In Monitor this week, Aaron Yap takes a look at The Evil Dead’s first foray into television. Almost 35 years after the franchise made its cult classic debut, has the magic survived the move to the small-screen?
Those who defend Hollywood’s obsession with churning out sequels like to reassure you that sequels don’t – and can’t – hurt the originals. The original film will still be there, untarnished, if you wish to rewatch it. But sequels can warp your perception of the originals.
For example, Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead. This influential low-budget horror from 1981 spawned two film sequels: Evil Dead II (1987) and Army of Darkness (1992). The reputation of the Evil Dead series as tongue-in-cheek horror-comedies tend to be coloured by the memories of these sequels.
They made a wisecracking cult hero out of Bruce Campbell. As the chiseled-jawed, chainsaw-arm-wielding Ash Williams, he flexed his physical comedy chops as he battled demonic forces in the cartoonish Three Stooges homage Evil Dead II and the time-travelling, Middle Ages-set, Harryhausen-worshipping Army of Darkness (all totally fine by me – I have a special place for those films in my heart).
However, the first Evil Dead, though not lacking in black humour, came from a different place. Tonally, it was a pure, relentless, assaultive exercise in supernatural terror. Aesthetically, it was born of the same guerilla-style, shoestring-budgeted metier as other seminal horror debuts of the Vietnam era: George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972), Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).
There was nothing slick about The Evil Dead. The grainy texture of its 16mm cinematography and the nauseatingly goopy practical effects added a layer of unsettling despair no big budget money can buy. Rather than dropping his now-signature quips, Campbell spent much of the running time in a constant state of sheer bewilderment and fright.
Any horror fan hoping for a return to the hand-crafted grittiness of the original Evil Dead definitely won’t find it in Starz’s polished but entertaining Ash vs Evil Dead, a shot-in-NZ sequel series that picks up the story 30 years after Evil Dead II left off while having to forget, due to rights issues, that Army of Darkness ever happened. Since continuity between the films has always been tenuous at best – you can more or less watch each one on their own and know what is going on – this isn’t such a big deal.
Depending on how you view it, Ash vs Evil Dead can either serve as a continuation of the series or a fresh reboot that newcomers can jump into and follow (there’s a convenient recap in episode 1 with scenes from Evil Dead 1 & 2, but don’t worry, we’re not talking The Wire-level back story here).
The question is whether the Evil Dead franchise will thrive in a 10-episode serialised TV format (it’s already been renewed for a second season). Unlike two recent movie-to-TV resurrections of iconic horror properties, Hannibal and Bates Motel, Ash vs Evil Dead doesn’t have strong character work to mine material from. Sure, Ash is a charismatic, appealingly goofy protagonist to throw into gory, action-packed situations, but he lacks the psychological complexity of a Hannibal Lecter or Norman Bates that might sustain long-form engagement. Set-piece-oriented shows without the anchor of three-dimensional characters can get repetitive fast (The Strain is particularly guilty of this). There’s a little bit of that formulaic wear – plot set-up, a handful of blood-soaked action sequences, rinse and repeat – already showing in the first three episodes of Ash vs Evil Dead.
Thankfully, the series, developed by Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi and Tom Spezialy, seems to be aware of this, or at least has found a way around the issue. Barring the pilot, each episode is an easily digestible half-hour. Exposition is dispensed with quickly and the stuff that bugs you doesn’t hang around for long. The show avoids outstaying its welcome.
Campbell, who has never found another role as career-defining as Ash, appears re-energised, delighted to be strapping on the ol’ trusty chainsaw and blasting his “boomstick” once again. Though “old, greying, 30 pounds overweight”, Ash reminds us what was missing from Fede Alvarez’s 2013 technically proficient but boringly straight Evil Dead remake: leather-jacket-wearing, rock ‘n’ roll, deadite-slaying fun.
He hasn’t lost his gift for tension-diffusing one-liners (“My heart is jackhammering like quarterback on a prom night”), nor his womanising, politically incorrect ways, referring to new sidekick Pablo (Ray Santiago) as a “smooth, brown Einstein”. Earlier on he can be seen sleazing up to Kelly (Dana DeLorenz), the new cashier at his dead-end discount store job (sharp-eyed viewers will note that he’s working at Value Stop, not the S-Mart of Army of Darkness).
They’re an oddball crew for sure (Pablo’s suggested name for their team-up: Ghostbeaters) but one that’s growing on me. Less interesting is Amanda Fisher (Jill Marie Jones), the dull Michigan State cop who’s snooping around to find out who/what killed her partner (Mike Edwards, last seen with a rotting cock in I Survived a Zombie Holocaust). It’s clear her function is to act as straight-laced foil, but this kind of Generic Network Police Drama 101 characterisation sticks out like a sore thumb in the Evil Dead universe and sucks the life out of the show whenever she has to play plot catch-up.
I’m curious to see where Lucy Lawless’s character, who’s pursuing Ash, will fit into the grand scheme of things. We haven’t seen much of her yet but if she’s going to be doing crazy things like interrogating corpses – as she does at the start of episode three – there’s a good chance we can expect more wacky shit from her.
If you’re fond of the sloppy practical effects of those earlier films, the CGI here is a bummer, but somewhat unavoidable, given that their time-consuming nature isn’t conducive to tight TV shooting schedules. But if it’s quantity of effects you want, then Ash vs Evil Dead does not skimp in that department. Raimi and team have taken advantage of the creative latitude Starz have allowed, and supplied some of most over-the-top splatter this side of The Walking Dead. It happens frequently enough that you wonder if Ash should even bother cleaning himself up after each gut-strewn, head-severing skirmish.
Early reviews of AMC’s martial arts drama Into the Badlands are rather discouraging, mildly praising the action and little else… The Bastard Executioner has been cancelled by its own creator Kurt Sutter, who took out ads in Hollywood trades to announce it (“The audience has spoken and, unfortunately, the word is ‘meh’”)… Fox is developing Haunted, a true-life exorcism series based on Bob Cranmer book’s Demons of Brownsville Road… next up for Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley is an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle into a limited series for FX… Looking forward to Vinyl, Terence Winter’s new HBO show set in the music scene of ‘70s New York. The trailer looks great…
Ash vs Evil Dead airs on THE ZONE Sundays at 9.30pm
Love Lucy Lawless and Bruce Campbell? Click below to watch them in Xena: Warrior Princess
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