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Sam Raimi is The Evil Dead.
Make no mistake — square-jawed leading man Bruce Campbell is its public face, its swagger-filled voice and Raimi’s perpetual muse, but the sensibility behind the Evil Dead franchise is Raimi’s and Raimi’s alone.
Fede Alvarez’s 2013 remake-type-thing may have had the frenetic pace, the blood-gushing excess and some of the free-wheeling camera moves, but without Raimi’s zany humor, without his anarchic zeal, it ended up sharing a font and some props with the franchise, but not a lot more.
That’s why it’s both the best and worst thing possible that Starz was able to secure Raimi to co-write and direct the premiere of its new half-hour horror-comedy Ash vs Evil Dead.
Ash vs Evil Dead is set some 30 years after the original movie, taking both Evil Dead and Evil Dead II as canon, but perhaps ignoring the events of Army of Darkness, or at least excluding them from a cheeky catch-up clip package that takes place 25 minutes in. Ash Williams (Campbell) is living in a trailer park, working in a big-box store, drinking and screwing a lot to dull the pain from what he and his deceased friends experienced in the cabin in the woods back in the day. He’s also keeping the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis in a locker in this trailer, which is a bad idea given the troubles this Book of the Dead unleashed in the past. It takes no time for a few ill-fated words to be uttered and for Deadites to rise and for Ash to remove his craftsman wooden hand and replace it with his old faithful chainsaw.
With demonic possessions running rampant, Ash has to team up with his ValueStop co-worker Pablo (Ray Santiago), a seemingly naive Honduran immigrant whose shaman uncle actually prepared him well for these circumstances, and Pablo’s crush Kelly (Dana Delorenzo), who gets pulled unwillingly into these adventures. With undead infiltration into a big-box store backdrop, Ash vs Evil Dead feels a bit like a mash-up with The CW’s short-lived Reaper, which makes sense with Reaper veteran Tom Spezialy co-writing the pilot with Ivan and Sam Raimi and with Reaper veteran Craig DiGregorio as showrunner.
Off on the side, Michigan state trooper Amanda Fisher (Jill Marie Jones) is investigating some Necronomicon-related deaths and she meets a strange woman named Ruby, who has served no instant purpose and done nothing of interest through the first two episodes, but is introduced in the pilot because she’s played by Lucy Lawless and if you want to get your fans jazzed about your pilot and Sam Raimi isn’t enough, 30 seconds of Xena will sometimes suffice.
Premiering on Halloween night, the pilot is everything that fans will want in an Evil Dead TV show. It’s drenched in spouting, dripping, viscous bodily fluids and loaded with Bruce Campbell attitude. Since Raimi is no stranger to operating within spartan financial limitations, the director’s trademark mix of knowingly primitive and innovative practical effects work is on full display. The one-liners frequently hit and the scenes of heightened carnage also have the cartoonish audacity that keeps you giggling and watching through your fingers at even the most harrowing of moments. In a TV landscape that’s past Peak Zombie, it’s enjoyable to get reaccustomed to Raimi’s ghouls and the rules that do and don’t apply to them.
It’s no surprise that the pilot as already played well to Raimi-friendly audiences and critics, and I’d expect audiences to respond well on Halloween.
The Ash vs Evil Dead pilot is great and it is also, to put it simply, a bait-and-switch.
It’s common for networks to recruit big-name directors for high-priced pilots to lure viewers in for shows which will subsequently be helmed by directors who won’t have the money, won’t have the shooting days and won’t have the freedom to recreate the pilot aesthetic subsequently. Sam Raimi doesn’t direct the second episode of Ash vs Evil Dead and, according to press notes, he doesn’t return behind the camera for the remainder of the 10-episode first season.
Solomon Kane director Michael J. Bassett, who took over from Raimi for the second and third episodes, is not without horror-action bona fides, but when Evil Dead ceases to have the soaring, probing demon-cam, when it ceases to have the Looney Tunes-flavored gory dementia, when its cinematic restlessness is replaced by a conventional TV aesthetic, it’s just not Evil Dead anymore.
The second episode isn’t just flat and uninspired, it also pushes Ash vs Evil Dead into a half-hour box that didn’t apply to executive producer Raimi, who got 40+ minutes for the pilot, mostly proving that it’s hard to establish both comedic and horror rhythms in under 30 minutes and make either tone pay off satisfactorily. In the premiere, the tones blend nicely, but in the second episode any scene in which a creature isn’t scurrying up walls, spinning their heads or grasping at our heroes with grimy claws and mindless desperation feels like a pointless imposition. And stranding Jones’ in-the-dark trooper in a strictly dramatic procedural investigation disconnected from Ash and his new partners is the fastest way to make viewers resent a character who feels like she’s in a different show.
With Jones a distraction and Lawless an early non-factor, Ash vs Evil Dead struggles to introduce its new characters in these opening installments. DeLorenzo has a little backbone, but makes only a limited impression, while Santiago does well as the wide-eyed proxy for the audience, alternating between shell-shocked and shameless Ash-worship. And who wouldn’t worship Ash? Even in the less engaging second episode, Campbell is having a hoot playing this gone-to-seed version of the perpetually unreconstructed Ash. Cinching himself into a corset every morning so that he can still preen like a one-handed peacock, Ash is defined by the events he survived in the movies, events that both haunt him, but still give him a confidence he hasn’t justified for decades. Campbell certainly hasn’t lost a step.
The struggle with Ash vs Evil Dead is reconciling the giddy, maniacal pleasure that Raimi brings to the pilot with the by-the-numbers disappointment that the second episode delivers and knowing that that is more likely to be the series going forward. The second episode has properly gross effects and it has Ash making boorish comments and generally not giving a darn, and maybe with readjusted standards that’ll be enough going forward. It’s just less than the pilot promises and less than the Evil Dead name perhaps deserves.
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