An EVIL DEAD Retrospective

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The Evil Dead series has long been a fan favorite for its thrills, chills, and “splatstick” humor. One could even argue that the Evil Dead series is the Star Wars of horror films. Both series have very loyal fan-bases that never seem satisfied despite the wealth of product available to them. In Evil Dead’s case, there have been endless copies of the trilogy available on home video, three console video games, a comic book series that at one point crossed over with Marvel Zombies, toys, and even a remake of the first film. So, while it has been 22 years since the last true installment graced the screens, there has been no shortage of its iconic character Ashley J. Williams.

Yet none of this was enough, as fans have clamored for another filmed adventure with Ash. After years of waiting, Ash returns in the new television series Ash vs. Evil Dead on Starz. Will this show quench the thirst of gorehounds everywhere, or will it be the Evil Dead series’ Phantom Menace?

In honor of Ash vs. Evil Dead, let’s look back to the series of films that started it all. There won’t be much in the way of plot recaps, because the odds are high that you’ve seen the films and know them by heart if you’re reading an article titled “Evil Dead Trilogy Retrospective”. I’ll also share my personal history with the series.

The Evil Dead

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Originally titled Book of the Dead, The Evil Dead was a passion project for a young Sam Raimi, Robert Tapert and Bruce Campbell. The three friends from Michigan grew up together and shot a lot of Super-8 films during their spare time. Sam Raimi wanted to make a feature, and he realized that you could shoot a horror movie for relatively little money but with a good return on the investment. Sam studied the genre intently and then created a thirty minute short titled Within the Woods as proof that he could successfully shoot a horror flick. The trio then bought the finest suits no money could buy and began showcasing the film for doctors and lawyers in an attempt to finance their first feature-length film.  The gambit worked, and the group was able to shoot The Evil Dead over the course of a few years on a shoestring budget.

After the film was completed, no distributor would touch it. They thought the movie was too gory and too brutal. It wasn’t until Stephen King watched it at the Cannes Film Festival and called it “the most ferociously original film of the year” that the film was picked up for distribution by New Line Cinema.

The Evil Dead was a modest success in its original run, despite its release with an X rating (the 1980’s equivalent of an NC-17). It launched the career of its lead actor Bruce Campbell, and its director Sam Raimi.

Evil Dead II

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After the success of The Evil Dead, Sam Raimi directed Crimewave, which was co-written by Raimi and the Coen brothers. The film was a commercial and critical flop. This failure led Raimi to revisit the Evil Dead franchise.

Sam Raimi did not want to repeat himself by making a sequel that was the same in substance and tone, so he originally drafted a sequel titled The Medieval Dead. This essentially would have been the story of Army of Darkness, but the proposed sequel was deemed too expensive. To conserve costs, Raimi set the sequel back at the cabin as a direct continuation of the first film. The rights to footage from the first film was unavailable, so Raimi reshot footage from the first movie and streamlined the story by retelling the tale in the first five minutes of Evil Dead II. Instead of 5 friends visiting the cabin, it’s now only Ash and his girlfriend Linda.

This retelling has confused many casual Evil Dead viewers into thinking that Ash was stupid enough to go back to the same cabin with a different girlfriend. Still others view Evil Dead II as a remake of the first movie. The film is in fact a direct continuation. There is a specific moment in the film where Evil Dead II truly begins after the events of the first film: the POV Evil Spirit rushes through the cabin and zooms directly at Ash.

The true difference between The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II is the tone. The series pivoted from a true horror film with some unintentional comedy to a horror-comedy. Watching this movie is the cinematic equivalent of watching The Three Stooges on Acid, or akin to a horror retelling of Elmer Fudd chasing Bugs Bunny. For the majority of the film, it’s a one-man show, and Bruce Campbell’s animated face sells every minute of it. Ash shifts from the scared “Final Girl” character of the first movie into a legitimate badass with a groovy chainsaw for a hand by the end of the second movie.

Evil Dead II is a perfect film. Its inspired lunacy clearly influenced countless films thereafter, including Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive.

Army of Darkness

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Army of Darkness shifted the series even further by removing the horror and turning the movie into a Jason and the Argonauts-inspired adventure comedy with horror elements. The movie was bestowed a much larger budget than the previous two movies in no small part due to the success of Sam Raimi’s previous film for Universal Studios, Darkman.

With a larger budget, Raimi was able to utilize the medieval setting originally conceived for the second film. Ash is sent back into time to King Arthur’s Court, where he must bumble his way through defeating the terrors of the Deadites. Ash further evolves in the series into an incompetent yet deadly capable hero that is just as likely to throw a one-liner as he is to dismember a Deadite.

Since this was a studio-backed production, this would be the first Evil Dead film to receive an R-Rating instead of the X Rating. Universal actually wanted Army of Darkness to be PG-13.  Despite the relative lack of gore, the film studio had to fight the MPAA to avoid an NC-17 and the movie was bestowed an R.

Sam Raimi fought with Universal during the production of the film, and he lost final cut. The film originally ended with Ash drinking too many drops of the magical potion, thereby bypassing the present and awakening in a post-apocalyptic future. The studio deemed this ending to be too unhappy, and they demanded the theatrical ending. There are at least four different cuts of the film available, all of which are collected on Scream Factory’s excellent Blu-Ray release that comes out this month.

Army of Darkness was released in theaters with little to no fanfare, and was a box office bomb.

The Road to Cultural Zeitgeist

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There was a time when it was difficult to find copies of the Evil Dead trilogy outside of video rental stores. Army of Darkness was the film that most people knew about since it was a studio release, but many of the people who watched it had no idea that it was the third chapter in a series of films. There was a growing fanbase of individuals that sought the films out and recommended the movies to anyone that would listen to them.  If you were watching Evil Dead or Evil Dead II prior to the mid-90’s, the odds were that you were watching a pirated VHS bootleg with terrible picture quality.

Then in the mid-to –late 90’s, a proper Evil Dead VHS was released. It was a hit, and the floodgates were soon open. Thereafter, dozens of copies of the series became available in every format imaginable. What was once a cult series became a mainstream multimedia juggernaut.

Personal History

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I watched Army of Darkness at the theater when I was in the fifth grade. I distinctly remember seeing the TV ads and thinking that the movie looked amazing. I begged my older sister to take me, and she acquiesced after the 30th time I asked.

I couldn’t stop laughing throughout the film, and all I did the rest of the year was tell my friends about an awesome movie that they weren’t going to be allowed to watch. It touched a nerve in me: here was a movie that had horror elements but wasn’t exactly scary, it was the gateway movie to my love of horror films.

I had no idea that there were two more movies in the series until I was in the sixth grade. I was reading a comic book adaptation of Darkman, and the notes at the end of the book discussed the Evil Dead Trilogy. I was shocked to find out there were two more movies, and I was determined to watch them. Little did I know what I was going to subject myself to.

My awesome mom drove me around my hometown for hours as we went to every video store looking for The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II. We were able to find both movies after several hours at different locations. With videos in hand, I put the VHS of The Evil Dead in at 9PM, by myself. I was expecting Army of Darkness Redux. What I got was something else entirely.

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That movie was truly frightening to a sixth grade boy. I pulled my blanket over my eyes and watched in horror as the movie played out through to the end. How could this possibly be related to Army of Darkness? I didn’t see the unintentional humor. All I saw was the terror. Needless to say, I could not sleep that night.

I waited for five days before I watched Evil Dead II. I was afraid I was going to subject myself to another movie that would scare the bejeezus out of me. I finally gathered the courage to watch it, and fell in love at first sight.

Evil Dead II was (and is) the perfect blend of bizarre, zany horrific lunacy that immediately spoke to me. In my English class at the time, we had to spend the first five minutes of every class writing a story based on a prompt. I always wrote something scary that ended up being goofy. Evil Dead II represented exactly the tone of the stories that I would write in class, and I was hooked.

I paid the video store clerk $50 bucks for their beat-down copy of Evil Dead II, since the movies were not readily available at the time. Any time a friend came over to my house, I made them watch the movie. I literally watched Evil Dead II at least once a month from the first time I saw it in the sixth grade until my early 20’s. At one point I would even make my girlfriends watch the movie. If they didn’t get the humor, I knew our relationship was in trouble.

The Evil Dead series is what inspired me to get a Bachelor’s degree in Radio-Television-Film.  While I now have a professional career outside of the film industry, I still have a desire and a passion to produce a horror film within the next twenty years. It’s actually been several years since I’ve watched any entry in the series until recently. Life catches up, and there are far too many movies to watch and far too little time to watch them once you have a career and a family.  Yet I would not be who I am today without these movies.

Needless to say, I’m anxiously awaiting Ash vs. Evil Dead. Here’s hoping it doesn’t suck.

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*Look out for Sammy’s Ash Vs. Evil Dead episode recaps each and every week after the show premieres on Starz on Halloween night!

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About Author

Sammy Lucario

Sammy Lucario is a fan of genre cinema. When he's not watching movies, he's either turning his kids into film nerds or utilizing his Juris Doctorate to his advantage.