Sunday, 1 November 2015

Review: Starz's ASH vs. EVIL DEAD

Sunday, 1 November 2015


After three movies, the last of which premiered in 1993, fans of The Evil Dead have clung to hopes that director Sam Raimi would return for a fourth instalment. The fact Raimi became a big-deal Hollywood director meant prospects for Evil Dead 4 always looked slim from the mid-'90s onwards. The party-line is that he was always too busy, but it's fair to say that directing a third sequel to a low-budget horror saga that never set the box-office ablaze isn't a wise move for a director trying to hit the big-time—and eventually managing to with a different trilogy: Spider-Man.

Thankfully for fans, a combination of Spider-Man 3's bad reviews and disappointing box-office, plus a couple of commercial/critical disappointments in Drag Me to Hell and Oz the Great and Powerful, has resulted in Raimi finding time to resurrect Evil Dead as a cable TV horror for Starz: Ash vs. Evil Dead.

It's been 30 years since Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) became the lone survivor of a supernatural attack in the woods, holed up inside a log cabin after awakening evil forces that possessed and killed his girlfriend and buddies. (No mention is made of the third part, Army of Darkness, so it's unclear if Ash travelling back to medieval England is canon for this show.) Regardless, Ash is now battling a more belligerent foe: middle-age. He's put on some weight, lives in a shitty trailer park, still works as a stock boy in a local electrical store, wears dentures, and squeezes himself into a leather girdle every morning. Inevitably, the evil dead once again become a big concern after Ash drunkenly recites a passage from the Necronomicon book to impress a girl he met at a bar, and the forces of darkness once again go after him. Only this time, he has some help in two younger co-workers, Pablo Bolivar (Ray Santiago) and Kelly Maxwell (Dana Delorenzi).

Having kept the faith for 22 years (buying countless reissues of the various DVDs, going to see the non-comedic Evil Dead remake from 2013), it's a pleasure to report that AvED won't disappoint fans. The key ingredients are present and correct with Raimi back behind the camera of the premiere episode, Campbell strapping on the stump-mounted chain saw, and that infamous 'roving camera' roaring its way through the darkness. In fact, one could argue that Ash's character actually improves with age—as his overconfident swagger and bravado are even funnier now he doesn't have youth on his side, and his good looks are starting to fade. This first episode mines a lot of comedy from seeing an older Ash going about his day, and still having moments of success with well-rehearsed bullshit about how he lost his hand to earn the sympathy of the nearest hottie at a bar. When evil's again unleashed, it's plausible and amusing that Ash just wants to run away, because he's no longer imprisoned by circumstance, but all the more satisfying when this old-timer realises one simple truth: he was born to smite Deadites.

There's still a lot of question marks hanging over AvED, because a good first episode isn't the be-all and end-all with a TV series. What we have here is a pleasing setup for the remaining nine episodes, and I really don't know if the deeper story's going to have enough substance to go that distance. The Evil Dead films were very simple, low-budget affairs. They certainly weren't popular for reasons of plotting, so it'll be interesting to see if AvED can actually tell a much longer story with twists and turns. There are already a few threads dangling at the end of this first hour—Kelly needs Ash's help rescuing her dad from the reanimated corpse of her dead mother, and a Michigan State Trooper called Amanda Fisher (Jill Marie Jones) had a run-in with some Deadites that killer her partner—but those subplots will be explored in future weeks. Plus there's the brief glimpse of Lucy Lawless (Xena: Warrior Princess, Spartacus) as a mysterious character called Ruby Knowby, who'll factor into the rest of the series more heavily.

I was also very concerned that Ash would be sharing hero duties with two new characters, both of whom are played by actors unknown to me, but this episode has put me at ease. Pablo is a particularly fun addition, as someone who looks to Ash as a father-figure already and is perfect sidekick material, and I liked Kelly as the moody teen who's less impressed but grudgingly comes to respect Ash's skill when it comes to undead slaughtering.

Campbell himself is, naturally, on good form in his signature role. He's a B-movie actor who occasionally breaks into the mainstream (usually with scene-stealing cameos in his pal Raimi's films), but The Evil Dead and Ash are his Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones. It's the role he's best known for, arguably born to play, and the one character he's arguably prone to copying in various ways throughout his career. I'm just pleased he's in something that people are going to be watching every week (Burn Notice not withstanding), and he looks to be having a blast now he's back in Ash's familiar blue shirt, brandishing his 'boomstick', and making impudent quips in the face of certain danger.

There's a certain level of amateurishness about AvED with a few sequences, and some of the second-tier actors, but I'm not entirely sure it's not by design. The Evil Dead films were cheap to make and products of 1980s filmmaking, so it's perhaps only fair that Raimi ensure this TV series carries a similar sense of old-fashioned corniness. There's a sex scene over a sink that's laughably bad, for instance, but part of me thinks it was meant to be terribly done. Maybe I'm being too kind and excusing weaknesses? But none of it really bothered me; it just felt tonally consistent with the films that precede it, and I did enjoy the occasional moment when 21st-century effects and CGI came into play to enhance a few action sequences (like one particular decapitation towards the end).

Overall, AvED will pleased the fanbase worried this would be a castrated version of their beloved horror-comedies, and it may even draw new fans because it's easy to get the joke with Ash without any prior knowledge. It's hard to imagine AvED will ever capture the same sense of relentless onslaught Evil Dead II, in particular, brought to the fore, because it's structurally so different and has bigger ambitions, but we'll see. There could be some self-contained 'bottle episodes' that play more like the earlier two films, and maybe the whole thing will get crazier like Army of Darkness before too long? Starz have already ordered a second season, and I can't imagine the writers won't be tempted to send Ash on a crazier ride than this premiere's The Mist-style setup suggests.

Fun, bloody, and bloody funny. Ash vs. Evil Dead promises a groovy time.

written by Ivan Raimi, Craig DiGregorio & Tom Spezialy • directed by Sam Raimi • Starz • 31 October 2015.