“Who’s Laughing Now?” 25 Years of ‘Evil Dead 2’
As is the norm with these kind of things, beware of spoilers…
March 13th 2012, and it’s another silver jubilee. This time, however, I’m really not sure if I can find the words. This time it’s a film so unique, so unmistakable, that as familiar as it is it’s hard to do it justice verbally. Let’s put it this way: there are a tremendous amount of well-loved movies that fit comfortably into a pre-existing format. Less common but even more beloved are those which break new ground and provide a template for others to follow. But every now and then there are the real one-offs; movies that do something so different and unique that, however influential the results may be, no one ever manages to successfully replicate it. Such is the film that celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary today.
Another cinematic rarity is the sequel which can truly be said to surpass its original. ‘Serious’ film buffs will insist only The Godfather Part II has done it (though personally I’ve never detected any great shift in quality between that and its predecessor, both of which, if it needs to be said, are excellent). Genre fans, meanwhile, are more likely to cite The Bride of Frankenstein, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, and Aliens, all of which expanded significantly on the visions of their predecessors to the extent that many casual viewers tend to forget that they are not the first installments of their respective series. When we think of Mad Max, we’re more likely to picture a grizzled, stubbly, mostly silent Mel Gibson racing through the desert pursued by tribes of motorised loonies in S&M gear, as opposed to the more fresh-faced and talkative city streets policeman of the original. Think of Ripley, and we tend to envisage short-haired Sigourney Weaver in the yellow robotic loader suit spitting, “Get away from her you bitch!” rather than the longer-haired, less aggressive incarnation in Ridley Scott’s earlier film.
And so it is with the man we call Ash. Few seem to remember that in the original Evil Dead, there was very little that set Bruce Campbell apart from the rest of the ensemble. He was bowl-haired, wimpish, and physically unremarkable. He may have picked up a chainsaw once, but he didn’t have the heart to use it. And he most definitely never called anyone “baby,” or described his situation as “groovy.” It was only here, in Evil Dead 2, that the Ash of legend – and as such the persona with which Bruce Campbell will always be identified – was truly forged. And it was here that the same essential premise of The Evil Dead was revisited and fine-tuned into something significantly different and – yes, I’m going to say it – well and truly superior to the first film. This, of course, is a good part of why all us geeks have so long been against the idea of The Evil Dead being remade; because it already has been remade, and the results are damn well exemplary.
A long-standing point of contention about the original Evil Dead, which remake actress Jane Levy recently touched on, to the displeasure of some, is whether or not it is actually meant to be funny. To my mind there is no debate: of course The Evil Dead is humorous, and of course that humour is deliberate. You don’t smash a giggling zombie woman in the head with a plank that many times, then have her decapitated corpse dry-hump Bruce Campbell, and expect people to take it seriously. Of course, not everyone got the joke, as is clear from the film’s well-documented problems with the censors, not least in my own dear old homeland of Blighty. As such, I’ve often pondered that Raimi and Co. took a more blatantly comedic approach with Evil Dead 2 in order to underline that they had been taking the piss in the first place. There’s no chance we can mistake this for a serious film. Every single line of the film is in block capitals, bold type, ending with an exclamation mark. Every sound is turned up to eleven, every colour is garish, and rarely if ever does the camera stand still for longer than a second or two.
Once again, the plot can be surmised on a postage stamp – bad shit happens in a cabin in the woods – and the dominant force is the vision of the director. The first five minutes relay the events of the original in a simplified form; Army of Darkness would later do much the same, making The Evil Dead an interesting case of a film trilogy in which prior knowledge of the films is completely unnecessary (indeed, I first saw the films in reverse order, and I suspect I’m not alone in that). In quick succession, Ash and Linda (Denise Bixler and her figure-hugging T-shirt) drive up to the cabin in the obligatory Oldsmobile (Raimi’s first car, which shows up in almost all his movies); Ash plays the tape that recites the incantations, Linda gets possessed, Ash beheads her and buries her in the woods, then the evil force comes rushing through the woods and hits Ash head-on, and we’re back where the original Evil Dead ended. But the difference between the two films should immediately be evident from what happens next: rather than going splat, Ash goes hurtling through the woods, spinning, bashing his head against every nearby branch, not unlike a Looney Toons character with a rocket strapped to its back. From there it’s not long until he’s back in the cabin doing battle with Linda’s severed head, then coming under attack from her headless, chainsaw-wielding torso; and then, most delightfully of all, struggling with his own hand, which is under Deadite control having been infected by Linda’s bite. If you haven’t got the joke by the time Ash cries, “You bastards! You dirty bastards! Give me back my hand!”…well, you probably never will. And I feel sorry for you.
If there is one scene that provides the cornerstone to the Bruce Campbell legend, it has to be Evil Dead 2’s possessed hand sequence. Sam Raimi’s passion for The Three Stooges, having bobbed under the surface in the original, really bursts through here. Before an over-cranked camera, Campbell literally beats himself up, smashing plates over his head, banging his head against kitchen cabinets, pounding himself in the gut, and literally flipping himself head over heels, until a finally comatose Ash is dragged across the floor by the malevolent appendage in the hopes of finishing its owner off with a nearby meat cleaver. Fortunately, our hero awakens just in time to pin his hand to the floor with a knife, then victoriously hack it off at the wrist with his trusty chainsaw. Not unlike the Black Knight of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Ash is too riddled with bravado to feel pain, laughing triumphantly as his face is sprayed with his own blood. It is, I think, this absence of pain on Ash’s part, and his total lack of concern for leaving himself partially dismembered, that makes the scene so hilariously funny even after multiple viewings. (And if you need reminding, or Cthulhu forbid have never actually seen it, check out the scene at the bottom of this page.)
It is important to note, of course, that all we see is the blood spraying on Ash’s face as the chainsaw bites its way through his wrist, much as how a few scenes earlier, when Ash hacked Linda’s head in half, all we saw were silhouettes, and again the resulting gore spraying all over the place. In the first Evil Dead, these moments would have been on-screen, and the camera would almost certainly have lingered on the viscera. This again highlights the different approach the team were taking with Evil Dead 2; not only does this show how anxious they were to avoid any more trouble with the censors, but also how keen they were to put the stress on the comedic this time around. Red blood, while not exactly absent, is more often than not ditched in favour of the kind of multi-coloured slime they used to drench hapless celebrities with on British Saturday morning kids’ shows back in the good old days. Honestly, it wouldn’t have seemed too out of place if after every blow to the head a flock of tweeting birds appeared out of nowhere to circle Ash’s crown. Be it the flying eyeball that lands directly in Kassie Wesley’s screaming mouth, or a fat-suit clad Ted Raimi looking distinctly unlike an actual old woman as Deadite Henrietta, we are almost constantly being reminded not to take what we are seeing seriously, and simply to revel in the absurdity of it all. Alas, shit tends to stick, and Evil Dead 2 soon enough found itself slapped with an X certificate in the US, and trimmed by a few seconds (shots of Bruce Campbell being kicked in the head, bizarrely) to be passed 18 in the UK; absolutely preposterous measures, which go to show just how petty and spiteful the censors can sometimes be.
This is not to say, however, that Evil Dead 2 is a spoof. Certainly it’s cartoonish, but the film’s real masterstroke is how it maintains an atmosphere that is simultaneously scary and funny, with neither effect working to the detriment of the other. Take the moment when Ash’s own reflection leaps out and grabs him, and the subsequent scene in which everything in the cabin comes to life in hysterical laughter, prompting Ash to join in, laughing until he is clearly on the verge of a breakdown (a moment I can’t help thinking must have influenced Nicolas Cage when he did a similar trick in Face/Off). It’s hilarious, yet it’s really quite unsettling at the same time. Scary films and funny films take us into a similar state of heightened emotion, which I suppose is why the two genres so often overlap, but Evil Dead 2 finds nuances within those strange dizzy heights that few if any other subsequent horror-comedies have reached; not even Army of Darkness or Drag Me to Hell. Nope, not even Shaun of the Dead for that matter.
The other thing that sets Evil Dead 2 apart within the canon of 80s horror is that, by contrast with the slashers that ruled the era, the real central attraction of the film is not the villain but the good guy. As unlikely an idea as it always was, one can see the logic in New Line’s desire to bring Ash into the fold for a sequel to Freddy vs. Jason; after all, how many other truly iconic horror heroes came out of the same time period as Messrs. Voorhees and Kruger? With his chainsaw fixed in place on the stump of his right hand, his shotgun strapped to his back, and his blue work shirt torn to shreds, Ash is every inch the monster-bashing badass. This again is somewhere Evil Dead 2 is able to be all things to all people; as much as Campbell’s performance is a deliberate caricature of the stereotypical action hero, he really does embody an action hero ideal at the same time, thanks in no small part to Campbell’s gym-toned physique (reportedly he was working out for two hours before shooting, then two hours after shooting every day), and – it has to be said – his classic, square-jawed good looks. Yes, I said it. We’re all thinking it anyway, male and female alike, orientation be damned… Bruce Campbell looks damn good in Evil Dead 2. Show me the fanboy who insists he doesn’t get at least a little bit gay for Bruce in Evil Dead 2, and I’ll show you a bullshitter. Why else would so many of us get dressed up like him for Halloween? We know sex appeal when we see it. And it’s always said that women find nothing sexier than a sense of humour, so hey – everyone’s a winner.
So, to the legacy of Evil Dead 2… Army of Darkness has more than its share of fanatics, given that it provided many with their access point to the Evil Dead universe, but for me it’s never quite measured up to its predecessors. By taking the action out of the cabin and into a much larger-scale, higher-production value setting, it lacks that DIY charm, and the oddball humour sits awkwardly with the concessions made to a fairly standard studio blockbuster format; it doesn’t help that the horror elements are significantly pared back. Worse still is how Ash’s characterisation changes between the films. Far from the witless but well-meaning would-be tough guy of Evil Dead 2, in Army of Darkness he’s a mean-spirited, arrogant bastard with whom it’s very hard to empathise. Sure, Army of Darkness provides Ash with many of his most celebrated one-liners – the immortal “Gimme some sugar, baby,” and “This is my boom-stick!” amongst others – but none of them quite measure up to that single, immortal word that is evoked for the first time in Evil Dead 2… “Groovy.” Not for nothing does Bruce Campbell use @GroovyBruce as his Twitter handle. Ash is the phantom that will hang over him for as long as he walks this earth, and while he has enjoyed success outside the role – perhaps most notably with Bubba Ho-Tep, Burn Notice, and of course the Old Spice commercials – Campbell seems quite content to bask in that shadow. Quite right too; giving one of the best physical comedy performances of the late twentieth century in one of the most unique American films of the era sure as shit isn’t something to be ashamed of. Yes, in some respects it’s sad that he was never able to break through to the A-list, but Campbell always gives the impression that he’s quite happy where he is. And let’s face it, he’s thrived within that position; the fact that he’s penned an autobiography, plus a novel with himself as the lead, as well as having directed and starred in a movie in which he plays himself (for which, last we heard, a sequel is in the works) goes some way to illustrate the kind of unique status Bruce Campbell holds in pop culture today. And, as he’d be the first to admit, all of that is down to Ash.
As for Sam Raimi – well, we all know how well he did out of it all: next came Darkman, Army of Darkness, The Quick and the Dead, A Simple Plan, and from there it was just a hop, skip and jump to Spider-Man. And that’s to say nothing of his extensive credits as a producer for both film and television. Yet for the real fans, I daresay no Raimi project in the past two decades was met with more excitement than his long-awaited return to horror with Drag Me to Hell. I raved about it on release, but in all honesty I’ve had very little desire to revisit Drag Me to Hell since. As fun as it is, the main thought that recurs whilst viewing is how close in spirit it is to Evil Dead 2. Which rather begs the question: why not just watch Evil Dead 2? No offence to Alison Lohman, but she’s nowhere near as compelling a lead as Bruce Campbell, and whilst it may raise a smile to see her scrapping with grizzly old Lorna Raver, it only evokes the spectre of Ash and Henrietta’s punch-up. In short, by trying to repeat the formula of Evil Dead 2 (much as with Army of Darkness), what Raimi inadvertently succeeded in doing was underlining just how much of a one-off Evil Dead 2 really was, in spite of being the second instalment in a three-film series. This being the case, in some respects it’s not too surprising that he has now opted to take The Evil Dead down the remake route in the hands of another director, rather than giving fans the fourth instalment they’ve long clamoured for. I won’t dwell on the subject here; I’m sure we all know where we stand by now…
Well, isn’t it always the way: I started out thinking I’d struggle to find the words to sum up Evil Dead 2, and I’ve wound up writing way more than I thought I would… yet I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. Once again, there are films we celebrate in the full awareness of how derivative and formulaic they are, and then there are films we celebrate because they truly are among the greatest and most inventive contributions to their genre; indeed, in some instances they practically constitute a genre of their very own. Not only am I proud to proclaim Evil Dead 2 one of my favourite films of all time, but I truly feel it is one of the very best horror and/or comedy films ever made. So let’s raise a glass of blood to wish it the grooviest of twenty-fifth birthdays, and trust that it is every bit as fondly remembered in the decades to come.
And to conclude our Evil Dead 2 celebrations, some very groovy artwork from our very own Keri O’Shea!