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.