The TV premiere I’ve been most excited for this year happened on Halloween night, and if you’re wondering why my words have the airy contentment of complete satisfaction, it’s because Ash vs. Evil Dead was a complete delight.
Sometimes when you build something up in your head too much, it can lead to disappointment. For a prime example, see Star Wars Episodes 1-3. But other times, a sequel/prequel/spinoff/remake can be so ripe as to almost seem like it experiences itself for you. It’s been more than 20 years since my introduction to the greatest horror property of them all, the Evil Dead trilogy, and for almost that entire time, all I’ve been able to think about is how perfect a return engagement for Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi could—nay, would be.
The story of a dull-witted braggart with terrible judgment who stumbles a*s-first into one mess after another, but can then turn on almost mythic heroics when absolutely necessary, the films followed the misadventures of S-Mart employee Ash Williams. Played by Bruce Campbell, Ash is a sort of a bumbling Indiana Jones without the advanced degrees and from closer to the northern border. Call him Michigan Jones. Each is more nutty and enjoyable than the last, and captured a now seemingly lost art of warm-hearted horror.
This was Raimi’s gift to film lovers during the dark period of the late 70s and early 80s, when horror made the full transition from the Roger Corman era, which was marked by more comedy and less gore, to the Wes Craven era, which featured man’s inhumanity to man as its main scare, as opposed to supernatural sources. The films coming out at that time were bleaker, scarier, and more violent than anything audiences had seen. But then came a film, Evil Dead, which managed to be gory, inventive, humorous, and scary without being soul-crushing.
In the intervening years we’ve been drip-fed revivals in the form of comic books, video games, and fan fiction galore. There was even brief talk of Ash facing off against Michael Myers (villain of the Halloween series) onscreen. And then out of nowhere, with Hollywood caught up in the intoxicating musk of reviving fan favorite properties, Starz greenlit a Raimi-produced/directed, Campbell-starring revival of the property for TV. And the early results are in.
The premiere was bloody, profane, and hilarious. Ash has some new friends to help him, in the form of two 20-somethings that work with him in the housewares department, which is good because this time around the evil does not seem confined to any small areas (like a cabin deep in the woods, for instance). The show also did a masterful job of paying homage to the gags of the original, without shamelessly redoing them. The highlight is a showdown with a possessed children’s doll, a head-nod to Ash’s showdown with a team of mini-Ashes in Army of Darkness. The series also has some totally new bells and whistles to go with a new medium in a new millennium.
For one thing, the gore is actually more graphic than it was in the original films, which is both a sign of the times and a blessing. With great gore comes great responsibility, and the former Spiderman helmsman, Raimi, is the unequivocal master of getting the most out of his gore. Another thing that jumps out is the R-rated language, another sign of the times. In 1992, you can bet there was no chance Army of Darkness was going to have the adult language of the 2015 version, but for TV to now make the movies blush with its foul mouth is really quite a thing.
But of course the thing that really ties the whole thing together is the incomparable Campbell. He moves on the screen with the spryness of a man half his age, and his likable everyman makes the comedy and action scenes he’s in absolute pleasures. Fans of his recent turns on shows like Burn Notice, who may be unfamiliar with his larger body of work, will likely be blown away by the charisma and screen presence of Campbell.
It was everything I’ve been waiting on for the last 20 years, so you can bet I’ll continue to watch Ash. For people unfamiliar with the source material, you’re going to want to watch Evil Dead, Evil Dead II, and Army of Darkness before you chop this one up. But you’ll be glad you did.
Ash vs. Evil Dead airs on Starz on Saturdays at 9 p.m.
By Ygal Kaufman