In the history of Horror and Cinema, few franchises have made the same impact with audiences as Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy. Focusing on the mostly unwilling, imbecile protagonist Ash Williams (played by the B-Movie master and Raimi’s frequent collaborator Bruce Campbell) and those unfortunate enough to be his friends or loved ones, the series remains an oddity in the way that it seamlessly evolved from a pretty standard ‘cabin in the woods’ horror fare to an insane time travelling romp, as Ash makes battle over the course of the three films with the evil deadites. The trilogy is gory and over the top, and yet persistently gets away with it by being amazingly self-aware and inventive with its material, pre-dating the equally iconic and satirical Scream by over a decade. But whilst Scream focuses its narrative attention on the “rules” of horror films and the influence that cinema can have over people, this trilogy primarily satirizes both the macho hero archetype that was predominant in 1980s action cinema and the ridiculous, over the top scenarios presented in cheaply made horror schlock. It is probably this avid self-awareness that has made this series so fun and rewatchable, and arguably the best horror series to ever grace the silver screen, at least for me that is. Over the course of this retrospective review I will probably delve into spoiler territory, so be warned.
If you’re a newcomer to this particular trilogy, you will probably not be able to see what all the fuss is about from the immediate get go. The opening few scenes of The Evil Dead (1981) are pretty safe and generic in comparison to the batsh*t craziness of the rest of the series, as we are introduced to an ordinary group of friends consisting of five Michigan State University Students; Ash Williams, his girlfriend Linda, Ash’s sister Cheryl, their friend Scotty and Scotty’s girlfriend Shelley, on their way for the worst spring break of their lives. In a drawn out opening sequence, the group drives their 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 down country roads and a rickety, broken bridge towards an isolated cabin deep in the Tennessee Hills. This set up for upcoming horror is iconic, and almost the archetypal setup of every horror film made in that particular era. Dumb teenagers in an absurdly spooky and isolated setting… This has become the staple backbone of horror scenarios in everything from Friday the 13th to Scooby Doo. In the fantastic 2012 film Cabin in the Woods, this archetype was cleverly observed and, pertaining that the stereotypical scenarios set up in these horror films are part of a government plot to appease ancient beings that live beneath the Earth. As a modern viewer to watch these early scenes without considering the hundreds of quite sh*t imitations is nigh on impossible, and so it could be easy to think, like myself when I first watched it, what is there about this particular film that makes it unique compared to its similar?
It is towards the middle of the first film that things really start to become more interesting, as we are introduced to the Necronomicon; a Lovecraftian book of the dead found in the cellar of the cabin. When the group listens to a recording of the books incantations, demons and spirits are unleashed, causing a plethora of horrific incidents. This begins with the trees surrounding the cabin suddenly coming to life and attacking Cheryl, in the now infamous tree-rape scene. Over the course of the film the rest of the group are attacked and possessed by the evil spirits one by one until it is only Ash left, as he tries to overcome his cowardly nature to survive the night. In the film’s climax the book is burnt, causing the bodies of Ash’s friends to rapidly disintegrate and decompose. This is one of the many beautifully over the top sequences that the series has to offer, complete with maggots, cockroaches, rotting bodies and blood splatters all created in stop motion claymation that grotesque you’ll never be able to look at Wallace and Gromit in the same way again. The scene also manages to find the perfect balance between funny and scary, and though absurd and insane in its delivery doesn’t feel particularly dated at all. At the films close Ash staggers out of the cabin at the break of dawn, before an unseen demonic force descends upon him as he screams in terror. This film can probably be seen as the birth of Raimi’s signature directorial style, showing the endless torture of his characters, his dark sense of humour and his uniquely bleak endings that he utilises with unrestrained delight in his future films.
Whilst The Evil Dead was played semi-seriously for the most part, Evil Dead II (1987) acts more as a parody sequel, embracing its schlocky premise and the general silliness of the film series with unabashed delight and a wonderfully unique sense of humour. The film also benefits from having a larger budget, allowing even more of the creative puppetry and special effects that made the first film so great. Simplifying and summarising the events of the previous film in its opening scene, Evil Dead II quickly picks up where the first film left off; with Ash being attacked by the spirits and being thrown backwards head first into a tree. After briefly transforming into a deadite and promptly being cured by the breaking dawn, Ash plans his escape from the cursed woods but is hindered by the destroyed bridge, meaning having to spend yet another night in the cabin. Here we really start to see Bruce Campbell breathe as the character of Ash and have fun with it, shifting from the pretty stale and plain characterisation found in the first movie to the wise-cracking, dim-witted, misogynistic fool that we grow to love.
For most of the first act we see Ash completely alone, dealing with a series of escalating problems. This begins with his girlfriend’s dismembered head and headless body both attacking him in a stop motion sequence reminiscent of a Tim Burton film, to him having to remove his own possessed hand with a chainsaw whilst laughing like a maniac, and then finally being driven insane and hallucinating that the furniture in the cabin has come to life. In a different film with a more serious and boring lead actor, thirty minutes with only them on-screen could become a tedious affair. However, Campbell manages to hold his own in these sequences with his brilliant over acting and cartoonish reactions to the ludicrous scenarios presented to him. The highlight of these solo scenes definitely comes from the battle with his possessed hand, where after it is removed via chainsaw it comes back to life and starts scampering around like Thing from The Addams Family. As Ash tries to dispose of the horrible little b**tard, it starts to drift away from Horror into playing out like a comedic, Tom and Jerry skit. Match the evil hand with a dancing lamp and a laughing moose head, and what was once a pretty tame and ordinary horror series quickly becomes a nightmarish, acid trip Pee Wee’s Playhouse. And it’s glorious.
Ash is soon interrupted from his mental anguish by the arrival of a new cast of victims in the cabin; Annie, the daughter of Professor Knowby who discovered the Necronomicon, her boyfriend and fellow scientist Ed, the stock redneck Jake and his foul-mouthed girlfriend Bobby Joe. Like the first film, this new cast are quickly dispatched of by the spirits and demons of the cabin, with many being taken out by the grotesque Henrietta; the wife of Professor Knowby who was transformed into the vile, bloated deadite trapped in the fruit cellar. At the end it is only Ash and Annie left, as they construct Ash the now iconic weapons in his inventory; the chainsaw affixed to his stump and a sawn off shotgun, as Ash utters his now iconic catchphrase; “Groovy!” The final battle is as inventive and fun as you can imagine, as our heroes manage to open a portal in time and space to rid the world of the evil dead once and for all. Of course though for unlucky Ash this happy ending isn’t straightforward, as his evil hand stabs Annie in the back and he is dragged through the portal himself. Here he finds himself in the 1300’s, where he is prophesied as having come to rid the world of the deadites. The film ends with an army of medieval knights hailing to Ash as he screams no in despair. This ending might be one of the best in cinematic history; absolutely crazy, highly original and darkly pessimistic. And luckily for us, it spawned an even crazier sequel.
After the financial success of Raimi’s superhero film Darkman (1990) for Universal Studios, Raimi finally managed to get funding for the final part of his trilogy, Army of Darkness (1992). Although hindered occasionally by being the first of the series to be backed by a major production company, Army of Darkness manages to take all the elements that made the first two films so great and escalates the stakes to such a cheesy extreme that you can’t help but fall in love with it. Set directly after the events of Evil Dead II, Army of Darkness finds Ash trapped and enslaved in the middle ages and about to be thrown into a pit as a sacrifice to the deadites. After fighting and killing the monsters in a riveting, Return of the Jedi style sequence, Ash and his “boomstick” are worshipped and he is celebrated as a hero by the knights of Lord Arthur’s court. After being attacked by the ‘She-Bitch’, Ash departs on a quest to retrieve the Necronomicon, to defeat the deadites and find a spell to bring himself home. Highlighting the comedic aspects of the series more so than ever before, the film relishes it’s one liners and it’s absurd villains, with much of the humour coming from Ash’s own arrogance and idiocy, as well as the fish out of water situations that come from this S-Mart employee and demon killer being stuck with such contrasting supporting characters and in such a peculiar location.
The creature design for this film is certainly the best of the three, with the various recurring villains that show up throughout the film being very distinctive and unique, particularly the goofy skeleton army that show up in the films climatic battle, a tongue-in-cheek homage to classic visual effects artist Ray Harryhausen from Jason and the Argonauts fame. The props and set design are all fun and interesting, with Ash’s new gauntlet and his modified Oldsmobile Delta 88 being personal highlights. Unlike the previous two films, Army of Darkness doesn’t contain too much gore or conventional horror, which is about the one thing that doesn’t make this the best of the entire trilogy. Luckily, the inventiveness with the material and the hilarious script more than make up for it.
Amongst the iconic gore, the wonderful creature design, the cheesy one liners and the fantastic self-awareness, I think what makes this series so enjoyable and so rewatchable is the obvious love that has gone into every aspect of its production. Raimi plays joyfully with his subject material like a child in a toy shop, whilst Campbell clearly relishes the role and the situations that he is put in. The fun that they clearly had spills out of every shot, every one liner and every special effect. And with Ash recently being resurrected in the Starz television series Ash vs. The Evil Dead (2015-present), we are promised even more of this wonderful and bizarre series. This is cinema at it’s most accessible and most fun, in an era where fun and horror could go together hand in hand.
Dir: Sam Raimi
Scr: Sam Raimi, Scott Spiegel and Ivan Raimi
Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Hal Delrich, Betsy Baker, Sarah York, Sarah Berry, Dan Hicks, Kassie Wesley, Richard Domeier and Embeth Davidtz
Prd: Robert Tapert, Alex De Benedetti and Irvin Shapiro
DOP: Tim Philo/ Peter Deming/ Bill Pope
Music: Joseph LoDuca and Danny Elfman
Country: United States
Run time: 85 minutes/ 84 minutes/ 88 minutes
The Evil Dead, Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness are available on DVD and Blu-Ray now.
Ash vs. The Evil Dead Season 1 is out on DVD on the 19th September.