Saying Goodbye: A History of ‘The Evil Dead’
Looking back on the franchise and (probably) saying farewell to Ash for good.
With the recent cancellation of Ash vs Evil Dead (2015), it is offically the curtain call for Bruce Campell’s cult horror icon, Ash J. Williams, and The Evil Dead franchise. Over the years we have seen various sequels and renditions of The Evil Dead universe and wading through extreme gore, horror fans have been gifted a franchise that has held its place at the top of the genre for close to thirty years. Looking back, we can see the progression of not only the world and the character of Ash, but also in the genre of horror (as a whole) as the films moved between gore and comedy. In this article, we will say goodbye to a horror icon as we remember The Evil Dead and the history behind it.
1981 Evil was Born…
As The Evil Dead premiered in theatres across the US, shocking audiences and earning praise of those at the top of the horror genre. Sam Raimi took a short Super 8 film titled Within the Woods, and was able to gain funding for something bigger, turning it into more than he could ever imagine. Upon release, Stephen King was infamously quoted calling the film, “The most ferociously original horror film of the year.” This praise eventually earned its way onto the film’s poster and aided in it’s overall success. Paired with critical acclaim and a cult following, the film took a $300,000 budget, and turned it into something that would spawn multiple sequels and remakes for years to come. The production itself was reportedly a mess, as Sam Raimi sought to create a horror film “without the slow parts,” but was not even a fan of horror at the time. Working without a shotlist and minimum script, those involved were unsure if the film would ever see the light of day. Eventually, after a rough shoot and sleepless nights, the film saw completion and gave a few filmmakers their start— as it was Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell and Joel Coen’s (who worked as an assistant editor on the film) debut project.
As far as aesthetics and horror influence, the film stands at the top. Moving the genre away from oversaturation of slashers and using an intense build/release capped with uber violence (shocking at the time), Evil Dead was able to overcome an NC-17 rating; which was often a kiss of death for a film. Using some of the best practical effects avaiable in the early ’80s and working with Irwin Shapiro (a producer that worked to help films like The Cabinet of Dr. Calligari (1920) and Battleship Potemkin (1925) find distribution in the US), Raimi and Campell could feel something special on the horizon. Much about the film was method, from being shot in an actual abandoned cabin to the actors smoking actual marijuana in a scene that the characters do. Also, you can tell as the film feels extremely personal and makes the events that follow much more disturbing (I still can replay the pencil scene in my head). Soon, Raimi’s cult hit drew interest for a sequel, often regarded as the best film in the franchise.
Comedy in Hell
Evil Dead II (1987) was a much bigger production than the original that came six years prior. A large contributor being Steven King who also helped with the success of the original. In fact, he was such a fan of the 1981 film that he convinced producer Dino De Laurentiis to finance Raimi’s sequel. The second film in The Evil Dead franchise used what made the first one successful and doubled down on the fun. More comedic and over the top than the original, the film set up much of the lore in the world of Ash. Ash finds himself in a battle with himself for much of the film as he fights his possessed hand, a laughing group of inanimate objects, and ends up in distorted version of the past.
This caricature of the original is not by accident, and Campbell speaks on it in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter— detailing the experience: “They’re writing a horror movie. Why are they laughing so loud?” Campbell was worried, coming off of a box office bomb, that they may be in trouble. So, in order to aid their film getting into theaters, they returned to what first gave them success, Evil Dead. In reality, Raime and Campbell really wanted to be doing slapstick comedy, and it shows in the final cut. This is arguably the most important film in the franchise because it shifted the tone of Evil Dead. It gives a more “Ash” focused film, acting as a vessel for what Bruce Campbell was capable of as an actor. As far as character continuity goes, the film also gives Ash a few physical changes that play an important role in the future installments. As Campbell became more animated, the franchise moved with him, becoming crazier and more over the top with each installment. The third film in the franchise is where things get a little crazy, giving Ash his time to shine.
“This is my Boomstick!”
Following the events of Evil Dead II, the third installment in the franchise lets the absurdity take over. Army of Darkness (1992) observes Ash in his quest to return home from 1300 A.D. as he fights the undead, searching for the Necronomicon. Already lost? The story is a huge departure from the original horror centric film, but this change and adaptation is what makes the franchise so compelling. Ash is front and center here, and viewers are gifted with one liners and catch phrases that Campbell has made a living on. From “This is my Boomstick!” to “Yo she-bitch, Let’s go,” Ash delivers timely comedic relief as he slaughters his way through the undead.
The demons act more as a demonstration of Ash’s power in his new world, rather than a source of fear. Now superhero like, Campbell is able to fully dive in as Ash, which gives the series the deepest look into the character. However, the film had issues seeing the theaters and sat in production hell for a year. This was the end of Raimi and The Evil Dead franchise as he got what he wanted all along. A true comedy that focused on his film partner since high school, Bruce Campbell. Each film in the series acted as a different chapter; the first being an influence in horror and the low budget filmmaker, the second coming as a unique blend of horror and comedy and the birth of Bruce Campbell’s stardom, and finally the third tying a bow on the world and letting Raimi/Campbell have the creative freedom they were in search of. Both Campbell and Raimi moved on to bigger things, but never forgot their roots; especially Raimi as he released Drag Me to Hell (2009)— a nod to his relationship with horror.
An Homage for Both Sides of the Fanbase
Anyone who is a fan of The Evil Dead franchise can appreciate what makes it great, a blend of comedy and extremely violent horror. Interestingly, there have been two additions to the world of The Evil Dead since Army of Darkness ended Raimi’s interpretation, and each new project focused on horror and comedy seperately. The first came in 2013 with a remake of the original 1981 film, and Evil Dead (2013) chose to focus on the horror. The film is extremely gory, making Raimi’s original look like it’s rated G, but it lacks in the personality department. The cast lacks true star power, and while it has its nods to the Campbell led film, it ultimately is a presentation of how far gore has come in the horror genre. Using over 70,000 gallons in fake blood, the remake is able to create some truly tense scenes and leaves the viewers “jaw hanging” as they watch. This remake left lovers of the horror side of Evil Dead satisfied, but without a lead like Campbell, the film fails to make a true impact in the genre.
The latest, and assumedly final addition to The Evil Dead universe is Ash vs Evil Dead (2015-2018). Connected in the same universe as the original three films, Ash is seen 30 years later as he seeks to battle against a Deadite plague. The issue is that the show is not legally allowed to reference Army of Darkness and the trials of Ash’s past due to issues with Universal. This lack of true connection and more of a wink to fans of the original, make the show feel oddly disconnected from what made the originals great. Sure, the gore was present and Campbell was doing his comedic thing, but it overstayed its welcome. Originally set to be a fourth film in the franchise, the show just had too much material and was turned into a series. However, after three seasons, Starz has pulled the plug as the show was reportedly moving into post apocolyptic. Fans of the franchise enjoyed seeing the familiar face of Ash and his campy one liners, but in the end, it wasn’t enough to keep the demon slayer around. Sad to say it’s officially over for Bruce Campbell, as he commented on his Twitter that he will be retiring Ash. The world may never know if Ash vs Evil Dead would have benefitted from a change in scenery, like Army of Darkness provided in 1992, but the impact of the franchise will always be held dear in the horror community. Hail to the king, baby.