This Ash vs. Evil Dead review is spoiler-free.
It’s been 23 years since Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, and Rob Tapert depicted horror’s greatest loudmouth, Ash Williams, mugging before cameras in between bouts of gore and groan-inducing one-liners. And for the last 22 years, fans have been asking the filmmakers about when there was going to be another adventure featuring the braggart and his trusty chainsaw.
That wait came to an end at New York Comic Con when Starz’s Ash vs. Evil Dead premiered before a ballroom full of primitive screwheads. The sea of chainsaw-shaped foam fingers was greeted by Bruce Campbell who ostensibly came onstage to introduce a clip while telling a story about his parents. But before he could finish the second sentence, out walked Sam Raimi who gladly belittled and bullied his grade school chum: shut up and play the whole pilot for the fans.
Obviously this was rehearsed. But much like the actual series premiere episode of Ash vs. Evil Dead, that playfully mean-spirited cruelty is what fuels your enjoyment in its best moments and helps buoy an exposition-heavy introduction into something eminently gory and entertaining. In short, this is definitely Evil Dead, baby. Grab an axe.
The pilot seems structured like the first act of Sam Raimi and Ivan Raimi’s long bandied about Evil Dead 4 treatment. The opening scene of the episode is also what has appeared in all the trailers: Ash Williams still prepares for battle in the morning with severe intensity and the rapid-fire editing of extreme close-ups. Except instead of donning boomsticks, plates of armor, and that elusive chainsaw, he is popping on a man-girdle and dentures with a smile: the war is now with middle age and he is losing it. Badly.
Raimi, who also directed the pilot, uses his famously efficient style of storytelling to develop a world that has not changed much for Ash since the end of Army of Darkness, which is perhaps the most pathetic thing about the character. He is still a boozing womanizer who uses his missing hand to pick up chicks at the bar, and he still works at a massive retail store—now “Value Stop” instead of “S-Mart”—where depending on who you ask of his colleagues, he is either the coolest or lamest thing about the place.
It is also those co-workers who represent the pilot’s first of two major transitions for television. Unlike any of the previous Evil Dead films, there is a true supporting cast here dominated by Pablo (Ray Santiago) and Kelly (Dana DeLorenzo). Pablo idolizes Ash as a wise man, and Kelly sees him for the sad sack piece of trailer trash he has become (or perhaps always has been?). But both find renewed purpose for him when the Deadites come calling.
How the Deadites actually return is one of the best jokes of the premiere that is too good to give away. Simply rest assured that the strained logic for the evil spirits in the woods to once again rise all but guarantees that Ash is already television’s greatest fool, and he isn’t even on episode two.
But perhaps at first glance, the episode would seem to spend too much time underlining that point. In setting the tone of the series, the 30-minute pilot spends time aplenty with Ash behaving as ever the scoundrel while holding back on some of the visual flourishes fans tend to expect. There is the definite sense that Raimi is restraining himself behind-the-camera from the kind of elaborate forced, cant angles and inventive filmmaking that elevated the Evil Dead trilogy from mere schlock and into the realm of something deviously special.
… That is until the last 10 minutes or so of the 30-minute pilot. Ash vs. Evil Dead might appear stilted by relying on that familiar B-horror shorthand of archetypal characters and traditional horror set-ups, and the sudden inclusion of CGI, as opposed to stop-motion animation and the gallons of blood, for the pilot’s most elaborate effects can at times feel like a concession. Still… just wait for those last 10 minutes.
To quibble about storytelling tropes or the hue of blood in an Evil Dead project is missing the forest for the demonically possessed raping trees. And to be certain, the Ash vs. Evil Dead pilot is holding back almost all of its best stuff for a kidney punch of fun for the diehards (and just a kidney punch for Campbell).
While much of the first half of the episode seems poised to set-up how the storyline can work weekly with Ash interacting with other characters in far less elaborate situations—wherein the best stuff is some classic sight gags that would not be out of place in an Abbott and Costello or Three Stooges routine—the second half is delayed wish fulfillment and fan satisfaction. Raimi lets loose when the Deadites come after Ash in force, and every single beloved weapon, one-liner, and aggressive “Force” shot with Dutch angles is delivered in a bountiful gush of crimson red.
By the premiere’s end, most of one’s doubts are put to bed and Bruce Campbell is allowed to strike a pose that you might have forgotten you missed. And unlike other resuscitated TV series stars who aired a sleepy pilot premiere at NYCC this weekend, Campbell both on stage and on the screen in Ash vs. Evil Dead looks ecstatic to be here. After 30 years, he knows this character and he fits into the role as comfortably as a steel-iron glove. His comedic timing might have even improved since we last saw that Chin cracking wise to soul-sucking hellions of the pit.
As a bit of narrative storytelling, fans will have to wait to see how this works as a week-to-week series. Raimi only filmed the first episode, and a character as hammy as Ash Williams interacting with people who aren’t dead five minutes later might remain a challenge. However, there are some interesting story threads sown away from the boomstick.
The most promising of which is Amanda Fisher (Jill Marie Jones), who participates in the other great set-piece of the episode. The best Deadite attack of the night occurs when showrunner Craig DiGregorio and Raimi pay tribute to Linda Blair in The Exorcist and do her one better by showcasing an entire demonic attack with a head screwed on backwards (there is also even a horror-junkie-delight homage to one of the better scares in The Exorcist III).
It is also in this story thread where Lucy Lawless’ Ruby Knowby is introduced in a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo—a down payment on presumably good things to come. These two women represent the living humans Ash’s idiocy leaves behind in its narcissistic wake. That might be the very best reason to rationalize a weekly serial with this guy.
Well, that plus the groovy blood-letting and one-liners. The pilot offers all of that by the end in a delayed satisfaction of violence that is a rush to behold. Whatever else can be said about the episode, there is no denying that when it is over, Evil Dead fans will be chomping at the bit to slice through another one.
Welcome back, Ash Williams, you magnificent bastard.
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