Sunday, November 1, 2015

Hail to the King: Ash vs. Evil Dead

Bruce Campbell (centre), with Ray Santiago and Dana Delorenzo, in Starz's Ash vs. Evil Dead.

“They're comin' in… and it ain't for Shabbos dinner.”
                  – Ash, in the premiere episode of Ash vs. Evil Dead.
Full disclosure: I began thinking about this piece months ago, right after the trailer for Starz's Ash vs. Evil Dead dropped in July. That trailer appeared at roughly the same time as the one for ABC's The Muppets, and both generated in me a bittersweet mixture of celebration and melancholy – because it turns out that before something can make you feel young again, first you have to be involuntarily reminded to feel old. The year was 1988 and, still a pup of 17 years, I had just arrived at college. My very new friend (and currently now one of my oldest) held up an already-battered video copy of Evil Dead II and soundly declared it to be the best movie he'd ever seen. The film had been in theatres the year before, but I had never heard of it. Perhaps it hadn't ever made its way up to Montreal, but even if it had, I doubt I would have gone to see it. Even as a teenager I was already a pop culture purist – how could I see a sequel before I'd seen the original? Most damningly, it was obviously a horror film, and, 80s monster romps like Gremlins and Critters notwithstanding, gore had never been my taste. (It still isn't.) Matt made a compelling case however, and I grudgingly sat down to watch it. My aesthetic sensibilities have never been the same.

Evil Dead II – with its low-budget special effects, over-the-top acting and cheesy dialogue, and Three Stooges meets Japanese horror movie qualities – was a revelation. For years I believed it to be the epitome of low culture perfection: it knew exactly what it wanted to be and it achieved it with a style and energy all its own. Cartoonishly gory as it was (the Evil Dead films are more Monty Python than Eli Roth in their use of blood), it awakened me forever to the unadulterated pleasures of gleeful camp and ironic self-awareness. (As a young man with creative ambitions of my own, I long felt a deep envy for Sam Raimi and company at what they'd accomplished so early in their respective careers.) Almost 30 years later, Evil Dead II still sits atop my list of favourite films of all time. I've rewatched it more than practically any movie, even Night of the Hunter (1955) which until recently I would screen almost every Halloween eve. That first viewing also set me off on a three-decade Sam Raimi/Bruce Campbell habit – both of whom thankfully have had remarkable and entertaining careers in the interval, even excluding their collaboration on the third Evil Dead film, 1992's Army of Darkness. Raimi would later helm such mainstream Hollywood successes like 1998's A Simple Plan and the rebooted Spider-Man films, and Campbell would make a healthy living harnessing the hammy energy he perfected as Ash in the Evil Dead movies. With equal enthusiasm, I would tune in to Bruce in his recurring role as Autolycus in the Sam Raimi/Rob Tapert-produced TV series of the 90s, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess; to his title roles in single-season wonders like Fox's The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. and the tragically underseen Revolution-era romp Jack of All Trades (which Tapert produced on the heels of Xena); and his more recent co-starring turn on Burn Notice – not to mention some B-movie gems like the Elvis-themed zombie film Bubba Ho-Tep (2002). And last night, with the premiere of Ash vs. Evil Dead on Starz, I sat down to watch our one-handed working class hero return to fight off evil with smarmy comments and a chainsaw. Fortunately, the whole gang returns with him – and it looks like we are in for one heckuva ride.

The Deadites have a new enemy: Lucy Lawless in Ash vs. Evil Dead.

Co-written by Sam and Ivan Raimi (along with series co-creator Tom Spezialy), directed by Raimi himself, and with Campbell slipping seamlessly back into Ash's persona, the first hour hit all the right notes. At the end of Army of Darkness, we watched Ash return to his workaday job stocking shelves at a local box store; in the meantime the store has changed, but Ash hasn't. Decades older and many pounds heavier, Ash is a middle-aged stock boy with a skill-set better suited to fighting off demons than to a rising career in retail. He lives in a gritty vintage Airstream (reminiscent of the one Campbell's alter ego inhabited in 2007's My Name is Bruce) and spends his nights wooing bar vixens with a wave of his prosthetic hand ("It's rosewood.") and bogus tales of heroism (stories that, ironically, pale dramatically to the reality of his adventures). Still, Ash's bulletproof machismo remains intact – as does his unfortunate habit of inadvertently awakening untold forces of evil in order to impress a girl.

The episode also introduces us to a new array of characters, including two young co-workers, Pablo (Ray Santiago) and Kelly (Dana Delorenzo) who will no doubt make up Ash's reluctant team of demon fighters. We also meet Amanda Fisher (Jill Marie Jones), a cop whose brief encounter with a Deadite has left her bloodied, disgraced, and doubting her own sanity. (The character of Fisher calls to mind the equally manic Sleepy Hollow, which is perhaps no coincidence: Jones herself had a recurring role on the Fox series as Captain Irving's ex-wife.) And most tantalizing, we get the briefest glimpse of Lucy Lawless (Xena, and also executive producer Rob Tapert's wife of 17 years). Lawless is on board for the whole 10-episode first season, but so far we've only been teased with her role in the story although she seems to have her own dark history with the Evil.

And what happens in front of the screen is as exciting as what is happening behind it. Raimi's return to the world of the Deadites is pitch perfect: from the dramatic shifts in tone as the story goes from high comic lunacy to creepy neck-twisting horror, to the signature camerawork that still makes Evil Dead II some of Raimi's best direction of his career. (Decades of progress in special effects could not improve on the low-budget creepiness of the camera-as-evil-itself conceit of those early films.) Joseph LoDuca – who scored all three Evil Dead movies, worked with Tapert on Starz's Spartacus, and has pretty much written the music for most of Bruce Campbell's TV and film antics (a list too long to include here, but I think Lunatics: A Love Story deserves a special shout-out) – returns to compose the music. The end result is hilarious, creepy, body dismembering fun.

For those of us who have been waiting since '92 for a fourth Evil Dead film, Ash vs. Evil Dead will not disappoint. Perhaps as the film industry spends more and more of its money on fewer and fewer productions, television has become the site of the new B-movie: a place where risks are taken and anything goes, at least once, and where stories go to find their audience. If this is what Peak TV looks like, count me in.

Ash vs. Evil Dead airs on Starz on Saturday evenings. Its second episode will air on November 7. On Friday, a day before the series premiered its first episode, Starz renewed Ash vs. Evil Dead for a second season.

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.          

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