1981 – 2023
Words: Oliver Innocent.
Evil Dead is a franchise built on blood, sweat, tears and determination. Unusual in a series encompassing four (soon to be five) feature films and a three season TV series, the core creative group of director and producer Sam Raimi, producer and actor Bruce Campbell, and producer Rob Tapert have been involved with every entry.
This lends the Evil Dead saga a consistency in quality, care, and respect of its roots severely lacking in other franchises that continue with no creative input from their original creators.
Following their 1978 proto-Evil Dead short film, Within the Woods, Raimi, Campbell, and Tapert unleashed the original The Evil Dead in 1981. While the familiar setup (remote cabin location, demonic possession, characters picked off one by one) may be nothing new, the execution certainly is.
Raimi’s dynamic, experimental camerawork, the atmospheric sound design (the unnerving, constantly howling wind), and the handmade demon makeup and stop-motion effects set The Evil Dead apart from its contemporaries. Its predilection for pushing the genre’s extremes to the max also helped it stand apart from the crowd. A heady cocktail of uncomfortably drawn-out tension, jolting jump scares, and scenes awash with bloody gore, The Evil Dead remains an intense viewing experience to this day.
The film’s cult status is further bolstered by introducing viewers to B-movie legend, Bruce Campbell’s most iconic character, Ash. While underdeveloped here, Ash would become the face of the franchise in the next instalment, 1987’s Evil Dead II.
Bigger and bolder than its predecessor, Evil Dead II is one of those rare sequels that is as good as, if not better than, the original. A larger budget, more professional acting, and refined effects certainly contribute to this, but it’s the shift in tone that really stands out.
Where the original was a full-blown bloodbath of a horror film shot through with a streak of black humour, Evil Dead II brings this humour to the fore. This radical change from horror to comedy-horror works in the film’s favour. It’s such a different beast that, despite it being almost a remake of the first film, it performs just as well as a standalone entity as it does part of the wider Evil Dead series.
Evil Dead II’s wonderfully silly, gross-out slapstick comedy really allows Campbell’s Ash to shine this time. Carrying the first half of the film almost singlehandedly, Campbell endears Ash to the viewer by allowing him to be the butt of the joke. Apparently, Raimi relished torturing Campbell, finding it amusing to put him through all manner of hell. And it’s hard not to side with Raimi when laughing at Campbell smashing through plates and furniture, fighting his own hand, and getting sprayed with gallons of multi-coloured goop.
Continuing the tradition of torturing Bruce Campbell, 1992’s Army of Darkness sees Ash catapulted back to medieval times, forced to do battle with an army of deadites led by an evil version of himself. This second sequel veers even further towards comedy, jettisoning much of the horror and gore of the previous entries.
Ash, despite his monster-battling prowess, appears even more of a bumbling fool here, thinking himself above the medieval folk, even though it’s his stupidity that unwittingly summons an army of the dead. Like a stylised cartoon character, Ash spouts a plethora of cheesy one-liners (‘Yo, she-bitch, let’s go!’, ‘Hail to the king, baby’) in a pastiche of ‘80s action film machismo a la Schwarzenegger and Stallone.
Army of Darkness proves the series can work outside the confines of both the cabin setting and the horror genre as it turns the Evil Dead into a fish-out-of-water comedy, set against a backdrop of swashbuckling sword and sorcery spectacle. Indeed, some of the film’s biggest influences are the stop-motion epics of Ray Harryhausen, in particular the iconic skeleton battle of 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts serving as the basis for Ash’s climactic confrontation with a legion of skeletal knights.
After Army of Darkness, the closest we got to another Evil Dead (outside of homages like Bloody Muscle Body Builder in Hell AKA The Japanese Evil Dead) was Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell in 2009. Although nothing to do with the franchise, it very much feels like an Evil Dead film in spirit, with its merging of gross imagery, jump scares, and offbeat comedy.
Following a 21-year hiatus, the Evil Dead officially returned with an inevitable remake in 2013. The success of the 2003 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake led to a slew of horror classics being re-booted for a new generation. While many of these new takes failed to live up to the originals, the Fede Alvarez-helmed Evil Dead remake is a more than worthy re-imagining.
The antithesis of Army of Darkness’s goofy humour, Evil Dead sees the series go back to its extreme horror roots. Serious scares and impressive practical gore effects are in-keeping with the spirit of the original, as is the cabin in the woods setting and the book of the dead / demonic possession setup.
However, it’s clear that more modern horror influences have crept in. The jerky, spider-like movements and croaky vocalisations of the deadites are obviously indebted to the evil spirits of J-horror films like The Grudge (unsurprising given that Raimi was such a fan of Ju-On: The Grudge (2002) that he and Tapert produced a remake in 2004). The bloody atrocities of torture porn (the Saw and Hostel films) can also be seen in the lingering, gore-drenched close-ups of nails being extracted from flesh, and stretching, snapping tendons.
Following a fantastic, blood-drenched finale culminating in one of the most impressive chainsaw kills committed to celluloid, Ash appears for an extremely brief post-credits cameo teasing his return to the franchise. Fans didn’t have to wait long as the small-screen spin-off, Ash vs Evil Dead was released in 2015.
Made with real love and respect for fans of the original trilogy, Ash vs Evil Dead blends the gross-out comedy gore of Evil Dead II with the goofy slapstick and one-liners of Army of Darkness. Although sadly cancelled after 3 seasons, the series remains a fitting send-off for Campbell’s Ash.
Outside the main franchise, the Evil Dead has been kept alive with numerous video games (many featuring voice acting from Campbell himself) and comic books. Making-of documentaries and non-fiction books like The Evil Dead Companion and Campbell’s autobiography, If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor, have provided fans with a wealth of behind-the-scenes info.
However, it’s the sheer volume of home video releases, from VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, to 4K Ultra-HD that shows just how enduring the Evil Dead legacy really is. No matter how many copies they already own, fans will continue to rabidly collect each new release. People just can’t get enough of the Evil Dead.
Evil Dead Rise (2023), directed by Lee Cronin, is released in the UK and US on April 21st
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