Over the past decade, television has grown increasingly more cinematic, allowing filmmakers and independent artists to tell new, more complex stories on the small screen. Sam Raimi was given the greenlight to spin a new tale in the Evil Dead universe, courtesy of Starz. Fans both anticipated and dreaded Ash vs. Evil Dead, anxious to see Bruce Campbell pick up his boomstick once more, but hesitant because nothing like it had been tried before.
Horror comedy is tricky enough in feature films, forcing creators to find the perfect balance between frightening and funny. Ash vs. Evil Dead would have to strike that balance in each 30 minute episode as well as keep things even throughout the season’s 10 episode run.
In addition to trying to do something unprecedented with a premium-cable channel show, Ash vs. Evil Dead also had to stay true to the characters and stories from the first two films in the trilogy, Evil Dead and Evil Dead II. Due to legal complications with Universal, the events from the third film, Army of Darkness, would be omitted from the show. The franchise’s long-running comic book series, three video games, and 2013 movie reboot would also be left out.
The odds were stacked against Raimi, but somehow he managed to capture the magic of Evil Dead, with the show’s first season earning a 98% Fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes. Several days before the show’s premiere on October 31, 2015, Starz announced that it had greenlit a second season. As spoiler-free as possible, here’s a look at how Raimi made one of the grooviest shows on television.
Hail to the king, baby.
Perhaps the most integral part of the success of Ash vs. Evil Dead is Campbell’s reprisal of the bull-headed, often clueless but ultimately loveable chainsaw-handed protagonist Ash Williams. Thirty years after viewers last saw Ash, he’s still pretty much the same guy, just a little older and a little pudgier. He lives in a trailer where he brings back trashy women that he picks up at bars, and he’s still dumb enough to read a passage from the Necronomicon in an attempt to impress a lady and get laid.
That’s how the whole series is set in motion, by the way. Drunk and horny, our hero notices a poetry tattoo on the wrist of a woman he’s trying to woo and he decides to read her some “poetry” of his own. Then, as they say, all hell breaks loose.
Campbell is clearly enjoying himself and few actors can balance camp, slapstick, and seriousness the way he can. At 57, few actors would be willing to throw themselves around the way Campbell does, using his body like a puppet to invoke laughs. It also takes a great deal of charm to make Ash likeable – the character frequently makes poor and selfish decisions, but it’s hard not to keep cheering for him.
A hero is only as good as his sidekicks.
Pretty much every character besides Ash from the first two Evil Dead films is dead, so Raimi had to come up with a new crew to help our hapless hero save the world. Enter Ray Santiago’s Pablo Simon Bolivar and Dana DeLorenzo’s Kelly Maxwell, two unfortunate suckers who just happen to get sucked into Ash’s apocalyptic adventure.
Pablo is Ash’s co-worker at a chain big-box store where they both work as stockers. He’s innocent and sweet and reveres Ash. He sees greatness in Ash and takes to calling him “El Jefe”, or “the Chief”, based on tales his shaman grandfather told him about a man who would save the world from darkness. Somehow, Pablo always believes in Ash and pushes him to be better.
Kelly also works at the Value Stop store with Pablo and Ash, getting sucked into the mayhem when Deadites attack during the work day. After initial reluctance to join in on Pablo and Ash’s crusade to destroy the Deadites once and for all, Kelly becomes a demon-fighting force to be reckoned with.
While Ash has stayed the same for 30 years and continues to behave like a bonehead throughout the first season, Kelly and Pablo both have decent characters arcs that involve loss, personal growth, and a fair amount of psychological trauma. The characters are well-developed and likeable, plus their interactions with Ash help develop his plotline as well.
Jill Marie Jones also co-stars as Amanda Fisher, a Michigan State Trooper who believes Ash is her partner’s killer. Amanda is a tough and sensible cop who manages to stay level-headed even when faced with a demon summoned from hell in a bookstore, an impressive feat.
Damn, that’s nasty.
One of the best things about the Evil Dead franchise is the buckets of gore, guts, and grossness doled out like Halloween candy. Raimi is fantastic at creating disgusting gags, from the bloated and blood-soaked reanimated corpses of Ash’s friends in the original Evil Dead to a witch vomiting maggots all over a sleeping young woman in Drag Me to Hell.
Thankfully, the folks at Starz let Raimi be as nasty as he wanted, and there’s plenty of disgusting moments designed to both shock and create laughs of discomfort. The makeup effects are fantastic and many of the Deadite designs harken to the style of the original films. The Deadites are gross and decidedly evil-looking, the show’s fights are gloriously bloody, and there’s plenty of dismemberment courtesy of Ash’s chainsaw hand. The show doesn’t get quite as grotesque as the 2013 Evil Dead movie remake, and that’s probably a good thing, because what Raimi has done with the show is just gory enough to be scary without being too disturbing.
The only negative aspect of the monsters and gore in Ash vs. Evil Dead is occasional computer-generated graphics that just don’t work. The CGI looks hokey and silly, especially early in the season, as is the case with a doll that attacks Ash in the first episode. This problem is mostly remedied as the season goes on, however, with more traditional effects taking center stage.
A good antagonist.
Two words: Lucy Lawless.
Reunited on the small screen for the first time since their days on Xena: Warrior Princess, Campbell and Lawless can both carry camp in a way few other actors can. For the majority of the season, Ash stays one step ahead of Lawless’ Ruby Knowby. Ruby is a mysterious woman hunting down the source of the evil unleashed upon the world, and she presents herself as something different to each character she encounters. Regardless of her overall intentions, Ruby wants Ash dead and that makes her the primary antagonist, though she doesn’t get much screen time until a few episodes into the season.
When Ruby and state trooper Amanda team up for a portion of the season, Ruby’s true motives become even less clear. Ruby is rough around the edges but ultimately charming, much like Ash, though she is much more driven and capable. Ruby’s identity isn’t revealed until the penultimate episode of the season, but the payoff is worth the wait.
The pieces were all wedged into place for season one of Ash vs. Evil Dead, mixing gruesome violence with slapstick humor and supernatural evil to create a show with a surprising amount of heart.
Season two has a lot of potential, though a longer time-slot would allow the show to develop ideas more within each episode. Occasionally the episodes end during the middle of an important scene, and while this invites viewers to “tune in next week”, the repetitive cliffhangers make the episodes feel somewhat incomplete at a half-hour runtime.
The second season of Ash vs. Evil Dead debuts sometime later this year.