31 Days of Hell: The Evil Dead Trilogy

With Ash vs. Evil Dead ready to premiere on Starz tomorrow night,
it's time to look back at the epic horror-comedy trilogy that started it all!

If you're from Michigan and you haven't seen The Evil Dead, that's kind of like living on a yacht and never seeing the water. The original movie and its subsequent sequels embody -- and embolden -- the very spirit of indie filmmaking. Only someone completely out of his damn mind could make something so memorably off the wall, and keep returning to that crazy well to draw so much fresh water. It's a testament to the enduring legacy of an oddball director and his most badass creation that we are still talking about them generations later. Not only that, but we are getting a sequel from the original creators in the form of a cable television series. Ash is back. Now gimme some sugar, baby.

The Evil Dead (1981)
Sam Raimi is now a legendary filmmaker known for the Spider-Man trilogy and unsung triumphs like A Simple Plan, but he was only twenty years old when cameras began rolling on his first feature. Occupying an abandoned cabin in rural Tennessee, Raimi and his insane crew of 37 deadites bunkered down in the freezing cold to create low budget cinema history. The ingenuity employed in the production of this funhouse still boggles the mind of many aspiring artists. When people talk about "genius borne of necessity," this is it.

You need quite the bag of tricks when your setup is so basic, but many of the best stories ever told are the most basic. In this instance, we have a group of young attractive wankers including Ash (Bruce Campbell), his girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker), his sister Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) and two other actors using their porn names to avoid a tongue lashing from the Screen Actors Guild for appearing in a non-union film with tree rape. Because if you're gonna have tree rape in your movie, it better be a union job. They journey across the world's most poorly constructed bridge to stay in a remote cabin that time forgot, only to discover that whoever lived there before them was a big fan of The Hills Have Eyes, buck hunting, and demon resurrection. I suppose we all have our hobbies.

The introductory passages of The Evil Dead are indicative of the slow-burn style of horror that was common in the late 70s. What makes these early scenes work is the ominous feel of the cabin location, Sam Raimi's ridiculous sense of humor, and the likability of the cast. Most of them are simply sauce for the goose, and we know it, but that doesn't mean they don't have personality. For example, we learn that Cheryl likes to draw clocks and Scott's girlfriend likes to take her top off. We are given just enough "character development" to get a lay of the land right before Sam Raimi pulls the rip cord and guns the engine.

Okay, I finally earned my red wings.
 I need a shower.
The manic energy of The Evil Dead is one of the main reasons it got so much attention, and why it continues to engross -- and gross out -- audiences almost 35 years later. Once the first demonic possession takes place, there is hardly a moment's breath that isn't interrupted by something making you scream out of fear or laughter. By the time we've seen one complete disembowelment, Raimi and company keep the blood pouring down the screen -- literally. The effect is hilarious, disgusting, disturbing, exhilarating. Nowadays, horror comedies are common place but in 1981, The Evil Dead was in a class all by itself. Sam Raimi doesn't get enough credit for the delicate juggling of tone he pulled off at such a young age.

Over three decades later, the film certainly shows its age in terms of certain technical aspects, but that is all part of the charm, and The Evil Dead more than makes up for it because of how it continues to marvel in other ways. The camera work on display is truly inspired, especially in the explosive third act where Bruce Campbell is center stage for all the blood-soaked terrors Raimi can throw at him. It's in those moments that people who hadn't ran out of the theater or puked in their popcorn must have realized they were witnessing the emergence of a truly singular talent. Younger audience members might peg certain aspects as hokey. They would be right. But that's also part of the joke.


Evil Dead II (1987)
"What would you say if I told you, 'I haven't seen Evil Dead II, yet.'"
"I would say you're a cinematic idiot, and I feel sorry for you."
- dialogue from High Fidelity

I would just leave it at that, but there's too much great stuff to talk about when you start talking about Evil Dead II. Unlike most of the sequels to classic horror films of the era, Evil Dead II is not a cheap cash-in on a cult phenomena, and it's not a rehash of everything that's already been done before. This is balls-out unrestrained imagination, fully loaded and charged with a double dose of bat-shit insanity, multiplied to the third power and divided by pure testosterone. Every dude who loves movies loves Evil Dead II. Hell, I'd have sex with it if my junk could fit in the disc.

One of the big questions you hear about Evil Dead II is whether or not it's actually a sequel, because the opening scenes recap most of what happened in the first film with some details tweaked or flat-out missing. In reality, the decision to "remake" the original for the first ten minutes came down to copyrights. Renaissance Pictures didn't have the rights to distribute footage from The Evil Dead, so new footage had to be shot. If you ask Bruce Campbell about this, he'll tell you that if you think Ash is stupid enough to go back to that cabin after all he went through, and with a new girlfriend also named Linda (Denise Bixler), well... you'd probably be right. 

Ash is kind of an idiot. It just so happens that even when he's surrounded by people who should know more about what's going on than he does, they make him look like a prime candidate for MENSA. This time around we get an anthropologist couple chaperoned by a couple of inbred country bumpkins. They are all caricatures, and just like before, that's entirely the point. Sam Raimi's script (co-written with Scott Spiegel) isn't interested in fleshing out characters. If we spent too much time on that, it would break the flow. When you've got geysers of blood shooting out of walls and an emaciated corpse with saggy tits spinning under a tilt-a-whirl Barbie head in front of a log cabin that's all but held together by fog, complex people with back stories and white people problems would just seem out of place.

Who's laughing now?
What's in place is close to perfection. Sam Raimi's love of cartoons, The Three Stooges, and his special brand of scenery-chewing macabre all come together to create a deformed love child fueled by unbridled manic energy. Yes, there exists a film where you can get creeped out by a man being choked by his mirror image just one minute before you see his hand go berserk and smash dishes over his head. Somehow, all of this gels together and never gets repetitive or boring. The scares and laughs all balance together with full throttle pacing, due in no small part to the great comic performance from Bruce Campbell.

This is when Ash officially became a cult icon. When your primary audience is comprised of movie nerds like myself, it's not hard to see why. He begins as a hopeless romantic too weak to lift a book shelf. He transforms himself out of survival instinct and eventually becomes the ultimate badass with catchphrases worthy of Schwarzenegger. He may be a dolt, but when the eponymous Evil Dead start swallowing souls without the courtesy of a reach-around, he knows how to handle the business. After all, there's no demonic possession that a sawed-off shotgun and a chainsaw won't cure. 


Army of Darkness a.k.a. The Medieval Dead (1992)
It's an unwritten rule that a film series is not supposed to get better. Things are supposed to get stale, repetitious, and lose their originality. That's not to say that there aren't great sequels, even some that surpass the quality of their original counterparts. But for every Terminator 2, there is also a Godfather Part III. Fresh off the success of Darkman, Sam Raimi decided it was time to break some more rules and resurrect the Evil Dead. Only this time we're in the 14th century, with sword and sorcery and superstition in full swing. The evil force that roams the woods is so confident of its dominion over the world that it freely roars around in broad daylight. Fortunately for the primitive screwheads of Arthur's kingdom, not all men from the future are loud mouth braggarts. Just Ash, baby, just Ash.

With Evil Dead II, Raimi and Campbell had perfected the horror-comedy. How do you possibly improve on that? You can't. So you make something completely new and different with just enough of the familiar that the audience feels at home. Transporting Ash back to the Dark Ages with his shotgun and chainsaw in tow was nothing less than a stroke of genius. As a result, Army of Darkness is an arguable candidate for one of the top ten most awesomely dumb fun movies ever made. It's the polar opposite of many films made during that early 90s psychosis where studios were attempting to cut budgets by transplanting medieval figures into present time, i.e. Beastmaster 2. It's just more fun when you identify with the fish out of water instead of the water around the fish.

This remains the one and only big studio release where Bruce Campbell was ever the leading man. How this is, I have no idea. The man clearly has the chops to pull off action, comedy, and as we learned in Bubba Ho-tep, he's capable of finding the right dramatic note in the most absurd concoctions. As Ash, not only has Campbell become an immortalized cult figure, but his delivery of one-liners that are for-the-ages hilarious has inspired countless action stars in his wake. If you doubt the power of this performance, watch Army of Darkness, and then go play Duke Nukem. Case closed.

You all know the line. 
Who needs a caption?
Bruce would be enough of a reason to recommend the film, but Sam Raimi isn't done exploring the reaches of his talent, either. In addition to a new and beautifully realized setting, Army of Darkness is a glowing love letter to the bygone age of Ray Harryhausen stop motion animation, as well as a testament to the power of practical makeup and rear projection visual effects. All of these older techniques amp the cheese factor to 11, and it befits the cartoon atmosphere of the film flawlessly. For all his badassery, Ash really is a live action cartoon -- built to take punishment and dish it out just as heavy. When you take the entire trilogy as a piece, it's like a long Three Stooges episode where the blood and guts stand in for coconut custard pies. That might sound like diminutive praise but it's not. There are very few comedies produced today that can even hold a candle to The Three Stooges or The Evil Dead.

It wouldn't be fair to close out this retrospective without paying tribute to an unsung hero of this series who gets overlooked despite showing an incredible amount of artistic growth over the course of three films. Hell, they even spelled his name wrong on the poster. Composer Joseph LoDuca's music for the series is essential for each film's impact while never striving too much for effect. Coming from the modest beginnings of low budget synthesizers and slowly building his repertoire, LoDuca came out swinging with a hugely adventurous and swashbuckling score that's an ideal accent for Raimi's goofy vision of the Medieval Dead. The orchestrations sweep us away on a wave of old fashioned fun, and play a pivotal role in solidifying Ash into our collective consciousness as one of the definitive action heroes of all time. Hail to the king, baby.


- Blake O. Kleiner

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