Mortis book in order to return to his own time. A great scene has Ash fleeing from an evil force in a haunted wood, ducking into a windmill to hide, and shattering a mirror in the process. The reflections of Ash in the many shards of glass turn into miniature evil clones that assail him, with one growing to full size, battling Ash to the death.
When Ash finds the book he must recite the classic phrase “Klaatu barada nikto” (originally in The Day the Earth Stood Still) in order to use the book safely, but he screws it up — “Klaatu… verata… n… Necktie. Nectar. Nickel. Noodle” — thereby resurrecting an army of the dead led by Ash’s now-undead clone. As Sheila is captured and turned into a Deadite, Ash leads Arthur’s men to victory against the dead, brings peace between Arthur and Henry, and returns home via the book and the magic words, which he again manages to screw up.
Ash vs. Evil Dead
The TV series Ash vs. Evil Dead, starring Bruce Campbell as an aging but still game Ash Williams, launches its second season on Starz in October, and carries on the tradition in an even bloodier (if possible) and more hilarious manner with impressive production values. The show is blessed with a surprisingly poignant undertone as Ash faces the incongruities of a feckless frat boy and Lothario in deep middle age, reluctantly forced into heroism.
Ash’s emotional isolation — brought on by the traumas of the first two films — is challenged as two young apprentices (Ray Santiago, Dana Delorenzo) and a mysterious warrior (Lucy Lawless) chip away at the fortress he has understandably built around himself (“Everyone you care about dies,” taunts a Deadite) until he finally admits them into a makeshift “family” united to contain and destroy the evil once again let loose from the dreaded Necronomicon Ex-Mortis book.
Check out the trailer below for a sneak peek at madness to come in Season 2 as Ash returns to Michigan to confront evil once again.
by Sam Raimi [Lions Gate]
by Sam Raimi [Universal Studios]