‘Ash vs. Evil Dead’ Is (Thankfully) More Than Mere Nostalgia

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When Starz announced their television adaptation of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead movies, fans of the series (including this one) were understandably skeptical. After all, it seemed like yet another example of unimaginative execs reanimating and exploiting a long-dormant brand name — in this case, the Raimi-directed, Bruce Campbell-fronted trilogy of comic horror flicks, the most recent of which (Army of Darkness) hit theaters all the way back in 1993. (Campbell cameoed in the 2013 Evil Dead, which was more reboot than continuation.) So it’s with some surprise but great pleasure that I report Ash vs. Evil Dead not only works, but works well, maintaining the spirit of the original films while still succeeding as a stand-alone treat.

Then again, that spirit was a flexible beast to begin with. Their original, 1981 film The Evil Dead (an expansion of an earlier short film called Within the Woods) was primarily an exercise in straight-up horror, but 1987’s sequel/partial remake Evil Dead II took on a decidedly more comic tone, merging the copious blood and gore (the MPAA gave it an X rating) with broad, occasionally slapstick silliness. It was a movie with a sense of humor about itself and its genre, which ultimately endeared it to fans outside that genre.

Raimi took that idea even further in 1993’s Army of Darkness, newly released in a definitive three-disc special edition from Shout Factory. Rather than “Bruce Campbell in Army of Darkness,” the opening titles actually read, “Bruce Campbell vs. Army of Darkness,” which makes it sound like the sort of Abbott & Costello Meet [Insert Universal Horror Monster] movies Universal (Darkness’ distributor) put out in the ‘40s and ‘50s — and, in many ways, it’s true to that spirit. The medieval setting echoes Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the displacement of Campbell’s hip, fast-talking, contemporary coward recalls Bob Hope’s period pictures, and a sequence of Campbell’s Ash battling several tiny versions of himself has the slapstick rhythms (and cruelty) of a Three Stooges short — an influence first glimpsed in Evil Dead II.

But (aside from the unfortunately primitive green-screen effects), Army seems most of its era in its ever-evolving attitude towards its hero. If Ash was seen, in the first two films, as a kind of dopey Everyman doing his best under extraordinary circumstances, Army finds the character playfully subverting and overstuffing the macho leading man tropes — the tough-talking, dumb-quipping Schwarzenegger/Stallone stuff — that were just starting to wear out their welcome.

So it’s interesting that just as Sly, Arnie, and their ilk are spending their retirement years playing aged men of action coaxed into suiting up one more time, Ash vs. Evil Dead both satirizes and embraces that same progression. When we first glimpse our hero, Raimi deploys the same kind of tight, weaponing-up close-ups we’ve seen earlier in the series to show him… straining his gut into a girdle. (“Lookin’ good!” he purrs.) He lives in a shitty trailer home, creeping out to bars and telling lies for quickies in bathrooms; he’s certainly not much of a hero these days, so it’s not much of a surprise to learn he reawakened the evil spirits inside the Book of the Dead while stoned, trying to get laid.

When those spirits begin to descend upon his home and his place of employment (“Value Stop,” which apparently poached him from “S-Mart”?), he must decide whether to run or to fight. Initially, the former is the easy choice — “Whatever I was,” he tells co-worker and pal Pablo (Ray Santiago), “that was a long time ago.” But that doesn’t last long, of course, and if you love this character (and really, who would watch this show if they didn’t?), you’ll certainly get a thrill from watching him back in action, dispensing shotgun blasts and goofy one-liners like, “They’re comin’ in… and it ain’t for Shabbos dinner.”

Sure, the show leans heavily — at least in the pilot — on easy fan service, trotting out iconographic objects (the chainsaw/arm gets quite an entrance), familiar visuals (our old friend, the swooping evil POV shot), beloved dialogue (it should surprise no one that the closing line is “Groovy”), and even footage from the original films (as Ash explains his backstory — though he oddly insists, “For the past 30 years” after the incident at the cabin, “I’ve been hiding out,” which seems to imply they’re ignoring the events of Army? Who knows).

But they’re also not floating on pure nostalgia, which will only go so far. The first Ash-free scene has a pair of cops discovering the book’s first new victim, and the resulting sequence is scary, gory, and suspenseful — an inventive and entertaining pure-Raimi set piece (he directed and co-wrote the pilot). And while the spirit possesses its victims and sics them on the living, as in the original films, we get a sense in this scene of why Starz made this hefty investment; these human forms may be possessed, but they also possess a quality not unlike a certain wildly successful cable zombie program.

That quality, along with the promising supporting characters (including a brief, enigmatic appearance by Lucy Lawless, alum of another Raimi-produced classic), indicate Ash vs. Evil Dead isn’t planning on merely coasting on leftover goodwill. It’s a scrappy, funny, well-executed series, using its beloved narrative and leading man as the jumping-off point into something decidedly contemporary and sharp. And good gravy, what a relief that is.

Ash vs. Evil Dead premieres Saturday night on Starz. Army of Darkness is out on Blu-ray this week.